Robert Penn Warren and the History of Criticism

Originally delivered as a paper at the inaugural conference of the American Literary Association in San Diego in 1990. Subsequently published in the Midwest Quarterly 34 (Summer 1993): 369-82. © 1993. All rights reserved.

For the most part, Robert Penn Warren has been left out of recent histories of American criticism. "Warren wrote only a small amount of criticism independently," Grant Webster observes.[1] And by this measure Warren probably is not a very important critic. In a comprehensive survey of a half-century of American criticism, Vincent B. Leitch does not even list Warren among the "major critics associated with New Criticism"; he comes up, in Leitch’s pages, merely as a coeditor of the Southern Review or coauthor of Understanding Poetry. As his own man, Warren fails to appear. He isn’t even mentioned among independent figures like Hugh Kenner, Harry Levin, and Helen Vendler, to whom Leitch assigns only marginal roles.[2] And this treatment is characteristic. Although his essays have received respectful (if scattered) attention, students of criticism and theory know Warren only as the Fletcher to Cleanth Brooks’s Beaumont. Otherwise he is merely a familiar name whose connections with the New Criticism suggest just how far the movement had insinuated itself into the literary life of midcentury.

Perhaps it would be well to take another look. The publication of his New and Selected Essays in 1989, followed sadly by his death the same year, provides an occasion to reassess Warren as a critic. And what is more, any such reassessment is likely to provoke reflection upon just what manner of history it is that leaves him out. My intention is not, however, to summarize Warren’s critical career, to weigh his opinions, compare him to contemporary rivals, or set forth his leading ideas. All that has been done before, in fine essays by Frederick P. W. McDowell, John Hicks, James H. Justus, Louis Rubin, Jr., William Bedford Clark, and Monroe K. Spears.[3] In this essay I propose instead to do three things. First, I shall characterize the prevailing climate of opinion about the history of criticism in this country, and try to explain why Warren seems so largely irrelevant to it. Second, I shall give Warren himself the chance to exhibit what in one writer’s hands criticism (whether historiographed or not) might be. And third, I shall draw some conclusions about how the history of criticism must be reconceived in order to make room for the kind of criticism that Warren exhibits.


When we see what literary criticism has in our day become, and cast about for an explanation of how it got to be this way, we are driven to conclude that gradually, over the course of many years, criticism has developed into a special activity with a special idiom—it has slowly been coming of age. And something like this is the dominant interpretation of its history at present. In the standard treatment, criticism is recognized as an institutional practice (that is, a profession), the official name on the charter of the academic study of literature. From this view, criticism is seen to display the marks of professionalization: its function has become increasingly specialized and narrow, and it has come to seem increasingly foreign to outsiders; its practitioners share a common education; they have created bodies of specialized knowledge; and they preside over classes of the unknowledgeable. Thus criticism (in this analysis) depends for its practice both on a literature of interest only to specialists and on membership in a professional guild. Criticism is, in short, merely a form of marketable expertise.

It is easy to imagine how, once established as the cause of American criticism’s development, this analysis predetermines Robert Penn Warren’s place in the story. In The Critical Twilight, for instance, John Fekete argues that John Crowe Ransom contributed to the professionalization of the discipline in a way that Warren did not. It was Ransom, Fekete says, who navigated the transition of American criticism to "a new social location"; it was Ransom "who prepared and operated the transition to a new corporate accommodation."[4] But even on Warren’s own scale there is a similar explanation for Warren’s neglect. The history of nineteenth-century poetics was, for Warren, a movement from Wordsworth’s "revolutionary view" to Hardy’s near nihilism. In between came Arnold and Tennyson: "though not revolutionists themselves," Warren says in New and Selected Essays, theyare much more profoundly stirred by the revolutionary situation than ever Wordsworth was; that is, the area of the world involved in the debate was for them greater. Institutions are called into question in a more fundamental way. But they managed to hang on to their English God and their English institutions. With Hardy, the area of disturbance has grown greater, and what can be salvaged is much less.[5]As a critic, Warren is the same sort of in-between figure he describes Arnold and Tennyson as being. He is not one of the major critics associated with the New Criticism, although not for the reasons usually given. The problem involved in classifying him as a New Critic is not, as commentators have argued, that Warren never worked out a system of criticism or that, on closer examination, he turns out to be not much of a New Critic after all. The problem is simply that Warren was never in the vanguard of the revolution that sought a "new social location" and a "new corporate accommodation" for what Ransom designated Criticism, Inc. Although as coauthor of Understanding Poetry he can claim some credit for the New Critical revolution’s most significant accomplishment—the shift in classroom teaching from background information about poetry to the "poem in itself"—his contribution is usually assimilated to that of Cleanth Brooks’s. Writing independently, Warren never came up with anything like "the heresy of paraphrase," "the core of meaning and the tissue of irrelevance," "the intentional fallacy," or "tension in poetry"; he contrived none of the doctrines that, glibly recited, seems to characterize the New Critical movement. And the history of criticism (in its present form) is just this history of doctrines and movements, and little more.

In short, Warren was not one of the principal representatives of criticism as a professional activity. He didn’t enjoy writing criticism, he said, and the claims he made for it were modest. Of course, like the principal representatives Warren found accommodation in the university. And though he may have had his doubts about textbooks and teaching, he hung on to them. In this sense he can be said to have contributed to what in Professing Literature Gerald Graff calls the routinization of academic criticism,[6] even though for Warren the area of the world involved in the study of literature may have been greater than for the first revolutionists. In our day "the area of disturbance has grown greater, and what can be salvaged is much less." For the various strategists who are occasionally banded together as revisionist critics, the real enemies are those who first institutionalized criticism as an academic practice, creating a belletristic elite, restricting the literary canon to their own kind, and spreading modern inequality. A second-best critic, who at worst routinized (in his own words) "the risk of his sensibility and his logic in making a reading" of a work of literature now and then, is not worth getting worked up over. If the history of criticism in America is the Whiggish account of its developing professionalization, then Warren is undeniably a historically insignificant figure.

And yet we must distinguish a profession from a mode of human activity. There are differences between reading a poem aloud in class and reading the charges against an accused in court which are not accounted for by the differences in institutional setting where each occurs. There are also logical differences; and it does not matter very much if these precede the maturity of the profession in which they are embodied, or if they derive from it; for they are differences in kind. In plain fact, it is possible to distinguish professions—say, medicine and dentistry—which are not sharply distinguishable in regard to the kind of activities performed by each. And it is likewise possible to discern separate activities which are carried out within the same profession, as when doctors prescribe treatment and when they tell you where they earned their degrees.

The unavoidable conclusion is that to describe literary criticism as a profession is not to distinguish it from other things that human beings do. But Robert Penn Warren exhibits criticism in its condition of a logically distinguishable mode of human activity.


In "Why Do We Read Fiction?," reprinted in the New and Selected Essays, Warren points out that most sophisticated readers play "a deep double game" with themselves when they read fiction. One part of them thrills and delights in the imaginative reenactment of a story; but another part "holds aloof to respond, interpret, and judge" (NSE 58). By this initial showing, then, it would seem that criticism is a compound of two activities: (1) reading and (2) interpreting and judging. But it would also seem that his "deep double game" is a frequent and unastonishing event in daily life; there is nothing here to set it apart as a special practice with special characteristics. For, as Warren observes, even naive readers of fiction, identifying with heroes and grieving at their deaths, play the double game—although such readers are probably unaware that identification and grief are separate activities. What this account also implies, however, is that there is a logical distinction between reading and criticism, between imaginative reenactment on the one hand and interpretation and judgment on the other. The implication would seem to be that there are many sorts of readers, and many of them even interpret and judge what they read. Literary critics (if they are any different) would have to differentiate themselves by reading expressly to interpret and to judge, and never doing anything but.

What is more, it would appear to follow on this account that criticism, the activity of interpretation and judgment, is a manner of attending to written texts which has moved as far as practicable from the naive tendency to identify with them—or what undergraduates like to call "relating to" them. This does not mean, for Warren, that the critic can ever hope to view the text as existing independently of himself; or that, as a consequence, the text can have what we would now call a determinate meaning. “[T]here is not, and should not be,” he says, “an ultimate ‘reading,’ a final word and orthodoxy of interpretation” (NSE 189). Criticism does not seek to relate literary texts to the self; its attitude is not one of identification. And for Warren this means that the first characteristic of a literary work is that it is "a little world that comes to us as complete—as a microcosm, we may say, of the greater world and its history" (NSE 158).

At this point it may be objected that I am making Warren out to sound like something he was not: a devotee of art for art’s sake. Monroe K. Spears protests that "Warren has always been mainly a moral-philosophical critic," and as such "the aesthetic criterion was never primary in Warren’s mind." His best work is "about as far from . . . aestheticism as it is possible to get."[7] And surely this is correct. For Warren, the work of literature does not remove itself from life and retire to a separate realm. As he declares in his most important essay, "Pure and Impure Poetry," "[N]othing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry" (NSE 24). Yet it may be worth pausing for a moment to ponder the use of that word legislated. For it appears not merely that Warren declines the role of lawgiver in his criticism; by his exhibition, it would appear that no such role is even open to the critic. The critic is concerned not with legislation but with logic. In characterizing the work of literature as "a little world complete," what Warren postulates is not a doctrine of autonomy but the property of coherence.

The first characteristic of a literary text is that it comes to us complete—which is to say, coherent. But it is not axiomatic that all texts will disclose this property. For Warren, coherence is a characteristic of literary texts that must be achieved. Such is the basis of his criticism of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for instance. Warren concludes that "Twain had not systematically thought through the issues of his world, or his own attitudes, and he did not grasp, or did not wish to grasp, the implications of his own tale" (NSE 133). The result was a novel brokenbacked by "logical confusions" (134). What we seek from a literary text when we read critics, then, is a systematic thinking through, a lack of confusion, a coherence. "[M]y own experience of literature," Warren observes in an essay printed in his earlier Selected Essays (1958), is "that we do not get any considerable emotional impact unless we sense, at the same time, some principle of organization, some view, some meaning."[8] Whether it is called "meaning" or "organization," however, this property of literary texts—or its lack—becomes an issue only when they are handled in a particular manner, namely, as texts to be interpreted and judged.

Thus criticism is the special activity of seeking the coherence which it postulates as a property of literary texts. But this coherence, this harmoniousness of meaning and organization, is not to be found only between the two covers of a text. For a text is merely one part of a larger whole. It is but one utterance on the part of a man or woman whose entire career forms a unity of utterances. Each text is an indispensable element in this unity. But it is also a specimen of the unity, reflecting something of the individual style, the distinctive vision, which is constituted by the unified whole. And so coherence must be sought in complete oeuvres as well as separate volumes, in the whole work as well as the single text. Nor does this presumption of unity and completeness in the oeuvre rule out the possibility of a writer’s growth, development, or even conversion to a different vision or a different style. For the unity of a writer’s work is not a fixed point, an independent fact like party membership, allegiance to a circle of writers, or religious conviction, to which this or that text either corresponds or does not. The facts are themselves ingredients in the unity, which only blends after they have all been added. In praising Hemingway, then, Warren says that "his work, to an uncommon degree, forms a continuous whole" (NSE 167). Yet it is only the degree to which Hemingway’s work forms a continuous whole that is uncommon. Even in a writer like Eudora Welty, who is distinguished (Warren says) by going "at each story as a fresh start in the business of writing fiction," there is what he characterizes as "a seriousness, a philosophical cast of mind, which [gives] coherence" to her work (SE 156-S7). The problem facing the critic is how to describe the coherence. Throughout his criticism, accordingly, Warren’s search is for "the organizing and vitalizing principle" implicit within an author’s work, "the central intuition," "the basic attitude." And this is the difficulty with an author like Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe does not understand the fury that drives and consumes his hero; failing to understand it he cannot specify it; the fury remains uncouth, barbarous, and vague. The consequence for fiction is formlessness, for "only a proper emotional reference to such a center," Warren says, "could give it form" (SE 178).

Now this ideal of a center is, as everyone knows, currently under attack. Much recent criticism seeks (as the saying goes) to "decenter" literary texts, to abandon all reference to a fixed point of origin outside the text (such as the author) and even to repudiate all notions of an organizing and vitalizing principle that operates within the text and gives it form. The trouble with this ideal of a center, say its detractors, is that, if taken seriously, it would prohibit the rearrangement of textual detail which is necessary in interpretation; under its influence, the text is experienced as a permanent arrangement—a little world complete—and the necessity of interpretation (in Derrida’s phrase) is lived as exile.[9] But the attack is wide of the mark. It mistakes the ideal of the center, the organizing and vitalizing principle, for yet another element of the text. It conceives of interpretation merely as a sort of classification system in which different pieces of a text are grouped together on the basis of having something in common.

Perhaps his use of the term principle was unfortunate, but nothing else in Warren's criticism implies such an ill-equipped understanding of critical interpretation. The emotional center of a writer’s work, its organizing and vitalizing principle, is not merely another part of the work; it is these parts themselves when seen in their aspect as constituents of a unified and harmonious whole. What is called the "center" is simply the character of literature—a text or a body of work—when it satisfies our efforts to interpret and judge it. But there are many satisfactions; as Warren says, there is no "final word and orthodoxy of interpretation"; nothing prohibits a rearrangement of the constituent parts to achieve a fresh coherence. "A poem," as Warren says, "defines an attitude, a basic view, which can have many applications. It defines, if it is a good poem, a sort of strategic point for the spirit from which experience of all sorts may be freshly viewed" (NSE 298). A poem is an effort to locate a standpoint from which to view experience; it is not a stance outside experience; it is itself experience when viewed from this standpoint. To interpret the poem, consequently, if it is a good poem, is to relocate this standpoint and to view experience from here for ourselves.

Perhaps we are in a position now to characterize the special practice of literary criticism. Warren has exhibited it to be, first, reading which is undertaken for the sake of interpretation and judgment. Naive readers never fully appreciate or understand a book, but are untroubled by this, because they are interested only in those parts they can relate to themselves. Critics, by contrast, never place their reading in the service of a desire for uncomplicated images of themselves; and as a consequence, their attitude toward what they read is one in which problems of interpretation and judgment always arise. And the first characteristic of a critic’s response to a book, therefore, is that it must not be naively partial and incomplete. What we find Warren doing, in a characteristic passage from his criticism, is disclosing how experience is modified—trimmed, made over, given a different shape—by the obligation to view it as a whole and form a particular standpoint.

Consider his analysis in "Pure and Impure Poetry" of an 1806 epitaph by Walter Savage Landor:Ah, what avails the sceptered race!
Ah, what the form devine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.

Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.
The first stanza of the poem, Warren says, is "chiseled"; the lines are balanced in structure and rhythm; there is the tight "formal control" of "alliteration, repetition, and assonance"; the entire stanza appears almost to be "built up, as it were, of units which are firmly defined and sharply separated, phrase by phrase, line by line" (NSE 10-11). The effect, Warren observes, is of a man who will not surrender to grief over the death of a beloved. But in the second stanza, Warren says, the rigor of Landor’s formality gives way, releasing the flood of feeling. What Warren exhibits, by bringing the poem before his reader in this manner, is how the effect of a whole is negotiated among its constituent elements. But he modifies the arrangement in his turn, in order to make intelligible the process by which the constituents of an experience come together to form a whole.

And this modification in the arrangement of experience is the sense in which criticism is a distinct mode of human activity. It is distinctive in modifying experience for the sake of interpretation and judgment; it is never merely content with what it encounters in experience, but always rearranges it. As a consequence, critical activity at its best is distinguished by what Warren calls a "skeptical and ironical bias,"a refusal to accept the formula, the ready-made solution, the hand-me-down morality, the word for the spirit. It affirms, rather, the constant need for exercising discrimination, the arduous obligation of the intellect in the face of conflicting dogmas, the need for a dialectical approach to matters of definition, the need for exercising as much of the human faculty as possible. (SE 155)Literary criticism, then, can be differentiated as a special practice with special characteristics. Other types of people interpret and judge literary texts, but critics, when they are acting as critics, never do anything else. Criticism is the activity of interpreting and judging literature in the belief that it forms a unity, a coherent order of experience; but it is also skeptical of what it finds there—it seeks a fresh coherence. The job of the critic, then, is to handle literary texts in a manner akin to creative imitation; to rewrite poems, as if to make them the critic’s own; to cast them in a different idiom altogether from that in which they were originally conceived. There’s little question that Warren’s exhibition of criticism is incomplete and unsatisfactory, but at least it has the advantage of permitting us to see what criticism is not. It is not merely a profession, an institutional practice and a form of marketable expertise. It is also a unique and unmistakable mode of thought and speech.


So much depends on how the history of criticism in America is to be told. If it is true that criticism has become increasingly professionalized, that it has sought a "new social location" and a "new corporate accomodation," then Robert Penn Warren is at best a minor critic. But major or minor, Warren has been a critic. He has written essays that, important or not, are logically distinguishable as literary criticism. His essays, even if they do not (as he himself acknowledges) "represent a complete theory of criticism," nevertheless offer genuine insight into criticism’s true character. Any history of criticism that leaves him out, therefore, is to that degree partial and defective. It commits what Warren calls "the sin of abstraction, of setting a scheme, a principle, against the human warmth" (NSE 76). Instead of provoking an inquiry into criticism as a whole, it abstracts one element—the one that appears most obvious to those who gaze with some hostility upon the present situation—and everything else is held to be irrelevant. But if the story of criticism has been that of its gradual emergence as a distinct activity, to be characterized by increasing modality as well as professionalism, then nothing which has contributed to its emergence may be taken as irrelevant. To describe criticism as a profession, and then to seek its outlines in clearly enunciated doctrines and firmly established movements, is to hypostatize categories of convenience into strict boundaries. And after the claims have been staked, what is to be done with everything that has been left out? A surprising thing, to see how strongly historians of criticism are pulled toward positivism in one of its less attractive varieties. But if positivism and abstractionism are to be avoided, the history of literary criticism must be reconceived, not as an account of the doctrines and movements which have drawn it further into professionalization, but rather as a tale of the effort over time to achieve an understanding of criticism in its true character. Robert Penn Warren’s criticism should serve as a warning against any other conception. For the history of criticism is merely the understanding of what criticism has been. And one part of what it has been is the contribution of Robert Penn Warren.

[1] Grant Webster, The Republic of Letters: A History of Postwar American Literary Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 343.

[2] Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

[3] See Frederick P. W. McDowell, "Robert Penn Warren’s Criticism," Accent 15 (1955): 173-g6; John Hicks, "Explorations of Value: Warren’s Criticism," in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Gray (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1980), pp. 176-82; James H. Justus, "Pure and Impure Criticism," in The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), pp. 117-35; Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "Robert Penn Warren: Critic," in A Southern Renascence Man, ed. Walter B. Edgar (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), pp. 19-37; William Bedford Clark, "Warren’s Criticism and the Evolving Self," Kenyon Review (1985): 48-53; and Monroe K. Spears, "The Critics Who Made Us: Robert Penn Warren," Sewanee Review 94 (1986): 99-111.

[4] John Fekete, The Critical Twilight: Explorations in the Ideology of Anglo-American Literary Theory from Eliot to McLuhan (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 44.

[5] Robert Penn Warren, New and Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 181. Further references will be parenthetical and abbreviated NSE.

[6] Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 242-43.

[7] Spears, 104-05.

[8] Robert Penn Warren, Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 168. Further references will be parenthetical and abbreviated SE.

[9] Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in Writing and Difference, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 292.