The story of their first meeting has been told so many times that it has become part of the folklore of modern Southern literature. One day, during the fall of 1924, Robert Penn Warren stopped by Kissam Hall on the Vanderbilt campus to visit his friend and classmate Saville Clark. With Clark was his new roommate, a freshman named Cleanth Brooks. Although only a year and a half older than Brooks, the precocious Warren was already a senior and an important member of the group of poets that called themselves “Fugitives.” Despite his local eminence, “Red” Warren took enough of an interest in his new acquaintance to look at one of Cleanth’s freshman themes and to compliment him on his “natural style.” As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

That friendship flourished for the next 65 years, ending only with Warren’s death on September 14, 1989. For most of this time, the two men were in close proximity to one another. When Brooks arrived at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in October 1929, Warren had already been there a year. Over the next 12 months, they became much better acquainted than they had been at Vanderbilt. Then, from 1934 to 42, they were colleagues in the English department at Louisiana State University. During the last seven of those years, they edited the original series of the Southern Review. By 1947, Brooks was teaching at Yale, where he was joined by Warren in 1950; they would be neighbors in Connecticut for the next four decades.

Because both men (particularly Warren) traveled a good deal, it was necessary for them to keep in touch through the mail. James A. Grimshaw, Jr.’s recent edition of over 350 letters exchanged by Brooks and Warren for better than half a century helps us see something of the private personalities of two distinguished public writers. The greater value of this volume, however, lies in the perspective it gives us on a working relationship unique in 20th-century literature. John Palmer, who knew both men long and well, said that they reminded him not so much of two agreeable colleagues as of two different parts of the same person. Warren was a brainstorming genius. When he was at work, the surrounding area soon became a mess. He would jot an idea or an image down on a piece of paper, wad that paper up, and start again with a fresh sheet. Very few of the wads ever made it to the wastebasket. In contrast, Brooks kept a tidier desk and a more orderly mind. If Warren’s light could be as blinding and diffuse as the sun itself. Brooks’ was more like a laser beam—less primal but more focused. This partnership produced, in addition to the Southern Review, a series of textbooks that would change the way American students studied literature.

Although Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence is a valuable scholarly resource for anyone interested in the mechanics of editorial collaboration, the magic of the friendship shared by Brooks and Warren does not come across as often as it might had they been separated for longer periods of time: Because they could so easily enjoy each other’s company, letters did not have to serve as a poor substitute. One can find more literary gossip in Brooks’ correspondence with Robert Heilman, who was stuck a continent away at the University of Washington. More brilliant discussions of literary theory are contained in the letters Brooks exchanged with Allen Tate and Murray Krieger. When Cleanth and Red wrote to each other, they usually meant business.

The history of the original Southern Review has been capably recorded in Thomas Cutrer’s Parnassus on the Mississippi. What becomes evident from the correspondence in Grimshaw’s volume is the degree to which Cleanth Brooks was the workhorse who kept that journal going while Red Warren was away from campus (spending a guest semester at another university or the summer in Italy) and the Review’s nominal editor, Charles Pipkin, was drinking himself to death. Fortunately, Cleanth had the assistance of two business managers who would later go on to become distinguished editors in their own right. During his career at Random House, Albert Erskine’s clients included William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, John O’Hara, and William Styron, as well as Erskine’s own mentor. Red Warren. Albert’s successor in Baton Rouge was John Palmer, who would later edit both the Sewanee Review and the Yale Review. For a time, the magazine’s secretary was the future novelist Jean Stafford. The entire enterprise, made possible in large part by the largesse of the Huey Long machine, came to an end when the Kingfish was shot and less imaginative politicians took his place. After the Southern Review was suspended in 1942, ostensibly in deference to war-time austerity, the football team’s tiger mascot continued to live in a heated cage and consume choice cuts of meat.

The demise of the Southern Review so demoralized Red Warren that he promptly accepted a position at the University of Minnesota, where he received the promotion and higher salary that had been denied him at LSU. By this time, he had published two novels and an impressive body of poetry, while Cleanth’s first book on literature, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), had established him as one of the most influential and controversial critics of his time. The two men had also collaborated on three textbooks that would revolutionize the teaching of literature in American colleges. This aspect of their career developed almost by accident. Teaching at a land grant university in one of the less cosmopolitan regions of the country. Brooks and Warren discovered that many of their students simply did not know how to read literature. Often the plain prose meaning of the text eluded them. Even when that was not the case, they were frequently ignorant of the literary devices that make a poem more than its paraphrasable prose content.

Unfortunately, the available textbooks were of little help. Anyone teaching Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” from the most popular classroom anthology of the day, The College Omnibus, had to be content with a short biographical introduction and a dollop of impressionistic response. (“The song of the nightingale brings sadness and exhilaration to the poet and makes him long to be lifted up and away from the limitations of life. The seventh stanza is particularly beautiful.”) In desperation, Warren prepared a 30-page mimeographed booklet on metrics and imagery, which he and Brooks used in the spring semester of 1935. By the fall of 1936, this had developed into a critical anthology of poetry, fiction, drama, and expository prose they called An Approach to Literature. In 1975,40 years after its original publication. An Approach to Literature went into its fifth edition.

The two textbooks that followed. Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction, were even more influential. Even as the New Criticism associated with Brooks, Warren, and others fell out of fashion, it continued to inform the undergraduate teaching of literature. Douglas Bush spoke more truly than he realized when he dismissed the New Criticism as “an advanced course in remedial reading.”

The one Brooks and Warren textbook that failed to meet expectations was American Literature: The Makers and the Making, a magisterial anthology that Cleanth and Red compiled with their Yale colleague R.W.B. Lewis. This book ran to two million words, a fourth of which consisted of commentary by the editors. The result was not just a standard classroom anthology but a critical history of American literature from the 17th century to the present. If anything, the book may have been too good. More than a few teachers have had their students buy less imposing anthologies and then cribbed their lecture notes from Brooks, Lewis, and Warren. Even though this anthology did not make its editors as much money as it should have, working on it demonstrated the essentially social nature of literary criticism. The best criticism often arises from the meeting of kindred spirits to talk about books. Among other things, the collective experience of putting together American Literature: The Makers and the Making convinced R.W.B. Lewis of “an irreducible subsurface of regionality in American literary folk.” As the three colleagues began discussing the mid-19th century, Lewis got “the eerie but enlivening sensation that we were, between us, reenacting the Civil War.” Brooks and Warren seemed to him to become increasingly Southern. “To my ears their very accents thickened,” Lewis recalls,

and though I am in fact Chicagoborn, I felt myself becoming more and more northern and even, like Emily Dickinson, beginning to see “New Englandly.” When Warren presented us with his selection of Melville’s war poems, I remarked that to judge from this lot—all of them from northern defeats and disasters—one would be in doubt as to which side had actually “won” the war.

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were part of a remarkable generation of literary figures born within half a dozen years of the turn of the century. Even if we should eventually look upon their like again, it is doubtful that we will discover so voluminous a correspondence. Brooks and Warren lived most of their lives before phoning long distance was a commonplace occurrence, and I doubt that either man ever used e-mail. Even as our means of communication have become more efficient, a certain civility has been lost. Cleanth and Red were good men as well as great critics. Eavesdropping on their written conversations with each other helps confirm the measure of our loss.


[Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, Edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 444 pp., $39.95]