Overlooked Warren

English's Caspar examines great American author's later works

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren (1905-89) was one of America's most prolific men of letters, and its first poet laureate, but critics have often neglected his later works and focused more on his poetry or better-known fiction, says Prof. Emeritus Leonard Casper (English).

Casper offers a fresh appraisal of this overlooked period of Warren's career in his new book The Blood-Marriage of Earth and Sky: Robert Penn Warren's Later Novels . The book examines five novels written by Warren between 1959 and 1977 that Casper says build upon themes central to Warren's poetry and earlier novels, including his acclaimed 1946 book All the King's Men .

Those themes include a sense that all things are connected and a vision of the past as an ever-present force, says Casper, who broke ground 38 years ago with his critical analysis Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground , and considers his latest book the crowning achievement of his career as a Warren scholar.

"Through experiments with multiple narrators, stories within a story, and characters who seek to balance the needs for self-knowledge and for community, Warren enacted his own yearning for elusive wholeness," said Casper.

The 1959 novel The Cave is a story of the rescue of a man trapped in an underground cavern, told in part from the vantage of the man in the cave, and in part from that of family members trying to save him. "A community is drawn together to rescue the fellow in the cave," said Casper, "but what they're really involved in is rescuing themselves."

In the 1964 novel Flood , former residents return to a small town that is about to be flooded for a reservoir. "They are going to salvage what they can, but they are really there to dig into their past," said Casper, observing that in Warren's view of the world, "nothing is ever lost."

"It's as if Warren uses a Hubbell telescope to look into a past which is not so far away, refining the mirrors to look into inner space, not outer space," said Casper, who also offers his perspective on Warren's Wilderness , Meet Me in the Green Glen , and A Place to Come To .

Prof. Emeritus Leonard Casper (English).

An agrarian by philosophy, Warren regarded men as stewards of the land, defended the individual against concentrations of power in industry or government, and saw the extended family as the basis for community, according to Casper.

But if Warren described himself as "a yearner" and wrote of the interconnectedness between all things, Casper said, he remained an atheist in private life who could not accept the notion of a divine plan for nature - even as he seemed to argue for one in his writings.

Casper drew the title for his book from an early Warren poem, "Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth," in which a soaring hawk "served as a sort of eye of God" for the young poet.

"He was a yearner. He wanted to believe," said Casper. "But he was not sure there were any absolutes. He sees an interrelation between all things, even inanimate things: Some of his poems are about the movement of mountains. He talks about life forces, about the migration of animals and birds, with a yearning. He says, 'I'd like to think we're moving toward something, that there is a design for the universe - but I don't know. I don't know.'"

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