Born in 1905, Robert Penn Warren’s life spanned most of the twentieth century, and his work made him America’s foremost person of letters before his death in 1989. His literary prowess is evidenced by his many awards and honors that include three Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction and two for poetry, so that Warren remains the only writer to have won them in these two major categories. The first of Warren’s Pulitzers was for All the King’s Men (1946), his epic novel loosely based on the Huey Long era in 1930s Louisiana. Several critics have named it America’s finest political novel, and I agree as a Warren scholar myself. In fact, I often thought of Willie Stark, a fraudulent populist from an unnamed southern state at the center of Warren’s novel, during the election cycle of 2016.
Although Warren’s earlier recognition was largely in terms of his fiction, his later reputation is posited more often on his poetry and nonfiction. In the contexts of this later work, as well as of the recent election year, a more positive political text may be found in the expanded version of his 1974 NEH Jefferson Lecture for the Humanities published as Democracy and Poetry (1975). Rereading it in this historical moment, I was struck once more by Warren’s prescience concerning politics in America. He is willing to admit our political failures, including the then recent Watergate fiasco, yet he is still able to project a vision for the preservation of American democracy even in the face of future scandals and impeachments.
In his brief “Foreword” to Democracy and Poetry, Warren narrows the universal terms of his title and defines the relation of the self to its society. By democracy, he means the political balance of the individual and the state that has eventuated during American history. Poetry here refers to serious American literature, in prose as well as in verse, which connects the individual writer and the national readership within our literary heritage. Most of this prefatory matter considers a third definition though, that of selfhood. For real democracy and for meaningful literature, Warren believes that a fully developed individual is the prime necessity. In Warren’s view, this sort of evolved self must realize a felt principle of unity defined by personal responsibility exercised over time.
For real democracy and for meaningful literature, Warren believes that a fully developed individual is the prime necessity.
Warren divides his consideration of democracy and poetry into two sequential essays, “America and the Diminished Self” and “Poetry and Selfhood.” The first essay reviews the history of our creative literature as a harsh indictment of the successive failures that have plagued the American democratic experiment. Warren frames this literary critique as a diagnosis that sees the source of our national malaise in the stunting of individual development by our society. No one familiar with Warren’s fiction, poetry, or criticism would be surprised by this diagnosis; the body politic is corrupt in his novels, while in his poetry, the individual is restricted by social structures. In his literary and cultural criticism, Warren is drawn to earlier American writers and thinkers like himself.
Warren’s second essay, “Poetry and Selfhood,” is intended as therapeutic, and as autobiographical. He insists at the outset that “each of us must live his own life,” and as he extrapolates from his own knowledge, “perhaps I can find some echo in your experience.” For Warren, poetry—that is all serious literature generally—proves naturally democratic as diagnosis and therapy in regard to both the individual self and the social group. On the personal level, a work of the literary imagination may provide an image and an affirmation of selfhood for writer and for reader. These imaginative literary texts also organize and express the tensions between self and society, becoming a image, or “a dialectic of the social process” that may even affect social change, as with the literature of abolition in the nineteenth century or that of civil rights in the twentieth century.
At his conclusion, Warren reiterates, correctly I believe, that “the basis of our democracy is the conviction of the worth of the individual.” Certainly, he led his own life as a model and an assertion of his beliefs. Warren viewed the individuals he created from within and without, as separate selves struggling to define themselves against community and culture. In a way, Warren was his own best creation, projecting himself into the characters of his narratives and defining himself in the personae of his lyrics. As his literary canon developed over a long and distinguished career, Warren lived into what he called “the shadowy autobiography” found in his poetry and prose. Robert Penn Warren’s life and work, including Democracy and Poetry, thus provides a model of the sort of achieved selfhood and individuality that will be required of all to make democracy live through the troubling evolution of American politics in 2016 and beyond.
Featured image credit: “Robert Penn Warren birthplace museum historic marker” by Randy Pritchett. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.