What Robert Penn Warren Might Say about Go Set a Watchman Reply


Earlier this month, I joined several other posters at the Faculty Lounge providing thoughts on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  I commend the whole series to you but in case you are interested in what RPW might have said, I have reposted that entry here.  Enjoy!

I’ve always thought Harper Lee’s themes and styles in To Kill a Mockingbirdclosely resembled some of Robert Penn Warren’s themes relating to the South. Namely, as I have written in other places, in early to mid-20th century Southern Literature, black people are often passive persons where things happen to them (notably horribly bad things), and that the response to those things is what makes us believe the characters to be either progressive or non-progressive.   Likewise, in both Warren and Lee’s narratives, the place becomes a character itself.  Both the South and the specific places in the South are alive in both writers’ prose.

That place-centric identity can be characterized as what I have called in other places a form of Southern Exceptionalism. If the American experience is explained by exceptional qualities, then the Southern Experience may be described by a different reference to the past: “defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems.”  The south eagerly adopted the idea of American exceptionalism for itself, believing the society to be set apart, unique, and validated by moral superiority.  But as eminent southern historian C. Vann  Woodward’s The Search for Southern Identity argues, time proved that the real southern experience was characterized by “grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt.”  Sheldon Hackney has argued that Southerners have had to define themselves in opposition to a presumed American norm.  Similarly, Orville Burton contends that the Southerner remains an “other” or “stranger” in the American narrative. For our purposes, Robert Penn Warren embraced the idea that Southerners found themselves looking backward more than forward so to speak – consistently defining themselves, their environment, and their identity against the backdrop of how the exceptional failed in its promise, and the fact that the war was not won.  This is revealed in Warren’s life experience and works. We see similar themes in Lee’s Mockingbird and now Watchman.  

In To Kill a Mockingbird, we tend to resonate towards Atticus because he appears progressive against the backdrop of a non-progressive place and non-progressive people.   The questioning of Bob and Mayella Ewell along with the epic scene where Atticus stands guard over Tom Robinson as a gang of citizens seek to take justice out of the hands of the law gives Atticus the distinctive impression as one of the forward thinking citizens of Maycomb. The reality is that Atticus only appears heroic because the setting and people in it seem to be the opposite. Like Atticus in Mockingbird, Robert Penn Warren’s views of Southern racial politics might appear progressive when compared to other Southern writers at the time.

Warren’s earliest work on the race problem in the South was an essay titled the Briar Patch, which appeared in a collection of essays by 12 Southern Writers titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.  Amongst the essays, Warren appears to be more progressive along side his contemporaries because he can envision a world where segregation does not exist, but rather where Black and White persons might exist in a mutually beneficial society.  He describes the race problem as one stemming from unnatural animosity between black persons and poor whites and engages various thoughts whether the problem was one of market access or political equivalency.   Notably, many of the other writers specifically chided Warren’s views in their essays, believing Warren’s approach to be contrary to the aim of the book’s overall purpose.

Still early Warren may have only appeared progressive.  His views in Briar Patch may be quaintly described as hopefully dismissive – suggesting that the race problem in the South was primarily one of common respect, which would not be resolved by a plan of forced desegregation.   This view seems very similar to Atticus’s views in To Set a Watchman where the natural course of events will take care of themselves.  Like Warren, it seems easy to call Atticus comparatively progressive, especially when set against the backdrop of Maycomb.   And yet, To Set a Watchman leaves us unsatisfied because the former hero of Mockingbirdturns out to be not nearly as progressive as we previously thought him to be.


I think that Warren would greatly relate to both Atticus Finches — the one that appears heroic in Mockingbird and the one that appears less-than-heroic in Watchman.  Warren observed that his view of race was primarily informed by his image of south.  He said “The image of the south I carried in my head was one of massive immobility in all ways, in both its virtues and vices – it was an image of the unchangeable human condition, beautiful, sad, tragic.” Despite changing his views on segregation, one aspect of Warren’s perception of the race problem did not change – its source.  Warren still believed that much of the angst against African Americans stemmed from poor whites that were afraid that Black Mobility meant diminished economic opportunity for white folks.  Warren saw this challenge as one that led to increased violence by poorer white persons who felt isolated by their wealthy white counterparts and black workers looking to obtain a foothold.  Thus Warren wrote in the Briar Patch, “What the white workman must learn… is that he may respect himself as a white man, but if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.” 

     These views of respect as a foundation for the race problem in the South did not change.   In his book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, Warren interviews black and white people around the South in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Warren describes this mutual respect not as a market problem (as he did in Briar Patch), but as a moral problem. In a other work titled Who Speaks for the Negro, Warren most directly states his regret for his earlier work Briar Patch, stating he did not realize its racist and seperationist overtones.

If we are comparing the nature of Watchman, we have to point out that Warren’s hypothesis seems a bit myopic.  One of the most interesting tensions in the book is Calpurnia’s supposed transition from loyal worker to disaffiliated and individualized person.  If the Finch’s were the non-white trash as Hank explains to Jean Louise, then labor and race relations were equally at their doorstep even though they may have been caught unawares.  Still, the narrative told through the eyes of Southern Whiteness tells of Calpurnia’s leaving as response rather than individual choice.

 In Warren’s South – there is always a conflict that is prevalent in how choices are made.  This conflict is prevalent in a number of similarities that unfold in the writing of both Lee and Warren.  In both writers’ works, the South and specific places in the South are characters with views that influence how individuals respond.  What Warren might say about Watchman is that Watchman’s Atticus represents one whose views were shaped only by that unique place Maycomb.  I believe Warren would accept the Atticus of Watchman as most believable while wondering how the Atticus of Mockingbird comes about


Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism Reply

RPW ImageOver the next few days, I want to deliver a paper I presented at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City, Utah last weekend. The theme of the Conference was Land and the Novel.  I had the pleasure of joining friends that delivered wonderful papers on the Picaresque form in Spanish and American Literature, and the role of Native American and western discourses on Sovereignty and Conquest. Today I will introduce the paper I presented titled Robert Penn Warren’s Southern Exceptionalism in Place. Over the next few days I will add sections.  Comments are always welcome.

Robert Penn Warren’s preeminent subject was the American South.[1] Born in Kentucky and living in various southern states, including Louisiana, and Tennessee Warren once reflected, “The South never crossed my mind except as an imaginative construct before I left it.”[2]  Later, Warren claimed “he became a Southerner by not being there.” [3] His novels reflect the tension felt by the author whose characters, like him, are at once out of place in their environment, while at the same time in the only place that seems best suited for their identity.

Through these characters, Warren performs the tension of southern identity – wrestling with the problem of not belonging, while also being in the only place where one belongs.[4]   Warren’s reflections of feeling isolated in a place he calls home has led to some scholars describing Warren’s view of southern identity as hallmarked by a perception of loneliness. [5] While loneliness is a theme that Warren’s work captures, another more prevalent theme emerges from Warren’s characters and places – that of Southern Exceptionalism.

In the next few posts I will describe what I mean by Southern Exceptionalism and then describe how that theme emerges in Warren’s novels All the King’s Men and Flood.  All the King’s Men follows the workings of Jack Burden and Willie Stark through the political machinery that reveals identities as against place and time.  Jack Burden, thought to be the character that Warren most closely aligns with[6] finds himself torn between the Jack Burden that existed in the past at Burdens landing, and the Jack Burden of the present – a journalist lackey of Governor Stark — who seems to have a knack for “making things stick” and “uncovering the past.[7]  Both Burden and Willie Stark find themselves at one in the same time in and out of contradictions.[8]

Likewise, Warren’s novel Flood : A Romance of our Time, tells the story of Bradwell Toliver a novelist and screenwriter returning to his home town Fiddlersburg to tell its final story. Fiddlersburg is set to be flooded by the Army Corp of Engineers TVA Project in Middle Tennessee leaving as the preeminent question for everyone in the town – can Fiddlersburg residents be themselves without Fiddlersburg.  Like Burden and Stark, Tolliver and other characters find themselves living out contradictions, whether its Toliver’s inability to write about Fiddlersburg while in Fiddlersburg.[9]

I argue in this seriesthat loneliness itself cannot answer that question of Southern identity, but rather is one piece of a broader identity question in the south.   For Warren, the collective action of being “lonely together” helps explain certain aspects of the south.  It may also explain why characters like Burden, Toliver, and Stark move through the south the way they do -able to  both associate and disassociate themselves from their actions and physical surroundings, while others do not.  But it does not necessarily explain the south, despite the claim by Warren’s characters and scholars alike. Loneliness is a description for a people that invoke a state of mind about their surroundings – the choices to embrace or not embrace their surroundings. Exceptionalism, on the other hand is defined by the irony of living with the contradiction.  For the characters, it’s the various contradictions of moral purpose, outcomes and identities that present contradictory moments.  For the region, Warren describes the ability to balance the surroundings with its narrative of superiority.   The constructs of place and time provide boundaries by which characters in Warren’s work navigate the central notion of those ironies.

[1] Warren’s works in both fiction and Non-Fiction detail a fascination with the American South.  His nonfiction works,  John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929) Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the American South (1956); Who Speaks for the Negro ?(1960); The Legacy of the Civil War (1961); and Jefferson Davis Get’s his Citizenship Back (1980); and his fictional works All the King’s Men, Flood, Time and World Enough, Night Riders, Meet me at the Green Glen, At Heaven’s Gate, … all are set in the American South.

[2] Watkins, Floyd C., et al., Talking with Robert Penn Warren 383 (U. Ga. Press 1990).

[3] Id. at 374.

[4] Warren himself described this tension personally reflecting about a farm he considered buying in Tennessee later in life.  Though the Middle Tennessee area where the farm was located was the place he claimed to know best, he also said he felt if he bought the farm he’d be isolated. “ A lot of friends are dead and gone, but I also felt a real change in the whole nature of the world. And I felt it would be an idle dream for me to go back there. It would be ridiculous.” Id.

[5] Randy Hendricks, Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (2000) (suggesting that Warren more than any other writer has dealt with the southerner as exile); Lewis Simpson, Robert Penn Warren The Loneliness Artist, 99 Sewanee Review 25 (1991) (“describing the autobiographical connections of personal exile in Warren’s various works).

[6] Simpson, supra note 5, at ___ (suggesting that Warren can no more disclaim Jack Burden than Shakespeare can Hamlet).

[7] See Martin Lumpkin, Jack’s Unconscious Burden: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of All the King’s Men, in Dennis L. Weeks, “To Love thee So Well the World: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Penn Warren, 197 (1992) at 197 (describing Jack Burden’s tensions as between “denying his past and living with his cynical present without alms”).

[8] See Lumpkin, supra note 7, at 207 (rejecting Burden’s tale as mere tragedy, for its failure to account for “ambiguities, conflicts, complexities of the human personality); Robert Feldman, Responsibility in Crisis: Jack Burden’s Struggle in All the King’s Men, in Weeks, supra note 7, at 105 (arguing that Burden’s contradiction is the temptation to avoid versus confront the burden of guilt and responsibility); Steven D. Ealy, Corruption and Innocence in Robert Penn Warren’s Fiction, Modern Age (Spring 2005) (describing Willie Stark as an Idealist turn pragmatist with an idealist bent).

[9] Bradwell Toliver can’t seem to understand himself in the town of Fiddlersburg.  This emerges in two ways through out the novel.  First, Toliver’s best selling novel is based on Fiddlersburg but is written when Toliver is away from the town.  The second is the movie script that he writes while in the town, but which, according to Yasha Jones, does not capture the essence of Brad in Fiddlersburg.