That most aristocratic of literary roles, the career as man of letters, has proved especially congenial to the Southern intellectual in the 20th century. The title of one of these two volumes—A Southern Renascence Man—describes the role: the writer as a Renaissance man, a man of parts, a complete personality grounded in and developed out of the many facets of the literary life. The man of letters transcends the specialized focuses of the novelist, the poet, the critic. Instead the term implies almost a gentlemanly and ”amateurish”—in that word’s pure sense of a labor of love—devotion to the broader craft of writing, but in modern times raised to a professional level. If it seems an outmoded ideal in an age in which everything from football to politics, from academic sub-disciplines to television, seems reduced to specialized role-playing, it may be perhaps revealing that the man of letters should have flourished so noticeably in our most conservative region. Two recent collections of essays by or about John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren suggest that the phenomenon may not be accidental.
The very notion of our man of letters as a cultural spokesman is essentially European, of course; and it is striking to look back to Ransom’s 1930 essay contribution to the Southern Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, in which he defiantly notes the kinship of spirit: “The South is unique on this continent,” he writes, “for having founded and defended a culture which was according to the European principles of culture; and the European principles had better look to the South if they are to be perpetuated in this country.” The model was defined for us back in the 18th century by Dr. Johnson, journalist, essayist, poet, lexicographer, novelist manqué, and general cultural arbiter. On the continent, the role was assumed by Goethe, and later in England by Coleridge, Arnold and, in this century, by G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. All of them served the community of letters in a variety of ways, transcending their particular fame as poets, critics, or novelists, and thus set standards for what is probably the most civilized and humane of intellectual pursuits.
The professional man of letters, as opposed to the gentleman dilettante, developed later in America. Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, William Dean Howells, and Henry Adams all played the part as the American culture matured, but with the flowering of modernist literature in the 20th century the role began to have difficulty finding the players. By very definition, it is difficult to define the man of letters. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, for instance, are probably as important for their critical and editorial influences as for their imaginative works, yet both are indelibly imprinted in our awareness as poets. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce have been acclaimed by history as novelists and short-story writers, although all wrote poetry (very bad in the Americans’ case) and Hemingway’s best work is arguably his nonfiction. And so on. But it is curious that out of one group of important Southern conservatives five significant writers—Ransom, Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson and Andrew Lytle—can lay claim to the man of letters label in its highest sense. Those writers, all associated with the Fugitive poets and the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930’s, in their various roles as poets, novelists, critics, social philosophers, historians, teachers, and editors, have probably contributed more than any other group to shaping the serious literary intelligence of modern American culture. Of comparable importance among their contemporaries, we can perhaps point only to the overrated Edmund Wilson and the wonderfully humane and sensitive Lionel Trilling. Perhaps the phenomenon can be explained by the Agrarians’ philosophical insistence on the whole man as an ideal; the scholar cloistered in his library and involved only in a professional labor cannot bring to bear the complete experience of life to his work. Whatever the secret, though, the end result is notable.
The Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom, edited by his biographer Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle, illustrates the range of Ransom’s achievement as a critic and essayist, and by implication as teacher and editor. The essays, most of them long out of print or scattered individually in various literary nooks and crannies, have been chosen to give a chronological review of Ransom’s long career in this mode. Beginning as teacher and poet at Vanderbilt, he began leading the Agrarian agitations of the 1930’s and, after laying down his Agrarian arms, moved north to Kenyon College, founded The Kenyon Review, and named and defined for us the “New Criticism.” The book covers the full range, from some early Fugitive editorials through an “Aesthetic of Regionalism” to his enormously influential essays on criticism and poetry.
Much of Ransom’s criticism seems problematic today, especially those essays in which he is trying to explain the nature of poetry and arrives, characteristically, at a dualistic vision. His famous distinction between the structure of poetry (its paraphrasable, logical argument, or content) and texture (the poem’s “irrelevant” assortment of local “things” and of technical and linguistic acts of virtuosity which give it aesthetic appeal; science, for instance, has no “texture”) appears dated and inadequate now, especially in the face of Ransom’s own verse which seems more timeless with each passing year. Ransom’s critical theorizing is often speculative and philosophical, and one searches with frustration for some discourse which will explain the unique effects of his own poetry, for example, the exquisite irony of the deceptively simple “Janet Waking”—
It was a transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.
—or the horrible last lines of “Captain Carpenter,” arguably the most affectively “ugly” passage in modern poetry:
The Curse of hell upon the sleek upstart
That got the Captain finally on his back
And took the red red vitals of his heart
And made the kites to whet their beaks clack clack.
In the first, notice the poet’s manipulation of metrical effects, and the very Ransomic “transmogrifying,” meaning to transform in a grotesque or absurd fashion. The word jars, and appearing almost exactly in the middle of this slight poem “transmogrifies” the piece from its apparently sentimental observation about the loss of a child’s pet to a disturbing intimation of mortality. But Ransom uses both senses of the word to preclude any inappropriately emotional response by the reader; the grotesqueness of the pet chicken’s death is rendered in a whimsical, if compassionate tone, and the reader is left with a sense of the whole absurdity and pathos of the mortal coil. I suppose that these effects, like the vicious alliteration and heavy stresses in the “Captain Carpenter” verse, are partly what Ransom means by “texture,” but his theoretical dichotomy hardly seems to explain the cooperative interplay of the various parts of the poems, what Tate called their “tension.” He is more convincing when he argues the case for poetry as a means of cognition; as opposed to science, which is incomplete because it is rational and utilitarian, poetry—as a “precious object” to be valued without regard to its usefulness—offers a vision of life as a whole with the inexplicable mysteries to be experienced as immediately and vividly as those Cartesian certainties of abstract scientific discourse. These insights are very close to his Agrarian aesthetic and are, I believe, in touch with the pulse of art.
The common academic factor is an important link among the members of the Southern group. Not only were all educated at the same school at about the same time—before or just after World War I—but all five made careers of teaching and, with the exception of Donald Davidson, edited important journals associated with academic sponsors. In these dual roles, they were able to exert cultural influences far beyond their commercial audiences and become—like Freud and Einstein—intellectual forces felt by those who had never even read them. For instance, if Ransom inspired and largely defined the “New Critical” literary attitude, his students spread the gospel. And no one is more important in this respect than Robert Penn Warren.
A Southern Renascence Man is a slight collection of essays intended as a tribute to Warren in all his aspects as man of letters. The essays by Louis D. Rubin Jr., Harold Bloom, James Dickey, Madison Jones, and Thomas L. Connelly treat Warren variously as poet, novelist, historian, and critic. The book is perhaps only another stone on the heap of critical attention Warren has been receiving of late, but implicit in the collection is a recognition of the author as probably our preeminent living man of letters, a man whom Allen Tate called “the most gifted person I have ever known.”
Warren’s career is made up of an especially fascinating variety of roles. He entered Vanderbilt at the age of 16 from a small town in Kentucky, planning to study chemical engineering. But he enjoyed Ransom as his freshman English teacher and studied under Davidson his sophomore year; in the meantime he fell in with other students like Tate and Lytle, became the youngest member of the Fugitive group, and the die was cast. Like Ransom, Warren graduated first in his class and later won a Rhodes Scholarship. At the age of 24, he published a biography of the abolitionist John Brown, and the next year contributed an essay to I’ll Take My Stand. In the 50-odd years that have followed, Warren has published some of our best poetry and criticism, some of our most successful novels, with Cleanth Brooks helped to found and edit the influential Southern Review, edited the landmark textbook Understanding Poetry, and taught at several leading universities. Along the way, he has collected three Pulitzer Prizes, two for poetry and one for the novel All the King’s Men, and almost every other important literary honor except the Nobel. And yet, for all its brilliance, Warren’s career has posed problems for his critics and admirers.
Over the past few years, Warren the poet has been on a roll, so to speak. As his novelistic muse seemed to lose its imaginative power, he has returned in an astonishing burst of late creativity to his first love of poetry. For all their popularity, Warren’s novels—even the ubiquitous All the King’s Men—have always seemed to me flawed and ultimately unsatisfactory. The weakness for melodramatic overreach and—especially in the later fiction, as Madison Jones notes here—the tendency to subvert the fiction to philosophical discourse have kept his novels beneath the lofty Olympian range that Faulkner dominates in American fiction. But as poet, and almost as emphatically as critic, Warren writes from that same peak. He is an immensely learned writer, and strangely his narrative and lyrical talents find a more congenial outlet in verse than fiction, while his erudition and literary sensitivity make him an almost ideal commentator on a range of works from Coleridge, Faulkner, and Hemingway to John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Dreiser. His poetry, which he began publishing as an undergraduate Fugitive over 60 years ago, has developed its own unique voice, modern but often folksy, learned and difficult but sometimes deliberately vulgar and crude, and humane but often horrifying in its insistence on looking into the abyss. From the early “Ballad of Billie Potts” through Brother to Dragons from his mid-career to the poems he is still publishing regularly, Warren deals with the complexities of the human condition with as much perspicacity as any writer of our time.
It may be relevant here that Warren is quoted in Louis Rubin’s excellent essay on his criticism that he is not a “professional critic,” that a “real critic, like Cleanth Brooks or I. A. Richards, has a system” while he approaches literature as a mere reader engaged in a kind of personal social activity. If this disclaimer seems slightly disingenuous in the light of his achievement, it is certainly the stamp of the man of letters. One way to measure the stature of these two literary men—Ransom and Warren—is to look for a comparable figure from our contemporary generation. Perhaps John Updike fills the multiple role more ambitiously than any one else among the younger writers; but while Updike’s critical essays, tucked into the back pages of The New Yorker, are intelligent and often elegant, and his poetry attractive if not strikingly original, his fiction seems a prisoner to the lowest common denominator of the American middleclass. In an age of simplistic specialization, we may wait long for the genuinely well-rounded writer of many parts to appear again.
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