Robert Penn Warren

On September 7, 1947, American poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren responds to a letter written him by Eric Bentley which inquired about themes that appear within Warren's works, specifically in the play "Proud Flesh". The original letter written by Bentley is also included here.

Letter from Robert Penn Warren to Eric Bentley (Page 1)

Page 1 of letter from Robert Penn Warren to Eric Bentley, September 7, 1947
Accession #2012MS192

Gambier, Ohio,

September 7, 1947.

Dear Eric:

I've been a damned poor correspondent lately, and I'm sorry. But I had a week, or nearly a week, down with a typhus reacction ( from shots ), then a series of visitors, including the Beaches ( I am happy to report ), then the last hurlyburly on whinding up here. We leave this week for Lake Placid, where Piscator and I go into a three-week huddle on the play.

 First cluster of questions: The Chorus says to Adam that the "common fulfilment unfathers pride." What I meant is this or something like this. Adam, according to the Chorus, has set himself up against man's natural comdition. Over against the "natural good" which the Chorus promises -- healing, rational society, etc. etc. -- Adam has his "idea" by which he would dictate the terms on which good can be done. The Chorus calls this pride (as Anne does ), and says to Adam: You are not different from the the Governor whom you condemn, yu are a man too, and that common condition should "unfather" your pride. Both of you are like the boulder ( the inanimate thing ) caught and shoved by the drive of the water ( though I don't mean this image to be taken as a mere equation of man-boulder -- a general image of the blind, driving natural process ). Hope ( ideas, values, etc. -- the thing you think you live by ) is double. On one hand, you believe it to be rarional, something you create and can justify by idea. But on the other hand, it is really a creation of the secret natural processes -- your "hope" is really determined by your physical make-up, your needs, etc. But that second face of hope is the thing you can't face. You look at your official ego-face in the mirror after your self-flattering dreams and speculations.

Next you ask about the moment-out-of-time for both Anne and Willie. Anne has acted in her affair with Willie in a double role. First, she has accepted his notion of action as self-just ifying in nature -- Willie's realpolitic. But again, she wants to get out of the clutter of time; if she can't make it by idea, Adam's way, she can try by some mysticism of intensity of action, here sexually presented, as a kind of inversion of Adam a view which has the same objective. As for Willie, he is man of action, the Boy the Chorus can approve of, the child of nature, until the end of the play, when he makes the speech about the deed in time (III-i ). To paraphrase: the deed ( any deed, Willie's own deeds ) performed ( plunged into time as distinguished from say the idea or intention perhaps prompting the deed ) loses its intention, becomes part of the natural drift (losts its intrinsic structure -- can be interpreted as pure nature by the indifferent light of a scientific view. Taken in history read that way any deed is just another chew which History gives its quid. But, Willie says, past the sh dder and spasm , man still wants ( as Willie now wants ) some conviction, some meaning. Therefore the

Letter from Robert Penn Warren to Eric Bentley (Page 2)

Page 2 of letter from Robert Penn Warren to Eric Bentley, September 7, 1947

deed must crystallize out ( like a salt from its solution ) and assume its proper form as idea, the intention has remained secretly part of the idea as the atoms of the salt in solution retain the pattern which they will present in the crystal.

II-iii-4: There is a typing error. It should read: "however infirm in time not in intensity."

Phrase "blindness of light" -- Back when Anne and Adam talk about the episode on the beach when they were growing up. The fishhawk rising into the sun had seemed an image for certainty, for idea, for absolute value, etc. But the eyes fixed on the sun is blinded. The blindness, as it were, is the indication of the intensity of light. Later Anne carries on the "intensity" notion -- a thing intense enough gets out of time. See remarks on Anne and Willie above. Of course, Anne is rather romantic, shall we say. She is willing to make the intensity the criterion, forgetting that the blindness is caused not by the light but by the defect of the eye. The perfect eye wouldn't be blinded by the perfect light.

The images of the chorus -- gun football, love, money, etc. Things the natural man lives by. The Chorus is willing to recognize the rightness of the policeman's love of speed and power ( motorcycle and revolver ), the athlete's skill and joy in competition; wants understands love and money, etc.

To turn your particular questions, I find that to answer them I have to say back to you much of what you have said in your essay, which does not do any wrong to my intenetions and which I think is a very masterly piece of exposition in brief. I'll take a crack, however, at answering the questions.

The general question: history. I don't mean to posit, necessarily, what you call a "timeless reals that objectively exists," though for purposes of poetic statement I see nothing wrong with so doing. I think that that reals exists in so far as man creates it, but it is not given. It refers to your "fixed human nature" in so far as without some conception of that realm man isn't human at all. Put it this way, to take another tack: an doesn't have his world until he can make a picture of it,and the picture is made ,material interpreted. I don't see, to answer your parenthetic question that this lands me in 18th century rationalism, and if it does I guess I have to take the consequences and say to hell with them.

On the question of the relation of time and no-time, history and idea, it seems to me that those are the poles of living. You can't make a neat picture of the business, and you can't say that you can live in one without the other. Man is comm tted to time, history, nature, etc., but if he is going to be a man he has also to recognize his commitment to no-time, idea, super-nature. He is committed to action (not only "naturally" but morally ), but at the same time if his action is to be meaningful it must be in terms of an idea. At the same time his idea is no good if it does not stem from action and does not accomodate the nature in which action occurs. In other words, he is caught between the frying pan and the fire, or wind and water. He never gets a perfect solution and he needn't expect one. But he is committed to the effort to get one. His story is alwasy that effort, if it is worth talling.


Letter from Robert Penn Warren to Eric Bentley (Page 3)

Page 3 of letter from Robert Penn Warren to Eric Bentley, September 7, 1947

You ask if there isn't a contradiction between the no-time stuff and the necessity for accepting the past as necessary to the creation of the future. I trust that I have answered this in the foregoing paragraph. They are opposites, true, but necessary opposites. For instance, the "reformer" who wants to wipe out the past , who wants to escape into the future, etc. throws away the material from which he must make that future. He has to get his good out of the past in so far as the past is the really human record. Hence the father stuff. Even the evil past in so far as it is human has to be accepted. Little Billie gets homesick in his way -- can't find himself in the country of no-time, the "West" where everybody is new and has no past and like the bad-man who goes to Texas leaves his crime behind him and takes a new name ( an no-name, no identity). Little Billie gets the hatchet because he doesn't understand why he comes home or understand his old man. But even Little Billie fulfills a human need. ( America can't get away from, say, Europe -- has to take the risks of coming home, etc. -- you can play the game a lot of ways. I meant Little Billie in one aspect to be the "pure" American -- the western man, who packs up and leaves and gets "natural" innocence -- losing self and continuity, dodging the issue. You see what I'm driving at. ) Jerry Calhoun is Little Billie the other way around. He leaves the old man and doesn't go West but goes out into the "West" of business, etc. He is finally driven home, too. But the father in this case is "good." As opposed to Bogan Murdock, he is not the abstract man, the exploter, the man with no self, no name.

As for definition, that I suppose is simply the personal application of the idea business, a conecption of role and obligation. I suppose that the nearest parallel to getting definition is a theological one -- getting saved, discovering the idea that redeems out of nature. As for the ideal being unattainable for humanity at large -- sure -- for everybody. But the commitment to make the try is there. Part of getting the definition is realizing that you don't get it by "joining" the right church or right party. You're on your own, buddy. You may join something, but the joining has to be a result, not a cause.

One general observation. I don't look upon poems or stories as in the narrow sense dramatized doctrine, with the solutions always neatly in place. In one sense, the poem or what have you is a way of plunging the idea, the doctrine, back into the withh's brew to see what you get, a kind od imaginative testing. Naturally every writer has ideas and at itudes (conscious or unconscious ) which come out in his work, but if he's doing his work right they look a lot different after he finishes his writing than they did when he started. I think a poem, etc. ought to be a focus for a kind of edperience rather than a blue-print of an idea. But it is a controlled focus.

To return to your essay. I think that it is a very careful and fair piece of exposition. The comments I have are very minor, or trivial. For instance, on page 2, the troops involved are National Guards, acting under the order of the Governorof a state and are not strictly speaking U.S. forces. (Though the U.S. incorporates the Guard into the regular army in time of war. ) Again, in the beginning, Bush directly referred to me and AKM here at Kenyon in his address. Since he made the direct attack, you might want to make your introducti n less indirect. Third, I don't know for certain that Bogart will do the film of AKM. I know that Rosson will direct it, but that is all I know for sure. As a general commend, having nothing to do with RPW, I think your idea of the naturalistic-symbolistic tie up is dead right. Guys like Bush read Zola's remarks and never , apparently, bothered the read any novels straight. This is a big general point and could take a lot of development somewhere with broad documentation. All I am saying is that you owe us another essay on this general point.

I wistfully say that I wish you had like Jack a little better. I didn't mean him to be merely a smart Alex, though with something of the smart Alec in the "old Burden". And I wish that his "style" had pleased you more. But this is a way of regretting that I didn't do better. I don't mean to imply that good intentions can do more than pave Hell.

I passed the essay over to John and Sutcliffe, and I suppose they have written you. Neither has ventured any comment to me on the essay as such.

I have done very lighttle on the play this summer. The text book has taken almost all my energy . But we go to Lake Placid, to Piscator's place,in a few days. He and I will settle down to make revisions. He has some very sweeping notions and I don't know where we shall come out. I'll probably be bothering you on the matter before long. Meanwhile, I have given a lot of thought to your past suggestions and those you passed on to me from W.C.Williams and Tate. I'll try to do something about the Chorus and shall try to simplify the poetic style. That much at least. Also put Sadie earlier in the play.

After Lake Placid we go South where I shall try to finish getting my stuff together for a new novel. Several weeks are due in libraries in Knetucky to mop up. I suppose we shall said in middle or later November. Meanwhile, my address for the rest of this month will be care of Erwin Piscator, Lake Placid. After that, care of Harcourt Brace.

I hope that you and Maya had a fine sumer, and I imagine you did. We are a little homesick for Minneapolis already. The teasing visit we got from Joseph and Dagmar put us in that mood. And this year I shall greatly miss the conversation with you. Write when you find time. Meanwhile, the best to you both from us.

As ever,


P.S. I hope that you can make sense of this hashy letter. I trust to your synpathetic eye.

Letter from Eric Bentley to Robert Penn Warren

Initial letter from Eric Bentley to Robert Penn Warren, September 7, 1947


It may be that many of the following problems would become clear to me as I re-read your works, but for now I'll just jot down the things that so far have not been quite clear: they are exclusively matters of idea and philosophy.

1. Tragic outlook and history. I think I get the main idea of the tragic outlook which sees society more or less time-lessly, society as battleground of ultimate moral problems. BUT how does this tie up with your conception of histori-cal development? I suppose you deny Progress in its usual sense. But what is it you do say about history? I recall a passage in Proud Flesh about history twitching in the dark house: what does that mean?

2. This query suggests another - about Time, which recurs as a topic in all your work. "We are in time" etc. What are you saying about time?

3. Politics. I understand your politics, I think, insofar as they are a critique of Henry Wallace idealism and cock-a-hoop democracy. But beyond that? Agrarianism? Regionalism?

4. Religion. Some critics have called you religious. Except that you are critical of Benthamistic optimism, I don't see it. Isn't it convenient to keep the word "religious" for a definitely supernaturalist creed? If so, I find nothing religi-ous in your work. I should classify its approach as utterly naturalistic, though critical of Victorian naturalism (i.e. you have dropped the hostility to religion of the atheistic mission-aries. You find in religion an important psychological and human (i.e. natural) content. But so do Freud and Mann and Ber-nard Shaw.)

5. Eschewing the popular dichotomies of our time, you have stated the human dilemma in terms of your own. For instance, "poised between 2 alarms...etc." But as yet I don't quite understand these terms. What are your dichotomies? "summer's wishes, autumn's wisdoms"? What do you mean by "new definition"?

It is rather horrid of me to confront you with this fearful questionnaire. My intention is not to corner you but to help myself to find clarity about your fundamental assumptions. It is a lot easier to read Ibsen when you know what he means by being "true to yourself etc", and I think I can give a better account of your work if I am less hazy about the ideological structure.

Do you perhaps have a bibliography made out for the Guggen-heim people or some such? I have no list of the various articles you have written, and I'd especially like to see the philosophical and political ones (I think I know your literary ideas.)