Crisscrossing th sprawling landscape of Robert Penn Warren, James H. Justus offers us the first comprehensive survey of Warren’s complete canon, including the poetry of 1980. The temptation for everyone who has written on Warren, our most distinguished man of letters still active in American literature, asserts Justus, “is to analyze those themes and moral situations that, because they recur so frequently and obsessively, constitute the massive centrality of an entire corpus.” Justus attempts “to emphasize the ways by which we become aware of such themes and situations, the technical accomplishment of their rendering, which alone justifies our thinking of Warren as a literary artist.” The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren shows how Warren’s work—his fiction, poetry, literary criticism, historical and personal essays, journalism—is shaped largely by the circumstances not only of his birth and early career as a border-state southerner but also oh his training and later career as a transregional artist and intellectual.
Dividing his book into four parts, Justus discusses in Part I Warren’s cycle of themes—the most enduring of which is self-knowledge, the very source of Warren’s life work. He devotes Part II to Warren’s poetry: the “mannered archaism” of his early work, the increasing mastery of the tendencies practiced by his fellow Agrarians—the metaphysical mode—and the advantage of technique in his most recent poems.
Part III concern’s Warren’s nonfiction prose, with emphasis on Who Speaks for the Negro and I’ll Take My Stand. In Part IV, Justus, analyzes the novels as political and moral statements in Night Rider, At Heaven’s Gate, and All the King’s Men; as romance and history in World Enough and Time, Band of Angels, and Wilderness; and as “art of transparency,” in The Cave, Flood, Meet Me in the Green Glen, and A Place to Come To. Justus demonstrates Warren’s relish for “crowded densities of actuality” as fulfilled in the novelist’s skill in observing detail. “No other writer has made so much out of our cultural artifacts. . . . WPA murals, big houses and shotgun bungalows, letters and broadsides.”
Warren continues in a southern literary tradition. The values of the country and small town, those affecting attitudes toward social cohesion and Christian assumptions about the nature of man, are often seen in conflict with the values of a life governed by art and the academy. Justus also places Warren’s work in the larger context of the various streams of American writing of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He cites in particular Warren’s unresolved relationship to Emerson and compares Warren to Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In examining Warren’s technical accomplishments, Justus proclaims the novelist/poet to be a man whose distinguished career has surpassed those of Edmund Wilson and Allen Tate. Warren calls himself “a little footnote” in the long history of the intellectual tension between transcendentalism and puritanism. Certainly readers of The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren will begin to understand how Warren’s discrete works relate to each other, how from poems to novels to prose—early and late “nothing is lost.” The undertaking by Justus is massive; the accomplishment, monumental.
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