Interviews

Robert Penn Warren, The Art of Fiction No. 18

Interviewed by Eugene Walter and Ralph Ellison

This interview takes place in the apartment of Ralph Ellison at the American Academy in Rome: a comfortable room filled with books and pictures. Mr. Warren, who might be described as a sandy man with a twinkle in his eye, is ensconced in an armchair while the interviewers, manning tape recorder and notebook, are perched on straight-back chairs. Mrs. Ellison, ice-bowl tinkling, comes into the room occasionally to replenish the glasses: all drink pastis.

 

INTERVIEWER

First, if you’re agreeable, Mr. Warren, a few biographical details just to get you “placed.” I believe you were a Rhodes Scholar—

ROBERT PENN WARREN

Yes, from Kentucky.

INTERVIEWER

University of Kentucky?

WARREN

No, I attended Vanderbilt. But I was a Rhodes Scholar from Kentucky.

INTERVIEWER

Were you writing then?

WARREN

As I am now, trying to.

INTERVIEWER

Did you start writing in college?

WARREN

I had no interest in writing when I went to college. I was interested in reading—oh, poetry and standard novels, you know. My ambitions were purely scientific, but I got cured of that fast by bad instruction in freshman chemistry and good instruction in freshman english.

INTERVIEWER

What were the works that were especially meaningful for you? What books were—well, doors opening?

WARREN

Well, several things come right away to mind. First of all, when I was six years old, “Horatius at the Bridge” I thought was pretty grand—when they read it to me, to be more exact.

INTERVIEWER

And others?

WARREN

Yes, “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” at about age nine; I thought it was pretty nearly the height of human achievement. I didn’t know whether I was impressed by riding a horse that fast or writing the poem. I couldn’t distinguish between the two, but I knew there was something pretty fine going on . . . Then “Lycidas.”

INTERVIEWER

At what age were you then?

WARREN

Oh, thirteen, something like that. By that time I knew it wasn’t what was happening in the poem that was important—it was the poem. I had crossed the line.

INTERVIEWER

What about prose works?

WARREN

Then I discovered Buckle’s History of Civilization in England. Did you ever read Buckle?

INTERVIEWER

Of course, and Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic. Most Southern bookshelves contain that.

WARREN

And Prescott . . . and The Oregon Trail is always hovering around there somewhere. Thing that interested me about Buckle was that he had the one big answer to everything: geography. History is all explained by geography. I read Buckle and then I could explain everything. It gave me quite a hold over the other kids; they hadn’t read Buckle. I had the answer to everything. Buckle was my Marx. That is, he gave you one answer to everything, and the same dead-sure certainty. After I had had my session with Buckle and the one-answer system at the age of thirteen, or whatever it was, I was somewhat inoculated against Marx and his one-answer system when he and the Depression hit me and my work when I was about twenty-five. I am not being frivolous about Marx. But when I began to hear some of my friends talk about him in 1930, I thought, “Here we go again, boys.” I had previously got hold of one key to the universe: Buckle. And somewhere along the way I had lost the notion that there was ever going to be just one key.

But getting back to that shelf of books, the Motley and Prescott and Parkman, et cetera, isn’t it funny how unreadable most history written now is when you compare it with those writers?

INTERVIEWER

Well, there’s Samuel Eliot Morison.

WARREN

Yes, a very fine writer. Another is C. Vann Woodward, he writes very well indeed. And Bruce Catton. But Catton maybe doesn’t count, he’s not a professional historian. If he wants to write a book on history that happens to be good history and good writing at the same time, there isn’t any graduate school to try to stop him.

INTERVIEWER

It’s very interesting that you were influenced by historical writing so early in life. It has always caught one’s eye how history is used in your work, for instance, Night Rider.

WARREN

Well, that isn’t a historical novel. The events belonged to my early childhood. I remember the troops coming in when martial law was declared in that part of Kentucky. When I wrote the novel I wasn’t thinking of it as history. For one thing, the world it treated still, in a way, survived. You could still talk to the old men who had been involved. In the 1930s I remember going to see a judge down in Kentucky—he was an elderly man then, a man of the highest integrity and reputation—who had lived through that period and who by common repute had been mixed up in it—his father had been a tobacco grower. He got to talking about that period in Kentucky. He said, “Well, I won’t say who was and who wasn’t mixed up in some of those things, but I will make one observation: I have noticed that the sons of those who were opposed to getting a fair price for tobacco ended up as either bootleggers or brokers.” But he was an old-fashioned kind of guy, for whom bootlegging and brokerage looked very much alike. Such a man didn’t look “historical” thirty years ago. Now he looks like the thighbone of a mastodon.

INTERVIEWER

It seems clear that you don’t write “historical” novels; they are always concerned with urgent problems, but the awareness of history seems to be central.

WARREN

That’s so. I don’t think I do write historical novels. I try to find stories that catch my eye, stories that seem to have issues in purer form than they come to one ordinarily.

INTERVIEWER

A kind of unblurred topicality?

WARREN

I wrote two unpublished novels in the thirties. Night Rider is the world of my childhood. At Heaven’s Gate was contemporary. My third published, All the King’s Men, was worlds I had seen. All the stories were contemporary. The novel I’m writing now, and two I plan, are all contemporary.

INTERVIEWER

Brother to Dragons was set in the past.

WARREN

It belonged to a historical setting, but it was not a departure: it was a matter of dealing with issues in a more mythical form. I hate costume novels, but maybe I’ve written some and don’t know it. I have a romantic kind of interest in the objects of American history: saddles, shoes, figures of speech, rifles, et cetera. They’re worth a lot. Help you focus. There is a kind of extraordinary romance about American history. That’s the only word for it—a kind of self-sufficiency. You know, the grandpas and the great-grandpas carried the assumption that somehow their lives and their decisions were important; that as they went up, down, here and there, such a life was important and that it was a man’s responsibility to live it.

INTERVIEWER

In this connection, do you feel that there are certain themes which are basic to the American experience, even though a body of writing in a given period might ignore or evade them?

WARREN

First thing, without being systematic, what comes to mind without running off a week and praying about it, would be that America was based on a big promise—a great big one: the Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that in the house, that’s quite a problem—particularly when you’ve got to make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things you have to, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like putting a burr under the metaphysical saddle of America—you see, that saddle’s going to jump now and then and it pricks. There’s another thing in the American experience that makes for a curious kind of abstraction. We suddenly had to define ourselves and what we stood for in one night. No other nation ever had to do that. In fact, one man did it—one man in an upstairs room, Thomas Jefferson. Sure, you might say that he was the amanuensis for a million or so people stranded on the edge of the continent and backed by a wilderness, and there’s some sense in that notion. But somebody had to formulate it—in fact, just overnight, whatever the complicated background of that formulation—and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. With the very words it used. Do you know the Polish writer Adam De Gurowski?* He was of a highly placed Polish family; he came and worked as a civil servant in Washington, a clerk, a kind of self-appointed spy on democracy. His book America—of 1857, I think—begins by saying that America is unique among nations because other nations are accidents of geography or race, but America is based on an idea. Behind the comedy of proclaiming that idea from Fourth of July platforms there is the solemn notion, Believe and ye shall be saved. That abstraction sometimes does become concrete, is a part of the American experience—and of the American problem—the lag between idea and fact, between word and flesh.

INTERVIEWER

What about historical time? America has had so much happening in such a short time.

WARREN

Awful lot of foreshortening in it. America lives in two times, chronological time and history. The last widow drawing a pension from the War of 1812 died just a few years ago. My father was old enough to vote when the last full-scale battle against Indians was fought—a couple of regiments, I think, of regulars with artillery.

INTERVIEWER

From the first your work is explicitly concerned with moral judgments, even during a period of history when much American fiction was concerned with moral questions only in the narrow way of the “proletarian” and “social realism” novels of the 1930s.

WARREN

I think I ought to say that behind Night Rider and my next novel, At Heaven’s Gate, there was a good deal of the shadow not only of the events of that period but of the fiction of that period. I am more aware of that fact now than I was then. Of course only an idiot could have not been aware that he was trying to write a novel about, in one sense, “social justice” in Night Rider or, for that matter, At Heaven’s Gate. But in some kind of a fumbling way I was aware, I guess, of trying to find the dramatic rub of the story at some point a little different from and deeper than the point of dramatic rub in some of the then current novels. But what I want to emphasize is the fact that I was fumbling rather than working according to plan and convictions already arrived at. When you start any book you don’t know what, ultimately, your issues are. You try to write to find them. You’re fiddling with the stuff, hoping to make sense, whatever kind of sense you can make.

INTERVIEWER

At least you could say that as a Southerner you were more conscious of what some of the issues were. You couldn’t, I assume, forget the complexity of American social reality, no matter what your aesthetic concerns, or other concerns.

WARREN

It never crossed my mind when I began writing fiction that I could write about anything except life in the South. It never crossed my mind that I knew about anything else; knew, that is, well enough to write about. Nothing else ever nagged you enough to stir the imagination. But I stumbled into fiction rather late. I’ve got to be autobiographical about this. For years I didn’t have much interest in fiction, that is, in college. I was reading my head off in poetry, Elizabethan and the moderns, Yeats, Hardy, Eliot, Hart Crane. I wasn’t seeing the world around me—that is, in any way that might be thought of as directly related to fiction. Be it to my everlasting shame that when the Scopes trial was going on a few miles from me I didn’t even bother to go. My head was too full of John Ford and John Webster and William Blake and T. S. Eliot. If I had been thinking about writing novels about the South I would have been camping in Dayton, Tennessee—and would have gone about it like journalism. At least the Elizabethans saved me from that. As for starting fiction, I simply stumbled on it. In the spring of 1930 I was at Oxford, doing graduate work. I guess I was homesick and not knowing it. Paul Rosenfeld, who, with Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, was then editing the old American Caravan, wrote and asked me why I didn’t try a long story for them. He had had the patience one evening to listen to me blowing off about night-rider stories from boyhood. So Oxford and homesickness, or at least back-homeward-looking, and Paul Rosenfeld made me write Prime Leaf, a novelette that appeared in the Caravan, and was later the germ of Night Rider. I remember playing hooky from academic work to write the thing, and the discovery that you could really enjoy trying to write fiction. It was a new way of looking at things, and my head was full of recollections of the way objects looked in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was like going back to the age of twelve, going fishing and all that. It was a sense of freedom and excitement.

INTERVIEWER

When you started writing, what preoccupations, technically and thematically, had you in common with your crowd?

WARREN

I suppose you mean the poets called the Fugitive Group in Nashville—Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Merrill Moore, et cetera?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

WARREN

Well, in one sense, I don’t know what the group had in common. I think there is a great fallacy in assuming that there was a systematic program behind the Fugitive Group. There was no such thing, and among the members there were deep differences in temperament and aesthetic theory. They were held together by geography and poetry. They all lived in Nashville, and they were all interested in poetry. Some were professors, some businessmen; one was a banker, several were students. They met informally to argue philosophy and read each other the poems they wrote. For some of them these interests were incidental to their main concerns. For a couple of others, like Tate, it was poetry or death. Their activity wasn’t any “school” or “program.” Mutual respect and common interests, that was what held them together—that and the provincial isolation, I guess.

INTERVIEWER

But did you share with them any technical or thematic preoccupations?

WARREN

The answer can’t, you see, apply to the group. But in a very important way, that group was my education. I knew individual writers, poems, and books through them. I was exposed to the liveliness and range of the talk and the wrangle of argument. I heard the talk about techniques, but techniques regarded as means of expression. But most of all I got the feeling that poetry was a vital activity, that it related to ideas and to life. I came into the group rather late. I was timid and reverential, I guess. And I damned well should have been. Anyway, there was little or no talk in those days about fiction. Some of the same people, a little later, however, did give me in a very concrete way a sense of how literature can be related to place and history.

INTERVIEWER

It’s very striking when you consider writing by Southerners before the twenties. Some think that few writers were then in the South as talented or competent, or as confident as today. This strikes me as a very American cultural phenomenon in spite of its specifically regional aspects. Would you say that this was a kind of repetition of what occurred in New England, say, during the 1830s?

WARREN

Yes, I do see some parallel between New England before the Civil War and the South after World War I to the present. The old notion of a shock, a cultural shock, to a more or less closed and static society—you know, what happened on a bigger scale in the Italian Renaissance or Elizabethan England. After 1918 the modern industrial world, with its good and bad, hit the South; all sorts of ferments began. As for individual writers, almost all of them of that period had had some important experience outside the South, then returned there—some strange mixture of continuity and discontinuity in their experience—a jagged quality. But more than mere general cultural or personal shocks, there was a moral shock in the South, a tension that grew out of the race situation. That moral tension had always been there, but it took new and more exacerbated forms after 1920. For one thing, the growing self-consciousness of the Negroes opened up possibilities for expanding economic and cultural horizons. A consequence was that the Southerner’s loyalties and pieties—real values, mind you—were sometimes staked against his religious and moral sense, equally real values. There isn’t much vital imagination, it seems to me, that doesn’t come from this sort of shock, imbalance, need to “relive,” redefine life.

INTERVIEWER

There is, for us, an exciting spiral of redefinition in your own work from I’ll Take My Stand through the novels to Segregation. It would seem that these works mark stages in a combat with the past. In the first, the point of view seems orthodox and unreconstructed. How can one say it? In recent years your work has become more intense and has taken on an element of personal confession which is so definite that one tends to look, for example, on Segregation and Brother to Dragons as two facets of a single attitude.

WARREN

You’ve thrown several different things at me here. Let me try to sort them out. First you refer to the Southern Agrarian book I’ll Take My Stand, of 1930, and then to my recent little book on Segregation. My essay in I’ll Take My Stand was about the Negro in the South, and it was a defense of segregation. I haven’t read that piece, as far as I can remember, since 1930, and I’m not sure exactly how things are put there. But I do recall very distinctly the circumstances of writing it. I wrote it at Oxford at about the same time I began writing fiction. The two things were tied together—the look back home from a long distance. I remember the jangle and wrangle of writing the essay and some kind of discomfort in it, some sense of evasion, I guess, in writing it, in contrast with the free feeling of writing the novelette Prime Leaf, the sense of seeing something fresh, the holiday sense plus some stirring up of something inside yourself. In the essay, I reckon, I was trying to prove something, and in the novelette trying to find out something, see something, feel something—exist. Don’t misunderstand me. On the objective side of things, there wasn’t a power under heaven that could have changed segregation in 1929 —the South wasn’t ready for it, the North wasn’t ready for it, the Negro wasn’t. The Court, if I remember correctly, had just reaffirmed segregation too. No, I’m not talking about the objective fact, but about the subjective fact, yours truly, in relation to the objective fact. Well, it wasn’t being outside the South that made me change my mind. It was coming back home. In a little while I realized I simply couldn’t have written that essay again. I guess trying to write fiction made me realize that. If you are seriously trying to write fiction you can’t allow yourself as much evasion as in trying to write essays. But some people can’t read fiction. One reviewer—a professional critic—said that Band of Angels is an apology for the plantation system. Well, the story of Band wasn’t an apology or an attack. It was simply trying to say something about something. But God Almighty, you have to spell it out for some people, especially a certain breed of professional defender-of-the-good, who makes a career of holding the right thoughts and admiring his own moral navel. Well, that’s getting off the point. What else was it you threw at me?

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that each book marks a redefinition of reality arrived at through a combat with the past? A development from the traditional to the highly personal reality? A confession?

WARREN

I never thought of a combat with the past. I guess I think more of trying to find what there is valuable to us, the line of continuity to us, and through us. The specific Southern past, I’m now talking about. As for combat, I guess the real combat is always with yourself, Southerner or anybody else. You fight your battles one by one and do the best you can. Whatever patterns there are develop, aren’t planned—the really basic patterns, I mean, the kind you live into. As for confession, that wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I do know that in the last ten years or a little more the personal relation to my writing changed. I never bothered to define the change. I quit writing poems for several years; that is, I’d start them, get a lot down, then feel that I wasn’t connecting somehow. I didn’t finish one for several years; they felt false. Then I got back at it, and that is the bulk of what I’ve done since Band of Angels—a new book of poems which will be out in the summer. When you try to write a book—even objective fiction—you have to write from the inside, not the outside—the inside of yourself. You have to find what’s there. You can’t predict it—just dredge for it and hope you have something worth the dredging. That isn’t “confession”—that’s just trying to use whatever the Lord lets you lay hand to. And of course you have to have common sense enough and structural sense enough to know what is relevant. You don’t choose a story, it chooses you. You get together with that story somehow; you’re stuck with it. There certainly is some reason it attracted you, and you’re writing it trying to find out that reason; justify, get at that reason. I can always look back and remember the exact moment when I encountered the germ of any story I wrote—a clear flash.

INTERVIEWER

What is your period of incubation? Months? Years?

WARREN

Something I read or see stays in my head for five or six years. I always remember the date, the place, the room, the road, when I first was struck. For instance, World Enough and Time. Katherine Anne Porter and I were both at the Library of Congress as Fellows. We were in the same pew, had offices next to each other. She came in one day with an old pamphlet, the trial of Beauchamp for killing Colonel Sharp. She said, “Well, Red, you better read this.” There it was. I read it in five minutes. But I was six years making the book. Any book I write starts with a flash but takes a long time to shape up. All of your first versions are in your head, so by the time you sit down to write you have some line developed in your head.

INTERVIEWER

What is the relation of sociological research and other types of research to the forms of fiction?

WARREN

I think it’s purely accidental. For one writer a big dose of such stuff might be fine, for another it might be poison. I’ve known a good many people, some of them writers, who think of literature as material that you “work up.” You don’t “work up” literature. They point at Zola. But Zola didn’t do that, nor did Dreiser. They may have thought they did, but they didn’t. They weren’t “working up” something—in one sense, something was working them up. You see the world as best you can—with or without the help of somebody’s research, as the case may be. You see as much as you can, and the events and books that are interesting to you should be interesting to you because you’re a human being, not because you’re trying to be a writer. Then those things may be of some use to you as a writer later on. I don’t believe in a schematic approach to material. The business of researching for a book strikes me as a sort of obscenity. What I mean is, researching for a book in the sense of trying to find a book to write. Once you are engaged by a subject, are in your book, have your idea, you may or may not want to do some investigating. But you ought to do it in the same spirit in which you’d take a walk in the evening air to think things over. You can’t research to get a book. You stumble on it, or hope to. Maybe you will, if you live right.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of craft, how conscious are you of the dramatic structure of your novels when you begin? I ask because in your work there is quite a variety of sub-forms, folklore, set pieces like “The Ballad of Billie Potts” or the Cass Mastern episode in All the King’s Men. Are these planned as part of the dramatic structure, or do they arise while you are being carried by the flow of invention?

WARREN

I try to think a lot about the craft of other people—that’s a result of my long years of teaching. You’ve been explaining things like how the first scene of Hamlet gets off, thinking of how things have been done . . . I suppose some of this sinks down to your gizzard. When it comes to your own work you have made some objective decisions, such as which character is going to tell the story. That’s a prime question, a question of control. You have to make a judgment. You find one character is more insistent, he’s more sensitive and more pointed than the others. But as for other aspects of structure and craft, I guess, in the actual process of composition or in preliminary thinking, I try to immerse myself in the motive and feel toward meanings, rather than plan a structure or plan effects. At some point, you know, you have to try to get one with God and then take a hard cold look at what you’re doing and work on it once more, trusting in your viscera and nervous system and your previous efforts as far as they’ve gone. The hard thing, the objective thing, has to be done before the book is written. And if anybody dreams up “Kubla Khan,” it’s going to be Coleridge. If the work is done the dream will come to the man who’s ready for that particular dream; it’s not going to come just from dreaming in general. After a thing is done, then I try to get tough and critical with myself. But damn it, it may sometimes be too late. But that is the fate of man. What I am trying to say is that I try to forget the abstractions when I’m actually composing a thing. I don’t understand other approaches that come up when I talk to other writers. For instance, some say their sole interest is experimentation. Well, I think that you learn all you can and try to use it. I don’t know what is meant by the word “experiment”; you ought to be playing for keeps.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, but there is still great admiration of the so-called experimental writing of the twenties. What of Joyce and Eliot?

WARREN

What is “experimental writing”? James Joyce didn’t do “experimental writing”—he wrote Ulysses. Eliot didn’t do “experimental writing”—he wrote The Waste Land. When you fail at something you call it an “experiment,” an élite word for flop. Just because lines are uneven or capitals missing doesn’t mean experiment. Literary magazines devoted to experimental writing are usually filled with works by middle-aged or old people.

INTERVIEWER

Or middle-aged young people.

WARREN

Young fogeys. In one way, of course, all writing that is any good is experimental; that is, it’s a way of seeing what is possible—what poem, what novel is possible. Experiment—they define it as putting a question to nature, and that is true of writing undertaken with seriousness. You put the question to human nature—and especially your own nature—and see what comes out. It is unpredictable. If it is predictable—not experimental in that sense—then it will be worthless.

INTERVIEWER

The Southern Review contained much fine work, but little that was purely “experimental”—isn’t that so?

WARREN

Yes, and there were a lot of good young, or younger, writers in it. Not all Southern either—about half, I should say.

INTERVIEWER

I remember that some of Algren’s first work appeared there.

WARREN

Oh, yes, two early stories, for example; and a longish poem about baseball.

INTERVIEWER

And the story, “A Bottle of Milk for Mother.”

WARREN

And the story “Biceps.” And three or four of Eudora’s first stories were there—Eudora Welty—and some of Katherine Anne’s novelettes—Katherine Anne Porter.

INTERVIEWER

There were a lot of critics in it—young ones too.

WARREN

Oh yes, younger then, anyway. Kenneth Burke, F. O. Matthiessen, Theodore Spencer, R. P. Blackmur, Delmore Schwartz, L. C. Knights . . .

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of critics reminds me that you’ve written criticism as well as poetry, drama, and fiction. It is sometimes said that the practice of criticism is harmful to the rest; have you found it so?

WARREN

On this matter of criticism, something that appalls me is the idea going around now that the practice of criticism is opposed to the literary impulse—is necessarily opposed to it. Sure, it may be a trap, it may destroy the creative impulse, but so may drink or money or respectability. But criticism is a perfectly natural human activity, and somehow the dullest, most technical criticism may be associated with full creativity. Elizabethan criticism is all, or nearly all, technical—meter, how to hang a line together—kitchen criticism, how to make the cake. People deeply interested in an art are interested in the “how.” Now I don’t mean to say that that is the only kind of valuable criticism. Any kind is good that gives a deeper insight into the nature of the thing—a Marxist analysis, a Freudian study, the relation to a literary or social tradition, the history of a theme. But we have to remember that there is no one, single, correct kind of criticism, no complete criticism. You only have different kinds of perspectives, giving, when successful, different kinds of insights. And at one historical moment one kind of insight may be more needed than another.

INTERVIEWER

But don’t you think that in America now a lot of good critical ideas get lost in terminology, in the gobbledygook style of expression?

WARREN

Every age, every group, has its jargon. When the jargon runs away with the insight, that’s no good. Sure, a lot of people think they have the key to truth if they have a lingo. And a lot of modern criticism has run off into lingo, into academicism—the wrong kind of academicism, that pretends to be unacademic. The real academic job is to absorb an idea, to put it into perspective along with other ideas, not to dilute it to lingo. As for lingo, it’s true that some very good critics got bit by the bug that you could develop a fixed critical vocabulary. Well, you can’t, except within narrow limits. That is a trap of scientism.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see some new ideas in criticism now emerging?

WARREN

No, I don’t see them now. We’ve had Mr. Freud and Mr. Marx and—

INTERVIEWER

Mr. Frazer and The Golden Bough.

WARREN

Yes, and Mr. Coleridge and Mr. Arnold and Mr. Eliot and Mr. Richards and Mr. Leavis and Mr. Aristotle, et cetera. There have been, or are, many competing kinds of criticism with us—but I don’t see a new one, or a new development of one of the old kind. It’s an age groping for its issue.

INTERVIEWER

What about the New Criticism?

WARREN

Let’s name some of them—Richards, Eliot, Tate, Blackmur, Winters, Brooks, Leavis (I guess). How in God’s name can you get that gang into the same bed? There’s no bed big enough and no blanket would stay tucked. When Ransom wrote his book called The New Criticism, he was pointing out the vindictive variety among the critics and saying that he didn’t agree with any of them. The term is, in one sense, a term without any referent—or with too many referents. It is a term that belongs to the conspiracy theory of history. A lot of people—chiefly aging, conservative professors scared of losing prestige, or young instructors afraid of not getting promoted, middlebrow magazine editors, and the flotsam and jetsam of semi-Marxist social-significance criticism left stranded by history—they all had a communal nightmare called the New Criticism to explain their vague discomfort. I think it was something they ate.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean—conspiracy?

WARREN

Those folks all had the paranoidal nightmare that there was a conspiracy called the New Criticism, just to do them personal wrong. No, it’s not quite that simple, but there is some truth in this. One thing that a lot of so-called New Critics had in common was a willingness to look long and hard at the literary object. But the ways of looking might be very different. Eliot is a lot closer to Arnold and the Archbishop of Canterbury than he is to Yvor Winters, and Winters is a lot closer to Irving Babbitt than to Richards, and the exegeses of Brooks are a lot closer to Coleridge than to Ransom, and so on. There has been more nonsense talked about this subject than about any I can think of. And a large part of the nonsense, on any side of the question, derives from the assumption that any one kind of criticism is “correct” criticism. There is no correct or complete criticism.

INTERVIEWER

You had a piece in The New Republic once in which you discuss Faulkner’s technique. One of the things you emphasize is Faulkner’s technique of the “still moment.” I’ve forgotten what you called it exactly—a suspension, in which time seems to hang.

WARREN

That’s the frozen moment. Freeze time. Somewhere, almost in a kind of pun, Faulkner himself uses the image of a frieze for such a moment of frozen action. It’s an important quality in his work. Some of these moments harden up an event, give it its meaning by holding it fixed. Time fluid versus time fixed. In Faulkner’s work that’s the drama behind the drama. Take a look at Hemingway; there’s no time in Hemingway, there are only moments in themselves, moments of action. There are no parents and no children. If there’s a parent he is a grandparent off in America somewhere who signs the check, like the grandfather in A Farewell to Arms. You never see a small child in Hemingway. You get death in childbirth but you never see a child. Everything is outside of the time process. But in Faulkner there are always the very old and the very young. Time spreads and is the important thing, the terrible thing. A tremendous flux is there, things flowing away in all directions. Moments not quite ready to be shaped are already there, waiting, and we feel their presence. What you most remember about Jason in The Sound and the Fury, say, is the fact that he was the treasurer when the children made and sold kites, and kept the money in his pocket. Or you remember Caddy getting her drawers muddy. Everything is already there, just waiting to happen. You have the sense of the small becoming large in time, the large becoming small, the sweep of time over things—that, and the balance of the frozen, abstracted moment against violent significant action. These frozen moments are Faulkner’s game. Hemingway has a different game. In Hemingway there’s no time at all. He’s out of history entirely. In one sense, he tries to deny history, he says history is the bunk, like Henry Ford.

I am in no sense making an invidious comparison between the two writers—or between their special uses of time. They are both powerfully expressive writers. But it’s almost too pat, you know, almost too schematic, the polar differences between those two writers in relation to the question of time. Speaking of pairs of writers, take Proust and Faulkner. There may be a lot written on the subject, but I haven’t encountered much of it. They’d make a strange but instructive pair to study—in relation to time.

INTERVIEWER

Wouldn’t you say that there seems to be in the early Hemingway a conscious effort not to have a very high center of consciousness within the form of the novel? His characters may have a highly moral significance, but they seldom discuss issues; they prefer to hint.

WARREN

Sure, Hemingway sneaks it in, but he is an intensely conscious and even philosophical writer. When the snuck-in thing or the gesture works, the effect can be mighty powerful. By contrast, French fiction usually has a hero who deals very consciously with the issues. He is his own chorus to the action, as well as the man who utters the equivalent of the Elizabethan soliloquy. Nineteenth-century fiction also dealt with the issues. Those novels could discuss them in terms of a man’s relation to a woman, or in terms of whether you’re going to help a slave run away, or in terms of what to do about a man obsessed with fighting evil, nature, what have you, in the form of a white whale.

INTERVIEWER

Your own work seems to have this explicit character. Jack Burden in All the King’s Men is a conscious center and he is a highly conscious man. He’s not there as an omniscient figure, but is urgently trying to discover something. He is involved.

WARREN

Burden got there by accident. He was only a sentence or two in the first version—the verse play from which the novel developed.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you make the change?

WARREN

I don’t know. He was an unnamed newspaperman, a childhood friend of the assassin; an excuse for the young doctor, the assassin of the politician Willie Stark, to say something before he performed the deed. When after two years I picked up the verse version and began to fool with a novel, the unnamed newspaperman became the narrator. It turned out, in a way, that what he thought about the story was more important than the story itself. I suppose he became the narrator because he gave me the kind of interest I needed to write the novel. He made it possible for me to control it. He is an observer, but he is involved.

INTERVIEWER

For ten years or more it has been said in the United States that problems of race are an obsession of Negro writers, but that they have no place in literature. But how can a Negro writer avoid the problem of race?

WARREN

How can you expect a Southern Negro not to write about race, directly or indirectly, when you can’t find a Southern white man who can avoid it?

INTERVIEWER

I must say that it’s usually white Northerners who express a different opinion, though a few Negroes have been seduced by it. And they usually present their argument on aesthetic grounds.

WARREN

I’d like to add here something about the historical element which seems to me important for this general question. The Negro who is now writing protest qua protest strikes me as anachronistic. Protest qua protest denies the textures of life. The problem is to permit the fullest range of life into racial awareness. I don’t mean to imply that there’s nothing to protest about, but aside from the appropriate political, sociological, and journalistic concerns, the problem is to see the protest in its relation to other things. Race isn’t an isolated thing—I mean as it exists in the U.S.—it becomes a total symbolism for every kind of issue. They all flow into it—and out of it. Well, thank God. It gives a little variety to life. At the same time it proclaims the unity of life. You know the kind of person who puts on a certain expression and then talks about “solving” the race problem. Well, it’s the same kind of person and the same kind of expression you meet when you hear the phrase “solve the sex problem.” This may be a poor parallel, but it’s some kind of parallel. Basically the issue isn’t to “solve” the “race problem” or the “sex problem.” You don’t solve it, you just experience it. Appreciate it.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe that’s another version of William James’s “Moral Equivalent of War.” You argue and try to keep the argument clean, all the human complexities in view.

WARREN

What I’m trying to say is this. A few years ago I sat in a room with some right-thinking friends, the kind of people who think you look in the back of the book for every answer— attitude A for situation A, attitude B for situation B, and so on through the damned alphabet. It developed that they wanted a world where everything is exactly alike and everybody is exactly alike. They wanted a production belt of human faces and human attitudes, and the same books on every parlor table.

INTERVIEWER

Hell, who would want such a world?

WARREN

“Right-thinkers” want it, for one thing. I don’t want that kind of world. I want variety and pluralism—and appreciation. Appreciation in the context of some sort of justice and decency, and freedom of choice in conduct and personal life. I’d like a country in which there was a maximum of opportunity for any individual to discover his talents and develop his capacities—discover his fullest self and by so doing learn to respect other selves a little. Man is interesting in his differences. It’s all a question of what you make of the differences. I’m not for differences per se, but you just let the world live the differences, live them out, live them up, and see how things come out. But I feel pretty strongly about attempts to legislate undifference. That is just as much tyranny as trying to legislate difference. Apply that to any differences between healthy and unhealthy, criminal and noncriminal. Furthermore, you can’t legislate the future of anybody, in any direction. It’s not laws that are going to determine what our great-grandchildren feel or do. The tragedy of a big half of American liberalism is to try to legislate virtue. You can’t legislate virtue. You should simply try to establish conditions favorable for the growth of virtue. But that will never satisfy the bully-boys of virtue, the plug-uglies of virtue. They are interested in the production-belt stamp of virtue, attitude A in the back of the book, and not in establishing conditions of justice and decency in which human appreciation can find play.

Listen, I’ll tell you a story. More than twenty years ago I spent part of a summer in a little town in Louisiana, and like a good number of the population whiled away the afternoons by going to the local murder trials. One case involved an old Negro man who had shot a young Negro woman for talking meanness against his baby-girl daughter. He had shot the victim with both barrels of a twelve-gauge at a range of eight feet, while the victim was in a crap game. There were a dozen witnesses to the execution. Besides that he had sat for half an hour on a stump outside the door of the building where the crap game was going on, before he got down to business. He was waiting, because a friend had lost six dollars to the intended victim and had asked the old man to hold off till he had a chance to win it back. When the friend got the six dollars back, the old man went to work. He never denied what he had done. He explained it all very carefully, and why he had to do it. He loved his baby-girl daughter and there wasn’t anything else he could do. Then he would plead not guilty. But if he got tried and convicted—and they couldn’t fail to convict—he would get death. If, however, he would plead guilty to manslaughter, he could get off light. But he wouldn’t do it. He said he wasn’t guilty of anything. The whole town got involved in the thing. Well, they finally cracked him. He pleaded guilty and got off light. Everybody was glad, sure—they weren’t stuck with something, they could feel good and pretty virtuous. But they felt bad, too. Something had been lost, something a lot of them could appreciate. I used to think I’d try to make a story of this. But I never did. It was too complete, too self-fulfilling, as fact. But to get back to the old man. It took him three days to crack, and when he cracked he was nothing. Now we don’t approve of what he did—a status homicide the sociologists call it, and that is the worst sort of homicide, worse than homicide for gain, because status homicide is irrational, and you can’t make sense of it, and it is the mark of a low order of society. But because status homicide is the mark of a low order of society, what are we to think about the old man’s three-day struggle to keep his dignity? And are we to deny value to this dignity because of the way “they” live down there?

INTERVIEWER

You feel, then, that one of the great blocks in achieving serious fiction out of sad experience is the assumption that you’re on the right side?

WARREN

Once you start illustrating virtue as such you had better stop writing fiction. Do something else, like Y-work. Or join a committee. Your business as a writer is not to illustrate virtue, but to show how a fellow may move toward it—or away from it.

INTERVIEWER

Malraux says that “one cannot reveal the mystery of human beings in the form of a plea for the defense.”

WARREN

Or in the form of an indictment, either.

INTERVIEWER

What about the devil’s advocate?

WARREN

He can have a role, he can be Jonathan Swift or something.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder what these right-thinkers feel when they confront a Negro, say, the symbol of the underdog, and he turns out to be a son of a bitch. What do they do—hold a conference to decide how to treat him?

WARREN

They must sure have a problem.

INTERVIEWER

The same kind of people, they have to consult with themselves to determine if they can laugh at certain situations in which Negroes are involved—like minstrel shows. A whole world of purely American humor got lost in that shuffle, along with some good songs.

WARREN

It’s just goddamned hard, you have to admit, though, to sort out things that are symbolically charged. Sometimes the symbolic charge is so heavy you have a hard time getting at the real value really there. You always can, I guess, if the context is right. But hell, a lot of people can’t read a context.

INTERVIEWER

It’s like the problem of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

WARREN

Yes, suppress the play because it might offend a Jew. Or Oliver Twist. Well, such symbolic charges just have to be reckoned with and taken on their own terms and in their historical perspective. As a matter of fact, such symbolic charges are present, in one degree or another, in all relationships. They’re simply stepped up and specialized in certain historical and social situations. There are mighty few stories you can tell without offending somebody—without some implicit affront. The comic strip of Li’l Abner, for instance, must have made certain persons of what is called “Appalachian white” origin feel inferior and humiliated. There are degrees as well as differences in these things. Context is all. And a relatively pure heart. Relatively pure—for if you had a pure heart you wouldn’t be in the book-writing business in the first place. We’re stuck with it in ourselves—what we can write about, if anything; what you can make articulate; what voices you have in your insides and in your ear.

 

*Adam De Gurowski, 1805-1866, author of America and Europe (1857) and My Diary: Notes on the Civil War (1866), among other works.

 

Note: There is an integral relationship between this interview and the interview with Ralph Ellison which appeared in issue no. 8 of The Paris Review.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton