Robert Penn Warren: A Genuine Southern Voice for the Ages
Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, to Robert Warren and Anna Penn. Warren graduated from Clarksville High School in Clarksville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University in 1925 and the University of California, Berkeley (M.A.) in 1926. Warren pursued further graduate study at Yale University from 1927 to 1928 and was a Rhodes Scholar earning his literature degree from New College, Oxford, in England in 1930. That same year he began his teaching career at Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee.
Warren had two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren (born 1953) and Gabriel Penn Warren (born 1955) with his second wife, Eleanor Clark. While at Louisiana State University, he resided at Twin Oaks (later known as the Robert Penn Warren House) in Prairieville, Louisiana. He resided in his
Warren’s best-known work is All the King’s Men, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Main character Willie Stark resembles Huey Pierce Long (1893–1935), the radical populist governor of Louisiana whom Warren was able to observe closely while teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge from 1933 to 1942. All the King’s Men became a highly successful film, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1949. A 2006 film adaptation by writer/director Steven Zaillian featured Sean Penn as Willie Stark and Jude Law as Jack Burden.
Warren served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1944–1945 (now, Poet Laureate), and won two Pulitzer Prizes in poetry, in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954–1956 and in 1979 for Now and Then. Promises also won the annual National Book Award for Poetry. In 1980, Warren was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.
Warren co-authored with Cleanth Brooks, Understanding Poetry, an influential literature textbook. It was followed by other similarly co-authored textbooks, including Understanding Fiction, which was praised by Southern Gothic and Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, and Modern Rhetoric, which adopted what can be called a New Critical perspective.
Works (Partial listing)
John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929)
Old and Blind (1931)
Thirty-six Poems (1936)
An Approach to Literature (1938), with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibaut Purser
Understanding Poetry (1939), with Cleanth Brooks
Night Rider (1939). Novel
At Heaven’s Gate (1943). Novel
Understanding Fiction (1943), with Cleanth Brooks
All the King’s Men (1946). Novel
Blackberry Winter: A Story Illustrated by Wightman Williams (1946)
The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories (1947)
A Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961). Novel
Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964). Novel
Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)
Incarnations: Poems 1966–1968 (1968)
Audubon: A Vision (1969). Book-length poem
Homage to Theodor Dreiser (1971)
Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971). Novel
American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1974), with Cleanth Brooks and R.W.B. Lewis
Democracy and Poetry (1975)
A Place to Come to (1977). Novel
Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices- A New Version (1979)
Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), with Cleanth Brooks
Enough and Time (1950). Novel
Band of Angels (1955). Novel
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956)
Remember the Alamo! (1958). For children
The Cave (1959). Novel
The Gods of Mount Olympus (1959). For children
How Texas Won Her Freedom (1959). For children
The Legacy of the Civil War (1961)
Alice Walker – A Color-filled Southern Voice
Alice Malsenior Walker was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. She was the eighth and youngest child of Minnie and Willie Lee Walker – struggling sharecroppers, but abundant in spirit and love.
Her father’s great-great-great grandmother Mary Poole was a slave forced to walk from Virginia to Georgia with a baby in each arm. Her mother’s grandmother Talluhah was mostly Cherokee Indian. Alice is deeply proud of her cultural heritage.
After graduating from high school in 1961, Alice attended Spelman College in Atlanta. Alice’s mother gave her three special gifts before she left home: a sewing machine for self-sufficiency, a suitcase for independence and a typewriter for creativity.
While at Spelman, Alice participated in civil rights demonstrations and was invited to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in 1962 at the end of her freshman year. She then attended the Youth World Peace Festival in Helsinki, Finland and traveled throughout Europe the following summer. This spawned her love for travel and encountering the many peoples and cultures of the world.
In August 1963 Alice traveled to Washington D.C. She couldn’t see much of the main podium but heard Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” address.
During her junior year, Alice received a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She became one of a handful of black Americans at the prestigious university.
While at Sarah Lawrence, her additional world traveling opportunities broadened her mind. During her senior year, Alice realized she was pregnant. Frightened and not knowing how to tell her parents, Alice considered committing suicide. She turned to poetry, trying to come to terms with her feelings and worst fears. Alice eventually chose to have an abortion.
During her recovery from the depression and anxiety she had suffered, Alice wrote a short story aptly titled “To Hell With Dying.” Her mentor Muriel Ruykeyser sent the story to publishers as well as to the poet Langston Hughes. To Alice’s delight, the story was published and she received a hand-written note of encouragement from Hughes. Alice was just 21 years old.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1965, Alice returned to Georgia and participated in the civil rights movement once again, but returned to New York City in the fall of 1965. But the struggle in the South beckoned her back, wherein during the summer of 1966 she again registered voters door-to-door in Mississippi where she fell in love with Mel Leventhal, an equally passionate Jewish law student who handled civil rights cases. She returned to New York city with him where he was attending law school.
While working on her first novel, Alice and Leventhal wed and moved back to Mississippi where he could pursue civil rights litigation. Despite threats of physical violence due to their inter-racial marriage, Alice worked as a black history teacher for the local Head Start program.
Alice continued her writing, accepted a teaching position at Jackson State University and published her first volume of poetry, “Once.” Walker became pregnant and finished her first novel “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” the same week her daughter Rebecca Grant was born.
Alice’s novel received literary praise but also criticism. The story involves the murder of a woman by her husband. Many black critics said she dealt too harshly with the black male characters in her book. Alice rebutted such claims, saying that women are all too often abused by men they love.
In 1972 she accepted a teaching position at Wellesley College where Alice began one of the first women’s studies courses in the nation, a women’s literature course. She also wanted to introduce her students to black women writers. In her search for material, she found Zora Neale Hurston, a much forgotten Harlem Renaissance writer. She would later edit an anthology of Hurston’s work and place a memorial on Zora’s unmarked grave in Florida.
Seemingly inspired by this new heroine, Alice wrote fervently. In 1973 she published her first collection of short stories, “In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women” and her second volume of poetry “Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems.”
After numerous awards, she became an editor for “Ms. Magazine,” and by 1976 published her second novel, “Meridian.” The book chronicled a young woman’s struggle during the civil rights movement. At the same time, her marriage to Leventhal ended.
“Meridian” received much acclaim and Alice accepted a
When the movie “The Color Purple” premiered in her hometown of Eatonton, Alice received a hero’s welcome and parade in her honor. Her sister Ruth began “The Color Purple Foundation” which does charitable work for education.
In 1984 Alice published her third volume of poetry, “Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful.” She followed this in 1988 with her second book of essays, “Living By the Word.” In 1989 she published her epic novel “The Temple of My Familiar.”
Alice next published another volume of poetry, “Her Blue Body Everything We
In 1996 Alice published “The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult” in which she describes through essays and journal entries the loss of her beloved mother and her own battle with Lyme disease and depression. The book also contains Alice’s own version of the screenplay to “The Color Purple” and many of her notes and remembrances from the making of her novel into
The next year Alice published another non-fiction title “Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism” with more essays inspired by her ever-expanding political activism. Alice remains an outspoken activist on issues of oppression and power and championing the victims of racism, sexism,
In September 1998, Alice published “By the Light of My Father’s Smile”. Her first novel in six years, the book examines the connections between sexuality and spirituality. The multi-narrated story of several generations explores the relationships of fathers and daughters.
Alice’s newest work is a collection of stories called “The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart.” The stories combine autobiography and fiction as Alice examines the bindings and breakings of relationships with friends and family and lovers.
Alice Walker truly exemplifies the power of the Southern Voice in American literature.
Fiercely loyal to her native South and abiding faith, Flannery O’Connor held little patience for those who saw her depiction of the South as a caricature and who felt she could not possibly share or take seriously the religious preoccupations of her characters. But neither her critics nor the lingering health struggles over the last fifteen years of her life – a time of great suffering – could prevent her from preserving the integrity of a body of work that, however lacking in bulk, places her securely in the first rank of American fiction writers of the twentieth century.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925 – the only child of Edward O’Connor, Jr., and Regina (Cline) O’Connor. Both her parents’ families had emigrated from Ireland to Georgia in the nineteenth century. The O’Connors were also Catholics in a Protestant-dominated South, and Flannery’s education came from a series of parochial schools.
In 1938, her father’s real estate business had suffered during the Depression; he began working as a real estate appraiser for the Federal Housing Authority, which required the family to relocate to Atlanta. O’Connor and her mother chose to live in Milledgeville. Her father struggled with lupus, which ultimately consumed his life in 1941.
From 1938 to 1945, O’Connor received her primary education in Milledgeville. While in high school she wrote and drew cartoons for the school newspaper. At Georgia State College for Women, also in Milledgeville, she earned a bachelors of arts in English and Sociology. And more significantly, she dropped her first name and wrote under the name of Flannery O’Connor.
From 1945 to 1948, she did postgraduate work at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she undertook a formal course of reading that introduced her to the work of modern writers such as Joyce, Kafka, and her fellow Southerner William Faulkner. After several unsuccessful efforts to get published, her fiction began to be accepted both by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle and journals such as The Sewanee Review. She also won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for her novel in progress, earning her an award of $750 and a contract with Rinehart and Company to publish the book upon its satisfactory (to them) completion.
During 1948 and 1949, O’Connor worked on her book at an artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. She boarded at the home of noted poet Robert Fitzgerald and his family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Friction developed with Rinehart when O’Connor refused to revise her book according to the publisher’s editorial suggestions and they characterized her as uncooperative. She obtained her contractural release
She began to suffer pains in her arms and shoulder joints and developed a high fever on her train trip to Georgia for Christmas. She was hospitalized on her arrival and like her father was diagnosed with lupus. She never again would she be completely healthy, but through therapy and a strict diet recovered sufficiently to complete her novel- titled Wise Blood, published in 1952. In contrast to her experience with Rinehart, she was quite responsive to editorial insight and advice–and would remain so throughout her life.
Though O’Connor remained a devout Catholic, her stories usually focused upon mainstream Southern whites who professed the Protestant faith of fundamentalist and often highly idiosyncratic tendencies.
She continued to write and to publish short stories, including “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which first appeared in 1953 in a paperback anthology called The Avon Book of Modern Writing, and two years later became the title piece of A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. This collection was praised by reviewers, and it sold unexpectedly well for a book of short fiction.
Despite continuing health problems, O’Connor continued living and working with her mother on their family farm. Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, published in 1960 to mixed reviews.
O’Connor saw her reputation consolidated in the early 1960s with several essays on her fiction in the Summer 1962 issue of the Sewanee Review and the publication in 1963 of her three books in a one-volume paperback edition called Three by Flannery O’Connor.
At the end of 1963, she suffered a pre-Christmas fainting spell that led to the diagnosis of a fibroid tumor, which was surgically removed in February 1964. Fearing the worst, she devoted her remaining strength to finish the last two of the nine stories planned for her forthcoming collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. The book appeared in 1965 but as a posthumous publication. O’Connor died on August 3, 1964, at the age of thirty-nine.
In the carefully crafted prose of the two novels and nineteen short stories that she deemed worthy of book publication, she created a gallery of fantastic-seeming but deeply felt and sympathetic characters, in whose stories the humorous often gives way with sickening swiftness to the horrible, and whose lives, however twisted and tortured they may become, remain steadfast searches for the healing power of grace.
Although many writers in this century have sought to catch the flavor of what critics customarily term “Southern gothic,” O’Connor is unsurpassed in the mingling of violence and beauty, of the glorious and grotesque, that is her particular mood and theme.
Nelle Harper Lee (1926 – 2016), simply Harper Lee to millions across America, a Southern voice for decades based on her first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Her other book though written in the 1950s, Go Set a Watchman, did not see the light of day until 2015 and was published as a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize classic.
Harper Lee wrote what she knew best, the Deep South of the 1930s from a child’s point of view. Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama provided her with ample opportunities to portray the irrationality of adult attitudes in the racist culture that permeated the South.
A footnote worth mentioning: the character in her novel named Dill was based upon her real childhood friend, Truman Capote. What were the odds that little old Monroeville, Alabama would rear up both Truman Capote and Harper Lee? Today, Monroeville, Alabama entertains thousands of visitors who flock into town to get a glimpse at the old courthouse and homes that Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird. Might I suggest you might want to visit the link below to learn more-http://www.southernliterarytrail.org/monroeville.html
A Southern Novel Nearly Gone With the Wind
After a broken ankle immobilized her in 1926, Margaret Mitchell began developing a manuscript that would become Gone With the Wind, ultimately published in 1936. The success of Gone With the Wind made her an instant celebrity and earned a Pulitzer Prize for Margaret Mitchell, and the famed film adaptation released three years afterward. Over 30 million copies of Mitchell’s Civil War masterpiece have been sold and translated into 27 languages. Tragedy struck in 1949 when Mitchell was struck by a car, leaving Gone With the Wind as her only novel.
Born and raised in Atlanta, Mitchell experienced tragic twists and turns; with the loss of her mother in 1918 and then four years later and four months after her wedding, her first husband abandoned the marriage. She wrote nearly 130 articles for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine during that troubled time. By 1925 with her first marriage officially annulled, Mitchell married John Robert Marsh who encouraged her writing during her recovery from a broken ankle in 1926. By 1929, she nearly finished her thousand page Civil War and Reconstruction era story – A romantic novel, written from a Southern woman’s point of view, steeped in the history of the South and the tragic outcome of
Rest of the story lies in what happened next…
However, the grand manuscript remained tucked away until 1935 until she reluctantly out of fear showed it to a traveling book editor, who visited Atlanta in search of new material, and the rest is history.
What motivated the book editor to leave his ivory-tower office in New York City?
Southern authors during the decades since earned a warmer reception from the dominant publishing houses as the appeal for Southern stories grew.
What Southern stories rest on your bookshelves at home as a testimony to their lasting imprint on our lives?
Sourced from Margaret Mitchell’s Biography.
Zora Neale Hurston, an Undeniable Southern Voice
Zora Neale Hurston, a Notable Southern Voice from the Past
Zora Neale Hurston became an influential African-American voice for Southern literature in the 1930s. She portrayed racial struggles in the early 20th Century South. Of her four novels and numerous published short stories, plays, and essays, her 1937 book Their Eyes Were Watching God brought her the most notoriety.
Born in Alabama, her family relocated to Eatonville, Florida in 1894. While attending Barnard College in New York, Zora became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance and befriended Langston Hughes. She returned to North Florida and wrote her novels about the African-American experience, folklore, and her personal struggles as an African-American woman. She would be instrumental as an instructor at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida and later at North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina.
Posthumous Notoriety, Continued Recognition
Zora Neale Hurston’s works continued
After a stellar, extended career as an author of twenty-five novels, countless short stories, and twelve non-fiction books, Erskine Caldwell became a charter member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, 2000.
Born in 1903 to a Presbyterian minister and a schoolteacher mother in Moreland, GA, he lived an itinerant life in his early years living in Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee before his family returned and settled back in Georgia not far from Augusta. His father’s compassion for the desperately poor folks impacted Erskine. His first notable writing came while he studied at the University of Virginia. “The Georgia Cracker” (1926) established the themes that infused his future writing: political demagoguery, racial injustice, depraved religion, cultural sterility, and social irresponsibility. He continued to develop as a writer through several groundbreaking magazine articles before F. Scott Fitzgerald recommended him to Maxwell Perkins, the senior editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons. In addition to numerous short stories and articles, Caldwell wrote three highly successive novels by 1940, Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, and Trouble in July. Through these novels, Caldwell brought attention to the Depression’s dire effects upon Georgia’s tenant farmers, abuse of southern industrial workers, the disintegration of family values, and punctuated the brutal, racist attitudes aroused by white southern fears of interracial relationships.
Though interest in his novels waned by the early 1940s, they received a resurgence in the paperback revolution in American publishing following WWII.
In Caldwell’s later years he turned to non-fiction to focus on social injustices earned him some harsh criticism of his views during the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Though he lived and traveled extensively away from his beloved Southern roots and family home in Wren, GA, he wrote to then GA Governor Lester Maddox in 1967, “I think that I am as much a Georgian as Brer Rabbitt.” His final book was published fittingly by Peachtree Publishers in Georgia a month before his death, April 11, 1987, an autobiography, With All My Might.
During a conference on Lost Southern Voices two years ago, I listened and learned how Erskine Caldwell influenced and interacted with the likes of Pat Conroy and Terry Kay. I live ten minutes from Moreland, GA’s tribute to Erskine Caldwell. One cannot survey his humble beginnings and the collection of memorabilia on display without a sense of awe. How many more Southern novelists did he inspire?
Thanks to my extended conversation with folks behind Moreland’s exhibits on Erskine Caldwell, it is worthwhile to note that his novel successes and notoriety in the early 1930s stirred Madison Avenue publishers in New York to leave their sanctimonious ivory towers and scour the South to discover more nascent Southern voices.
Mixon, Wayne. “Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 16 May 2016. Web. 11 July 2018.
How you portray the pain of the past matters.
“In his limited experience, it seemed that the world was populated by two kinds of people; the many who added to the world’s pain, the few who took away from it. He wanted to be one of those few who took pain away, in spite of the fact that he had known only the other kind.”
— Borden Deal from his novel “The Tobacco Men” (1965).
How a writer responds to the pains in life defines the authenticity of the characters in his or her stories. We all have imperfect pasts and relationships from which to draw upon. Don’t hide from your past, allow your characters to help you move beyond its grasp.
T. M. Brown
Click the image to find the complete review at Publisher’s Weekly.
Novelist Corra Harris forged the way for Southern women writers in the early decades of the 20th-Century. Her notoriety as a humorist, southern apologist, and torchbearer of the premodern agrarian life developed through countless published short stories and essays in the likes of Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and other notable periodicals. Mostly self-taught during her formative years raised in North Georgia, Corra married a Methodist minister, but she became a life-long widow by 1910. Faced with financial responsibilities, she focused on her writing out of necessity.
Corra’s most notable works were A Circuit Rider’s Wife (1910), A Circuit Rider’s Widow (1916), and My Son (1921). The trilogy focused upon the story of itinerant Methodist preacher William Thompson and his wife, and their life together traveling his church circuit in North Georgia. Her stories portrayed rural mountain folklife, and the hardships circuit ministers during that time in an earthy simplicity that readers have enjoyed over the years. In 1998 her Circuit Rider’s Wife was republished by University of Georgia Press.
Source: New Georgia Encyclopedia
Why Southern Literature Resonates
Why does Southern literature appeal to audiences decades after their authors have left us? Why do their books line our bookshelves as timeless classics? Would you consider reading more about Corra Harris?
What other Southern classics would you include on our list of timeless and borderless must-reads? I welcome reading what you would add to the list of past Southern Voices and Classics.
Visit my webpage for a list of my scheduled appearances at various indie bookstores and workshop venues throughout the South in the coming weeks and months. Learn how past Southern Voices have influenced me to write my stories – Sanctuary, A Legacy of Memories and Testament, An Unexpected Return.