|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 11 (1997)|
Robert Penn Warren's fictional and nonfictional protagonists all
struggle with their relationship to the past. In his biographical
narratives, Warren redresses the problem of historical separation
by conceiving of the past as present, an available rather than
a separable, distant experience. Warren employs two strategies
to construct this new framework for history: he returns to his
own past in order to reconnect personally, and he revises what
he considers to be historiographic misconceptions so that the
past will reconcile with the present. Warren's strategies ultimately
constitute a new historical realism that is intended to provide
a more "usable past" (to borrow Van Wyck Brooks'
term). While much criticism has examined Warren's uses of the
past in his fictions and poetry, the biographical narratives particularly
offer an examination of the processes with which historical figures
have been cast into narratives by themselves and their biographers.
Warren's major biographical narratives are John Brown: The
Making of a Martyr (1929), Jefferson Davis Gets
His Citizenship Back (1980), and Portrait of a Father
(1988). However, to illustrate how Warren's uses of history coalesce
in his biographical narratives, there is an interesting less-known
work that provides an instructive laboratory for explication.
From 1958 to 1963 Warren wrote three essays for Holiday
magazine (now published as Travel Holiday). The
first two were historical narratives, "Remember the Alamo!"
and "How Texas Won Her Freedom."
Warren wrote the third, "The World of Daniel Boone,"
as a travel story and biographical narrative. The article describes
the region where Boone explored and settled, providing road directions,
and it supplements the readers' travel with background information
about Boone's life. As the title indicates, Warren paints a portrait
of the region that Boone settled, the "world" that he
But Warren extends the term "world" to suggest the world
that created Boone, the narratives that have situated Boone within
history. Thirty years earlier Warren subtitled his biography of
John Brown "The Making of a Martyr," indicating that
his interest was not just in the historical figure, but in the
process of "making" him a legend. Similarly, the Boone
article explores how historians, novelists, and poets have transformed
Boone into a literary character. Warren proposes his own narrative
as a corrective to previous narrative accounts of Boone, by employing
return and reconciliation, which function as conventions of realism.
The act of return initiates the necessary bridge to the past in
many of Warren's narratives; it denotes the writer's literal return
to a region. For example, many Warren narratives (such as "Circus
in the Attic," All the King's Men, and Segregation)
commence on highways upon which the narrator returns home. Reconciliation,
in this context, means revision for the purpose of constructing
a more realistic text. To reconcile the ledgers of the past and
present, Warren's revisionary history strips away the myths propping
the past on a pedestal of heroism. He settles the accounts of
past and present by critically examining and "correcting"
the narratives of previous historians. Warren exposes the story-telling
process according to which a past figure has been written into
history, a strategy that implicitly attempts to certify the accuracy
of his own narrative.
Return and reconciliation are evident in the opening sequence
of "The World of Daniel Boone," worth quoting at length:
On U.S. 60, east out of Lexington, that is probably the way you will go--out past the great horse farms of Kentucky, the hunt club and the swelling pastuers and white paddocks and stone walls and noble groves. It is beautiful country, even now. It was once thought to be Eden.
At Winchester you turn south on U.S. 227. The country is more sugged now, the limestone breaking through but the bottoms rich. Eastward is the wall of the mountains. You find the river, the Kentucky, and the high modern bridge spanning it. There, by the highway, is a posture of eternal and unconvincing alertness, is the statue: Daniel Boone.
To the right of the bridge open a romantic gorge, to the left lie the flats. There on the low ground is where Boonesborough was. It is not there now. But on hot Sunday afternoons people still come here to a modest little resort, to cool off in the river, to strew their sandwich papers and idly read the names growing dim on an unpretentious stone--the names of the men who, on this spot, opened Eden.
You can read the names and go--back to Winchester, perhaps, and take the Stanton road, State 15, and find the side road off to Pilot Knob. If you climb it, you will be standing where Daniel Boone stood when he first saw this country. (162)
"Circus in the Attic" being with the narrator guiding
the reader (addressed with the second-person pronoun) along the
highway, into Bardsville, and up to the town's monument. Similarly,
in All the King's Men Jack Burden commences his
narrative by recalling his return home' in a car along a highway
that, because it is new, signals his separation from his place
of origin. And in the opening of Segregation, his
return to the South in the late 1950s, Warren focuses first upon
the runway, then upon his continuing drive along Highway 61. The
Boone article begins with a return to the region, a kind of "backway
glance" (to use Allen Tate's words).1
The road becomes a link to the past and to the reader.
In this opening passage, Warren addresses the reader with the
second person pronoun, present tense ("You find the river"),
and present-temporal adverbs ("it is not there now,"
"People still come here"), establishing a contemporary
stance to erase the distinction between past and present. The
narrative invites the reader to stand where Boone stood and see
what he saw. Consequently, the opening statements invoke the presence
of the past. The reader joins the historical object in the matrix
In these opening paragraphs, the narrator observes a disjunction
between an idealized conception of history and the modern world.
He notes the lack of interest of modern tourists who "strew
their sandwich papers and idly read the names". He notes
"the names growing dim" on the modest monument, and
he points out not that the land was Eden but that it was "once
thought to be Eden," emphasizing the fictionality of the
paradisiacal landscape. 2
However, there is a contradiction. Warren also refers to the earnestness
of "the men who, on this spot, opened Eden," and throughout
the article he relies upon references to Eden and the Promised
Land. Warren is ambivalent, simultaneously disbelieving yet being
drawn to what Arthur K. Moore called the eighteenth century "rumor"
that "transformed" the frontier into "a fabled
garden interpenetrated with myth" (3).
On one hand, Warren interrogates the myth; yet, he also expresses
nostalgia for it. Juxtaposing what he sees as a malaise of modernity
against an idealized past, Warren sets out to "correct"
the myths while implying that some myths do constitute a "usable
past." Throughout his career, Warren was concerned with the
role of history in the modern age. Warren's approach to history
implies that previous audiences have necessitated conceiving of
Boone within a romantic narrative, but a modern audience, which
is uninterested at worst and skeptical at best, necessitates a
new kind of narrative.
Warren tries to provide such a narrative by "correcting"
past historical accounts through a modern lens. He acts as a tour
guide not only through a region, but also through the process
of historical reconstruction. Taking a cue from Moore, who argued
that "no American writer of the nineteenth century had the
gifts necessary to translate the frontier type to a large national
in "The World of Daniel Boone" Warren declares that
no writer ever "got Boone down on paper" (77).
He peels away the layers of myths into which Boone's biographers,
particularly those biographers who write in the romantic tradition.
Warren attempts to replace the first definitive construction of
Boone, John Filson's narrative, with a Boone who fits into a realistic
narrative. Warren counters Filson's statements with quotations
from Boone selected to present Boone's simplicity and directness.
Whereas Filson's The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon
has Boone declaring that "peace crowns the sylvan shade"
(22), Warren quotes
from less formal sources, such as the well-known inscription that
Boone carved into the bark of a tree, to argue that Boone was
much simpler than Filson makes him out to be. By contrasting Boone's
versions of himself with John Filson's version, Warren criticizes
Filson's narrative for inaccuracies. Particularly, Warren refers
to Filson's highly stylized language, which seems unlikely to
have been spoken by the less educated Boone, in passages such
as the opening of Filson's narrative: "Thus we behold Kentucky,
lately an howling wilderness, the habitation of savages and wild
beasts, become a fruitful field . . . " (1).
Warren responds to such statements in "The World of Daniel
Boone": "Filson's account has come in for criticism,
and certainly there was one great horse apple of a lie in it--the
very language which Filson foisted on his hero . . . fancy, schoolbook
The problem with Warren's critique is that Filson's language was
not as inappropriate for writing history as Warren implies. Filson
used narrative conventions for the century in which he wrote.
Filson biographer John Walton observes, "That these were
Boone's own words few believed; but that they expressed his philosophy
was assumed by the readers who elected Boone the popular hero
of the Romantic Revolution. . . . Filson was surely writing with
an eye on the romantic mood of his readers" (54-55).
J. Winston Coleman concurs, noting that Filson "write it
[the Boone biography] up according to the contemporary literary
But it is that romantic literary taste that Warren writes against.
Warren sets out to replace conventions of romanticism with conventions
of realism. He cites romantic writers: Lord Byron, James Fenimore
Cooper, and a minor poet named Daniel Bryan, who published an
epic of Boone's life in 1812. He writes that Boone has the angels
meeting over the Allegheny Mountains to decide who should civilize
the West and electing Boone, who was, in Warren's words, "conveniently
waiting on a mountaintop. . . for the revelation of his destiny"
With his sardonic tone, Warren ridicules historical writings such
as this passage from Bryan's The Mountain
Inspire, immortal Spirits of the West! . . .
With daring sweep arouse, till lofty song
The bold sublimity of the new world
Harmoniously proclaim;; and loud resound
The bloody brunts of the first Western Wars,
And brave intrepid Boone's adventurous deeds.
It is, no doubt, this type of narrative that Warren refers to
when he places Boone at the grave of his son and comments, "We
can look back on this moment . . . beyond the cliches of romance"
The most significant example of Warren's tension with romanticism
is a passage in which he pointedly confronts romantic conventions.
He recounts the death of Boone's oldest son, James, in a frantic
battle against a party of Delaware, Cherokee, and Shawnee. There
is no time to mourn when James is killed. Members of Boone's party
quickly bury the young man, and months later Boone makes a "solitary
pilgrimage" to the grave:
We can look back on this moment of lonely mourning in Powell's Valley---the most melancholy moment of Boone's life, by his own account---and see it as a moment that gives inwardness and humanity to an age. Beyond the clinches of romance of the frontier, beyond the epic record of endurance and the manipulations of land speculators and politicians, beyond the learned discussion of historical forces, there is the image of a father staring down at the patch of earth. It is like that moment in the midst of the heroic hurly-burly of the Iliad when Hector . . . takes his son in his arms. (169)
As a hero Boone stands upon a pedestal, distanced from the world
below, but in this passage he is a typical father mourning his
son, a realistic (rather than heroic) image with whom readers
can empathize. Like the frontiersman slashing a path through the
forest, Warren cuts through the "clinches of romance,"
the notions of epic, and the "manipulations" of the
modern commercial world-all of which, according to Warren, have
obscured realistic observation of the historical moment.3
The passage uncovers the individual who has been concealed behind
a screen upon which heroic representations have been projected.
Warren de-mythifies the hero, making him a character in a realistic
text, thus more relevant and accessible to modern readers. Boone's
life is now, to quote Warren's interview with Edwin Newman, "a
human experience of infinite complication" (196),
Warren's definition of historic realism.
However, throughout the article there is the contradiction: Warren
does seem nostalgic for the idealized stories of Boone. After
tearing away the heroic representations, Warren concludes the
passage above by comparing Boone to the epic character Hector.
Likewise, in the article's final paragraphs, Warren recounts the
famous story of Boone "alone in the wilderness, singing to
the sunset out of his joyous heart" (177),
and he admits, "We can only guess what the real Boone was,
but the myth of Boone, the image of a certain human possibility,
feeds something in the heart" (177).
During a discussion of Sam Houston in an interview with Bill Moyers,
Warren discussed how the story's romantic and Homeric qualities
make Houston significant to American history (217-18).
His comments demonstrate that Warren is not opposed to myth or
romance; in fact, he acknowledges their necessity and usefulness.
What he does object to is the oversimplification of history. Commenting
to Moyers on the Sam Houston story, Warren states, "It's
the complexity that is engaging" (218).
Throughout his biographical narratives, Warren seems to be reaching
for an informed but moving history--a kind of romantic realism.
However much Warren interrogates the making of heroes and legends,
throughout the Boone article he implicitly acknowledges that to
be meaningful, history must go beyond the documentation of facts;
it must "feed something in the heart." Even after criticizing
Filson's portrayal of Boone's wandering through the wilderness,
Warren comments in "The World of Daniel Boone":
It was a heroic wandering. . . . . so Daniel was alone, free to scout "Kentucke" and taste the "sylvan pleasures" of what he, in Filson's language, regarded as a "second paradise." He wandered at will, exalted in spirit. (167)
At the end of the article, Warren expresses regret for the loss
of the romanticized vision, complaining that Boone country is
now "an Eden, more in rhetoric that in fact" (174).
Warren describes a region losing its pioneering spirit:
In the heart of Eden the palisades were rotting down. Soon Boonesborough itself . . . was to disappear without leaving a trace . . . The classic figure of the Kentuckian . . . was about to retire into our romantic dreams and the pages of fiction . . . The legal brief had replaced the long rifle as the weapon for taking Kentucky. (174)
We can see that Warren is an ambivalent realist, trying to renegotiate
romanticized notions of the past while expressing nostalgia for
those very notions.
In the interview with Edwin Newman, Warren commented, "I
like these romantic stories of America" (218).
Warren realized that legends and heroes are still needed to make
history meaningful, but he also saw this as a particularly difficult
endeavor in a modern technological world that destroys the sources
of myth as it exploits nature and disregards humanity. Warren's
solution for historiography, then, is not the replacement of a
romanticized past but a conception of the past in which legends,
heroes, and ideals are tempered through a filter of realism, the
product being a more usable past for a modern age.