The literature of Robert Penn Warren and William Styron describes the decline of society, an annihilation of culture. It also projects a knowledge of the eternal struggle, forever bound by memory and the inherent yearning for a civilization that “is the refuge of sentiments and values, of spiritual congeniality, of belief in the word, of reverence for symbolism, whose existence haunts the nation.”
“We are a pair of moles burrowing away in the same direction.” —Ivan Turgenev to Gustave Flaubert, May 26, 1868
Robert Penn Warren and William Styron were friends for at least twenty and perhaps as many as thirty years. They celebrated this shared comity at every opportunity with good food, a postprandial libation (or two), and the intellectual introspection that is expected of the literati. They wove their friendship around and through their families, binding them together in a cheerful camaraderie whose joyful memories linger to this day. Beyond the fact that these men exhibited a decided literary genius, the single most important element of their friendship was, as William Styron said, “a commonality of interest in the sense that we were both from south of the Mason-Dixon line” (Allen). Theirs was a mutual understanding that even though a generation separated them, they shared a unique Southern historical and cultural heritage that resisted the assault of modernity. This heritage defined a “way of thinking,” a unique conservatism, that lay firmly rooted in feudalism, the code of chivalry, the ideal of the gentleman, and a particular religiousness that, according to Richard Weaver, “stands close to the historic religiousness of humanity. It is briefly, a sense of the inscrutable, which leaves one convinced of the existence of supernatural intelligence and power, and leads him to the acceptance of life as a mystery” (Southern Tradition 31-32).
Beyond this friendship, which enjoyed its share of tumult, Warren and Styron stayed true to their art. As Cleanth Brooks said in his book, The Hidden God, “The genuine artist presumably undertakes to set forth some vision of life—some imaginative apprehension of it which he hopes will engage our imagination. He gives us his own intuition—his own insight into the human situation.”* For Warren and Styron, both of whom were “genuine artists,” each with his distinctive style and force, the human condition represented not only disorder and anarchy, brought about by the exigencies of modernity, but also a search, sometimes sentimental, sometimes grotesque, for the restoration of the imagination.
While neither man claimed to be Christian, each may have been, as Flannery O’Connor once famously wrote, “Christ-haunted.” That is, being raised in the South, they were environmentally imbued with the Christian tradition and, at the least, found certain aspects of the sundry doctrines propitious. It is, I think, instructive that both men were raised in Presbyterian households and neither family was particularly “churchy,” as Warren once commented. Presbyterianism, at least its liberal version, had commenced the journey from ecclesial concerns to a more secular and intellectual worldview that reached its denouement with a successful effort to propel America into war with Germany in 1917 (See Gamble).
In the intellectual milieu in which they lived, Warren and Styron were constantly subjected to the ideologies and philosophies of their day: Marxism, liberalism, pragmatism, determinism, rationalism, and relativism. And, considering these perfervid and alluring influences, it is quite remarkable that both men succeeded to the extent they did in recognizing and denouncing the deadening effects of modernity, the ultimate achievement of which was to establish a sterile, atheistic, humanism, to purge the world of the core doctrines of Western civilization, and to recast the individual as a rational automaton—a being devoid of soul and moral imagination.
Warren and Styron, through their literary art, were among the vanguard of American intellectuals who examined the stultifying effects of an inflexible secular orthodoxy that required the “displacement of God” in man’s order of things and His replacement with the New Man. As Nietzsche illustrated, the “death of God” was required in order to bring forth the new man and free him from the bondage of two thousand years of Western culture, philosophy, and ethics. Man would thus be reduced to the nothingness of being, an entity defined by a materialistic and bourgeois society powered by the machine, technology, and technique (Tonsor 204-05). According to Cleanth Brooks, Warren “subjects the claims of twentieth-century man to the sternest testing and he is suspicious of the doctrine of progress and of the blandishments of utopianism” (99). For Styron, who was profoundly influenced by both William Faulkner and Warren, the problem was to develop his own style while retaining certain broad affinities with the men he admired. But his initial challenge with his first book, Lie Down in Darkness, was to examine the effects of modernity on the family. “I would also be able to anatomize bourgeois family life,” Styron wrote, “of the kind I knew so well, the WASP world of the modern urban South” (“Recollections”).
Although one is tempted to proclaim a Christian core at the center of their intellectual efforts, that is going a bit too far. Flannery O’Connor reminds us of the possibilities, the what-might-have-beens, when she writes that, “the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural” (146). For Red Warren and Bill Styron this would not do; they were far too pragmatic and rational. Still, the reader can find traces, perhaps a yearning, for that “older religiousness” that clung to them like a shadow on a summer’s day.
Two events proved particularly providential in Red Warren’s life. The first was when his ten-year-old brother, Tom, quite innocently, pitched a chunk of coal high over a nearby hedge. It happened to hit Red, who was lying on the grass on the others side, severely damaging his left eye (years later the eye would be surgically removed). Because of the injury he would have to give up his recent appointment to the United States Naval Academy and accept his second choice, Vanderbilt (Blotner 30).
During his freshman year (1921) the sixteen-year-old prodigy found Vanderbilt to his liking. One of his professors was the former Rhodes scholar John Crowe Ransom, and one of his earliest friends was Andrew Lytle. As the school year advanced, he lost the nickname “Rob” and gained the sobriquet, “Red.” His sophomore year he studied literature under Donald Davidson, who loaned Red and some of his other students a copy of a magazine that contained T.S. Eliot’s newly published poem, The Waste Land. Incredibly, Red memorized the entire poem and considered it a “watershed” of his literary life. Red Warren was profoundly influenced by the most scintillating and abstract criticism of modernity ever written (Blotner 31-35).
T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the ideogrammic method, that is he juxtaposed historic events and personal memories without providing any observable rhyme or reason. As Daniel Taylor observes: “[T]he reader is invited not to receive a predigested message but to participate in the creation of meaning” (42). Eliot’s poem is a critique of modernity’s decadence, its spiritual ennui, and cultural emptiness accomplished by mining historical consciousness and refusing to pander to the “scientific worldview.” Cleanth Brooks thought that the poem was a “unified whole” in which the various historic recollections provided a solid construction and an understanding of the poet’s intention. Given Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, five years after the poem was published, his Tory affiliations, Monarchist inclinations, and prose writings, which stoutly defended not only the faith but Western culture as well, it is obvious that Eliot rejected modernity’s dehumanizing and deleterious effects on mankind (Williamson 214-15).
As a rational, pragmatic intellectual, Warren believed that the quest for truth was predicated on the need not only to understand the past, but to accept it as well. This “historical consciousness” was tied directly to his Southern origins, where men are raised on stories and anecdotes about their ancestors and neighbors, about their county, village, and state. The stories were a source of enjoyment for him. Growing up in a border state (Kentucky), he took a certain pride in knowing that his kith and kin were a hard-boned, straight-backed, and fiercely independent people. Red’s grandfathers, Gabriel Penn and William Henry Harrison Warren, Jr., both served under the illustrious Bedford Nathan Forrest during the War Between the States.
Back at Vanderbilt for his junior year, Red was now fully involved with the Fugitives, a group of poetry aficionados that was initially composed “of Southernized Jews and art-minded Gentiles.” Red’s education at Vanderbilt was a very good one; his education with the Fugitives was sublime. Soon they published a magazine, The Fugitive, and he was listed as one of the sixteen editors. He was eighteen years old (Blotner 140-45). In 1930, after matriculating at Oxford for his B.Litt. degree, Warren received an invitation from his mentor, John Crowe Ransom, to write an essay on “ruralism as the salvation of the Negro.” Ransom and David- son were putting together a group of twelve essays, in a book to be titled I’ll Take My Stand. Fugitives wrote four of the essays, with the balance written by Southern intellectuals who’d witnessed the adverse impact of industrialism and modernity on culture and hoped to spark a return to agrarianism in the South. However, their primary concern was that “industrialism” would be wedded to a virulent and pernicious statism that would together implement “the same economic system as that imposed by violence upon Russia in 1917.” Davidson wanted Warren to write “an essay on the Negro,” to “prove that Negroes are country folks—‘bawn and bred in the briar-patch.’” He accepted ( Blotner 105 and Winchell 285).
Warren’s thesis, in his essay “The Briar Patch,” was quite simple and mirrored the position of the vast majority of the white America, circa 1930—that negroes should, indeed must, have the same opportunity for “equality” as whites, that they were “different but equal.” He agreed with Booker T. Washington when Washington said, “that any man, regardless of color, will be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well—learns to do it better than some one else—however humble that thing may be” (See Warren “Briar Patch” 250).
Admitting a lack of “justice” in the South Warren writes: “It will be a happy day for the South when no court discriminates in its dealings between the negro and the white man”(252). He explains why “industrialization” was taking place in the South, “The factory may have come to be near its requisite raw materials, but it has also come to profit from the cheap labor, black and white, which is to be had there.” He goes on to argue that the negro’s “mere presence is a tacit threat against the demands which white labor may later make of the factory owner” (256). Many Southerners must have seen Warren as radical in calling for negroes to be admitted to labor unions rather than serving as perpetual scabs during strikes. For Warren, however, there was only one way out of the racial calamity besetting the South (not to mention the North) and that was that the “white workman must learn, and his education may be as long and laborious as the negro’s, . . . that he may respect himself as a white man, but, if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man” (260).
Warren saw a possible solution to the racial dilemma not in the “industrialization” of the negro but in his finding a place in the small town and rural environment where, with the “poor white man,” his hope for inclusion and equality might come to fruition. In the end Warren makes a prescient statement: “If the Southern white man feels that the agrarian life has a certain irreplaceable value in his society, and if he hopes to maintain its integrity in the face of industrialism or its dignity in the face of agricultural depression, he must find a place for the negro in his scheme.” He concludes with the pithy metaphor, “Let the negro sit beneath his own vine and fig tree. The relation of the two [races] will not immediately escape friction and difference, but there is no reason to despair of their fate” (264).
Perhaps Warren’s most significant achievement in “The Briar Patch” was his recognition of one of the most important causes for prejudice in the South—Reconstruction. Following the War Between the States, Reconstruction brought forth a federal army of occupation and a train of scalawags and carpetbaggers; the newly freed slave was their pawn, and they played him mercilessly. Blacks benefited from newly acquired voting rights while the Confederate veteran found himself disenfranchised. Blacks were voted in and the white man took his place at the back of the line. The white Southerner would not forget. The negro “sadly mort- gaged his best immediate capital,” Warren wrote; “. . . that capital was the confidence of the Southern white man with whom he had to live. . . . Reconstruction badly impaired the white man’s respect and gratitude. The rehabilitation of the white man’s confidence for the negro is part of the Southern white man’s story since 1880” (248). In the end “The Briar Patch” became something of a millstone around Warren‘s neck. He abandoned his segregationist views, embraced integration, and proclaimed rather loudly his affection for and agreement with the Civil Rights Movement in general and Martin Luther King in particular. As Red’s daughter, Rosanna observed, Robert Penn Warren “grew” (telephone interview).
Like all good writers, William Styron was an omnivorous reader, a habit he picked up when he enrolled in English 103, taught by Professor William Blackburn, late of the faculty of Duke University. Blackburn and Styron shared similar personality traits. They were “reserved and distant,” and yet, through the talent displayed by the student and the teacher’s ability to recognize and draw out that talent, the two assumed the role of mentor and pupil. Professor Blackburn’s great gift to his fledgling freshman writer was the admonition that if he wanted to write, he must first read. Styron, to his credit, did just that, filling his mind with the classics: Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, the Russians, Conrad, Shakespeare, and the Elizabethans. Styron’s success is rooted in the wisdom of this gentle Duke University professor (See West 93-109).
William Styron was as good a non-fiction writer as he was a novelist and storyteller. His essay on William Faulkner’s funeral is written with a decided panache, conjuring a magic and mystery that draws the reader not only into Faulkner’s private chambers but also into his family and life. Styron’s moving and eloquent description of the great writer’s funeral cortege, where white and negro “stand watching the procession in the blazing heat, in rows and groups and clusters, on all sides of the courthouse and along the sidewalks in front of Grundy’s Café and Earl Fudge’s Grocery and the Rebel Food Center,” is given a decidedly Southern twist that Faulkner himself would have enjoyed, when Styron adds the aside of a native commentator: “But funerals are a big thing around here. Let the Baptist deacon die and you’ll really get a turnout” (Quiet Dust 261-62).
Styron’s essay on the death of his friend and fellow novelist, James Jones, a Midwesterner, sounds an elegiacal lament that discloses the writer’s overwhelming grief; his loss becomes the reader’s loss. “You were the most American writer of your generation,” Styron wrote in tribute and in love (Quiet Dust 269). He recalled that they shared the great question, “What does it all mean?” both in ribald humor and in the earnest, nearly monish quest, for a solution to a mystery already revealed. Styron’s grief upon visiting his friend at the hour of his death is simple, facile, and profound: “So, Jim, you found me out-weeping for you in Mrs. Charlotte Ford Forstmann’s elevator (Quiet Dust 268).
In late December of 1947, with the snow pounding against the basement windows of his Lexington Avenue apartment in New York and the ice covering street and stoop, William Styron, a “penniless” would-be writer, sat down to read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men; it was Styron’s epiphany. “The book itself,” he wrote, “was a revelation and gave me a shock to brain and spine like a freshet of icy water. I had of course read many novels before, including many of the greatest, but this powerful and complex story embedded in prose of such fire and masterful imagery—this, I thought with growing wonder, this was what a novel was all about, this was it, the bright book of life, what writing was supposed to be” (Quiet Dust 247). Warren’s book propelled Styron to the typewriter to begin his career, “I began my first novel before that snow had melted; it is a book called Lie Down in Darkness, and in tone and style, as any fool can see, it is profoundly indebted to the work which so ravished my heart and mind during that long snowfall” (Quiet Dust 247-48).
William Styron and Robert Penn Warren met at the house of Van Wyck Brooks in Bridgewater, Connecticut either in 1958 or 1959. There, friendship was “immediate” and pleasing. “He was everything I expected him to be,” Styron said. “He was friendly, and outgoing and responsive and generous” (Allen). The friendship blossomed, and often when one or the other was enjoying a European vacation they exchanged letters. At the end of July, 1962, Styron sent Warren, who was vacationing with his family at Saint-Jean- de-Luz in the south of France, his account of William Faulkner’s death. The essay had been commissioned by Life and had appeared in the July 20 issue. It was titled “As He Lay Dead, a Bitter Grief.” “Thanks for the letter and article,” Warren wrote in reply, “Your piece on Faulkner was extremely effective. A difficult thing, very well done. It has been circulated a little by hand here, and well received” (Duke, Sept. 1, 1962).
Warren was home by the first of the new year, and on January 21, 1963, he wrote Styron that if he “had no objections,” he would propose him for membership in the Institute of Arts and Letters. Apparently, this was an effort on Warren’s part to boost the literary prestige of his friend. However, something went amiss, and there seems to have been some hesitancy on the part of the Institute concerning Styron’s proposed membership. “I honestly don’t think the ‘rejection’ is ‘embarrassing,’” Warren wrote to Styron on February 12, 1965, “though it made me God-damned sore. . . . I’m going to insist—or someone else will, whether you know it or not—on going ahead. Then you can do what Sinclair Lewis did, decline. Also, its [the institute] not entirely filled with shit-heels, broke-down book-reviewers, puff-artists, and hatchet-men” (Duke, Feb. 12, 1965).
In August of 1966, this time vacationing in France on the isle of Port Cros and in the company of novelist Shirley Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, Warren sent Styron a chatty letter and a new poem, “Internal Injuries.” The poem, realistic and powerful, tells the story of an elderly black woman struck down by a car. In a postscript Warren says, “I am sticking in a poem done this spring and summer, in the hope that you find it interesting. I am not setting up as the bard of the CR (Civil Rights) movement. This poem isn’t even about that” (Duke, August 13, 1966).
A few months later, after he’d moved the family to Magagnosc, Warren penned a particularly moving letter to Styron and his wife: “You two—Bill and Rose—have made me very happy—not for the first time, I may say, and not only in the way I am about to describe—by being so kind about my poems, you, Bill about “Internal Injuries” and you, Rose about the book. There’s nobody I’d rather have such kind words from, and I keep telling myself that you are both monuments of integrity and would make Cordelia sound like a flatterer. But I know, in my heart of hearts you are kind, too.” He continues, switching to a favorite subject:
It is great news, Bill, that Nat [Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner] is turning into the home stretch. Everything is right for this book, chiefly you, but it is the right moment historically, the right moment in your career, and the right literary context, by which I mean that nothing remotely like it , in material or method, is around, it will seem fresh, not a bit like Naked Lunch, or The Group, or American Dream or—to refer to the work of a real writer for a change—Herzog. Get it done. For one thing, I want to read it. (Duke, Nov. 28, 1966)
On February 16, 1967, Warren wrote to Styron that he’d just returned from giving a lecture at the University of Freiburg (Germany) and told him of meeting “an American named Rattner” who was writing a book about him and was holding up publication until The Confessions of Nat Turner was published. “Half the people I met at Freiburg asked about your work and you, student and profs,” Red wrote, “There’s a big back log of expectation for you and Nat” (Feb. 16, 1967). Late in March the two families rendezvoused in Cairo where the required lectures and readings were given at the American University. Then, with their obligations met, they journeyed on a wonderful trip up the Nile. “Fighting fleas and gnats and drinking literally tank cars full of Evian water,” Bill Styron said. “And plus a little whiskey on the side” (Blotner 371, Allen).
Upon his return home, Styron sent Warren a copy of his Confessions of Nat Turner as soon as it became available. On June 8, while continuing at Magagnosc, Warren wrote his personal review for the author:
Last night I finished Nat. It is terrific! I lay awake in the night thinking about it—a great experience. The book has the real paradoxical qualities of tragedy in it—that mixture of simplicity and innocence on one hand and depth of subtle implication on the other. And the narrative drive is irresistible—simple thrust of action with the delicate pauses, shifts, delays, and moments of inwardness. It is remarkable how you make the inwardness of Nat become, in itself, a matter of suspense, an integral part of the action and the thrust. There are dozens of great moments. The new sense of Travis that Nat has at the moment he sees the face for the first time—the moment before the murder. The death of the girl is so bold and moving and simple—a stroke of genius. (You’ll catch a little hell from some quarters about the girl motif—but shit on ‘em.) The final effect, the very end of the book couldn’t be better. Everything pays off. That last bit about Mark—a fine stroke, it opens the book to a new feeling outside of Nat’s involutions.
Warren was not only delighted with the book but with the author as well: “Bill, I’m so proud of you, and no crap. You have done it. Anybody who starts talking about the death of the novel now is going to be out on a limb. One more thing, this book has a certain scale and dimension of human feeling, a sense of the significance of experience as something different from scab-scratching—it’s a new kind of novel, for our period, I mean” (Duke, June 8, 1967).
The Confessions of Nat Turner was not met with universal approbation. The most serious attack was launched in a book titled William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond published in August, 1968. “To anyone educated to observe basic standards of logic and decorum,” Styron’s biographer, James West III wrote, “Ten Black Writers is an appallingly poor performance. Many of the essays are based on shaky scholarship, and most are flawed by emotionalism, some of it theatrical” (386). “Theatrical” or not, Ten Black Writers produced enough heat to get certain tentative, one might say intimidated, critics to retract their positive reviews of Styron’s Nat Turner. However, Red Warren was not on the sidelines. “Thanks for the mare’s nest of a book by the Black Power people on Nat,” he wrote on August 20. “It is a mare’s nest. Of illogic, anguish, and God knows what else” (Duke, August 20, 1968).
The literary and sociological war over Nat Turner reached its denouement on November 6, 1968, when Styron appeared on a panel at the Southern Historical Association meeting held in New Orleans. Alongside him were his friends, Red Warren, and the famous black writer, Ralph Ellison. C. Van Woodward acted as moderator. Each gave a talk about the relationship of history and literature and then “offered further comments, most of them centering on The Confessions of Nat Turner.” During the question and answer period a Black activist who’d questioned him during a similar gathering in Massachusetts the past summer confronted Styron. The confrontation was heated and insulting and in the end Styron said, “We’re at an impasse, my friend.” Following the Southern Historical Association meeting Styron withdrew, for a time, from the public square (West 393-95).
During the 1960s the Styrons often traveled to Warren’s home in West Wardsboro, Vermont. There they would visit for a weekend and, on some occasions, a week. Neither man skied, so they traveled by snowshoe and spent hours by the fire (Warren took a certain pleasure in “getting in the wood” at his Vermont home) talking and imbibing. Styron has admitted abusing the hair-of-the-dog but declared he was no alcoholic. Warren drank as well, but the novelist Shirley Hazzard said that in all the years she knew him she never saw him drunk: “He never, never was out of control in any way” (Hazzard).
The Warren/Styron friendship, and particularly the friendship between the families, suffered a severe setback some time in the late 1970s. The Warrens gave annual parties, usually a couple of weeks before Christmas. These were black tie affairs, and Warren reveled in the wine, music, and good company. One such occasion included a wide range of friends from academia and the literary world—notable writers, poets, editors, and publishers. Bill Styron happened to be at one end of the dinner table among a group of guests, including Harold Bloom. Bloom “was telling everyone within hearing that Warren should quit writing novels and stick to poetry. The novels were not very good and the poetry was good.” Styron considered Bloom to be “terribly rude to say such things at the host’s dinner table” and he rose to Warren’s defense, “just as loud and direct as [Bloom] had been” (Hackney).
Apparently, some time after this clash, Styron was conversing with Albert Erskine’s wife, Marisa. They were talking about his latest novel, soon to be published, Sophie’s Choice. During the conversation Bloom walked over to Styron to engage him in conversation, but Styron refused to be interrupted and continued to talk with Mrs. Erskine. After a few moments, Bloom left the table and “went upstairs.” Mrs. Erskine, who must not have heard the earlier confrontation said: “I don’t think anyone at the table even noticed” (Erskine). The only mention of this fracture in Blotner’s biography of Warren reads: “But after a time, to Styron’s great sadness, the two couples no longer saw each other. Bill thought [that Red’s wife] Eleanor had been offended somehow and that they had been walled out” (410).
The incident may reveal Bloom’s affection and admiration for Warren. Perhaps he made his comments in the hope of persuading Warren to pursue what he considered a more advantageous course at this stage of his career. While we may question his method, speaking at the dinner table before a group of guests rather than privately with Warren, there is no question of Bloom’s fondness for Warren. Likewise, Styron’s defense of his old friend mirrors a distinctly Southern cultural trait, the ideal of the “gentleman,” and reveals a close and enduring friendship that had a profound effect upon the lives and the art of both men.
Friends and family members have said that the two men continued their friendship, but Warren’s letters sent to Styron located in the Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Library stop after a letter dated, May 27, 1979. The letter itself may reveal the year of the contretemps:
I am delighted to see the start that your book [Sophie’s Choice] is getting, and I know that this is only the beginning. I am, God knows, not surprised, for long back I became convinced that you belong in only one place—the top bracket of the American writers of our time. But enough of that. You know what I think, anyway. But “of our time” may turn out to be only a minimum….But the fact that we can’t come to your party of celebration arises from something else. I seem to have a slight infection of the bladder (as I had once years ago), and that means no alcohol and early to bed for a month or so.
For the “real” Southerner, at least that Southerner of an aesthetic, historical, or literary bent, there are two underlying themes related to the nature of man. Richard Weaver brilliantly illustrated these themes in his seminal study, The Southern Tradition at Bay. The first is the idea of self-denial, gleaned from a remembered history that included the sacrifice and suffering of total war and the obliteration of the Southern homeland. It must be remembered that the Southern people struggled through a prolonged period of self-restoration that required a sacrifice and a self-denial that carried with it the marks of redemption. The second is tragedy, that fundamental component that links intellect to spirit, providing an opportunity truly to accept nature and live in the mystery of God.
William Styron was a humanist, absorbed in his own time and place, which was not meant to detract from his literary art or his mastery of language. Styron’s concern was with social justice, arising from his Southern roots, its associated racial guilt, and his appreciation for the Greek concept of tragedy—all themes that mirror the “unsentimental sentiments” of Southern culture. He was present during the faux-revolution of the New Left celebrated on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, visited the Soviet Union in 1968, and served as a witness for Abbie Hoffman during the trial for the Chicago 7 (West 389-91, 395).
Eschewing Christianity, Styron’s intellectual roots can be traced to the skepticism of certain Southern aristocrats following the French Revolution. Jefferson with his Deism and rationalism is the best example but this skepticism also flourished among a small coterie of the wealthy and educated until 1830 (See Weaver 91-92). Avoiding Faulkner’s recognition of the South’s “older religiousness,” Styron, then, was condemned to follow the well-worn path of his Northern, nihilistic, literary contemporaries in a poignant and relentless search for “the meaning of man.” It is a search that has produced a plethora of literary characters, victims of a bourgeois, technological society that has cast God aside and conjured a convoluted order that “transcends a providentially ordered history” (Tonsor 204).
Red Warren too, shared in the great metaphysical quest. At the age of seventy-five Red was “willing to tackle some of the eternal questions,” and provide some insight into his thoughts, “‘I think a man just dies,’ he says, “No heaven, No hell…I’m a naturalist. I don’t believe in God. But I want to find meaning in life” (Blotner 450). Red’s daughter, Rosanna, relates a hearfelt observation she made as a young adult: “I was so aware of these great dark spaces that Pa had inside him, his melancholia.” She recalls her father’s denunciation of Emerson (“that optimism that he thought cut against reality”) and his ambivalence toward “‘that very old God,’ an Old Testament God he hates but respects” (Blotner 373). And she remembers one of her father’s favorite phrases, “Original Sin.” It was a term she heard over and over again, “That was pounded into my ears. He was constantly joking about it, but it meant he believed in it.”
Warren’s genius is his acceptance of “Original Sin.” How else can man begin to define himself, to know the essential nature of his own being? Cleanth Brooks said, “Dedication to his art . . . would not necessarily bring the artist to Christianity. It would be foolish to claim that. But dedication to his art may well protect the artist from some of the deceptions endemic to our time” (99). Warren, then, knew and wrote of modernity’s decline. He weighed his time and found it wanting. He was born and raised in an era when the “Christian component” played a very real part in the drama of mankind; he experienced, first hand, the sentiments of the South. As he went through his life, that component began to unravel–the transcendentals were mocked, belittled, and extirpated. Man was left to rationalize and reorder the modern world, to “desacralize time” which resulted in an end- less and purposeless cycle, the “abomination of desolation.”
Both Warren and Styron are the products of what Weaver called “the last non-materialist civilization of the Western World,” the American South. Their literature—their art—describe the decline of society, an annihilation of culture. It also projects a knowledge of the eternal struggle, forever bound by memory and the inherent yearning for a civilization that “is the refuge of sentiments and values, of spiritual congeniality, of belief in the word, of reverence for symbolism, whose existence haunts the nation” (Southern Tradition 275).
Republished with gracious permission from the author.
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*From a collection of twenty-seven letters and poems sent by Robert Penn Warren to William Styron, which are housed at the Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. These will be cited parenthetically in the text by date.
Allen, Susan. Interview with William Styron. May 5, 1980.
Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.
Brooks, Cleanth. The Hidden God: Studies in Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.
Erskine, Marisa. Personal interview. Sept. 12, 2005.
Gamble, Richard. The War for Righteousness. Wilmington Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003.
Hackney, Sheldon. Personal interview, Sept. 25, 2005.
Hazzard, Shirley. Telephone interview with the Author. August 16, 2005.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1974.
Styron, William. “Recollections of a Once Timid Novelist.” Hartford Courant. Jan. 3, 1992.
—.This Quiet Dust. New York: Random House, 1982.
Taylor, Daniel. “Living with the Big Poem.” Books and Culture: A Christian Review. September 2005: 42-43.
Tonsor, Stephen. Equality, Decadence, and Modernity. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005.
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