undefinedSketch by Zubel Kachadoorian, 1957.

 

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?