Notes for Papers I No Longer Have Time to Write

James A. Perkins

Notes for Warren Papers

I No Longer Have Time to Write

by James A. Perkins


When I decided on the title of this talk, “Topics for Warren Papers I No Longer Have Time to Write,” I had hoped to have time to create a slick, organized and amusing paper. Alas, it seems I didn’t have time for that either. What follows I’m afraid is a flood of notions, many of which may have occurred to you already, about the works of Robert Penn Warren. There are a number of reasons I no longer have time to follow these ideas to their fruition: I have become the chair of the Department of English and Public Relations at Westminster, a task that is not its own reward; I have committed myself to a number of larger projects; and I have become a grandfather twice. As I said, I don’t have time to pursue these notions. I offer them all to you. 

            Let’s begin with All the King’s Men. When the Noel Polk edition of that novel is published, it will offer many interesting areas of comparison with the 1946 version. For example, to Bedford Clark’s dismay, Willie Stark will be known as Willie Talos in the Polk version. Warren, in several interviews, identified the source of this allusion from Spenser’s The Fairie Queen, but no one has attempted read the novel through the prism that the allusion implies. The identity of Jack Burden’s father will be much more murky in the Polk version. As late as 19 November 1945, Warren was calling Cass Mastern Jack’s relative in the setting copy of the novel. It was Lambert Davis who urged Warren to remove the confusion about Jack’s parentage. Davis wrote:

             “The Cass Mastern passage has troubled me in the way in which it is introduced. Jack burden is quite dead-pan, introducing this episode, in calling Cass his Great Uncle, and yet Cass is not his Great Uncle. The reader [,] finishing this story, can legitimately say he has been tricked.”

By reintroducing ambiguity about the identity of Jack’s father, the Polk edition puts even more pressure on the question: How can we know the past? It also changes the tone of Jack's parenthetical musing about Ellis Burden near the end of the novel. “(Does he think that I am his son? I cannot be sure. Nor can I feel it matters, for each of us is the son of a million fathers.)”

The publication of Polk’s version will also require vigilance on our part lest the publisher try to foist this version off on the unsuspecting public as Warren’s novel. It should come out under the title Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: The Setting Copy, for truly that is what it is. We must be ready to identify the Polk version not as Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men but as a useful tool for scholars who want to read it in conjunction with the novel and the various dramatic versions of the Willie Stark material to see the full scope of Warren’s creative genius at work. 

By the end of this summer I should have finished rewriting my manuscript Robert Penn Warren and the Cass Mastern Material for LSU. When that book is published, we should have available to scholars just about everything they might need to use in reconsidering All the King’s Men.

While we are looking at Warren and drama let me mention two items that have received little attention. I really don’t know what could be done with these, but I will point them out in the hope that some of you are brighter than I am. One is a 29-page treatment for a screenplay entitled Don’t Bury Me At All written by Robert Penn Warren and Max Shulman, whom, Blotner tells us, Warren met at a party in Minneapolis. In her autobiography A Talent for Luck, Helen M. Strauss, who served as Warren’s Agent at the William Morris Agency, tells us that the Minnesota meeting led to a continuing friendship and that Warren was visiting Shulman in Westport at a time when both writers were between tasks when the notion to collaborate on a screenplay came up. They wrote a treatment and she flew off to Hollywood, as she says, “clutching the hilarious offspring of the literary marriage of the decade to my bosom.” Although four major studios “put in bids for immediate adoption,” they all wanted to see a finished script. By the time Strauss got back to the east coast the two vacationing writers “had resumed their primary interests.” This is the Max Shulman who created Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, the Max Schulman who wrote Barefoot Boy with Cheek, The Tender Trap, Rally Round the Flag boys!, and I Was a Teenage Dwarf.  I can’t, off hand, think of a more unlikely collaborator for Robert Penn Warren.  Perhaps Strauss has told us all that can be known about this escapade, but I want to know more. Their relationship and their desire to do something together evidently continued. The first paragraph of a letter of 17 June 1958 from Shulman to the Warrens reads:

   “Now let’s see if I’ve got it all straight: When you return from Italy, Red and I will go to work on the John Brown play.  If Red is not available, I will go to work with Eleanor.  If I am not available, Red will go to work with Carol.  If neither Red nor I is available, Carol and Eleanor will do the play.”

The other item is a 60-page television script authored in 1952 by Warren and his publishing friend David M. Clay to whom along with his wife All the King’s Men is dedicated. I was able to locate this script only at the Library of Congress.  This script entitled The Conway Cabal was intended as the pilot for a series called This Very Spot. The script is particularly interesting because of its concept and its timing. The umbrella concept is the historical dramatization of little-known events.  The particular example in The Conway Cabal is the attempt by a General Conway and the members of the Board of War of the Continental Congress to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief with General Horatio Gates. The plot fails when the young Marquis de Lafayette refuses to go along with it and forces General Gates to toast “George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the American Armies.” This occurred in the York Tavern on Continental Square at 157 West Market Street in York, Pennsylvania at THIS VERY SPOT. 

What is interesting about the manuscript is that Warren and Clay wrote this pilot two years before the airing of You Are There on CBS. That half hour dramatic recreation of historical events, which was narrated by Walter Cronkite, ran from 1954 through 1957.

Then too there is the possibility to compare All the King’s Men to the rash of novels that borrow from it, rip it off, or praise it through imitation. Recently these have included White Noise by Don DeLillo, Primary Colors by Anonymous, and Deep Background by David Corn. 

            I would like to see a paper written about Warren’s John Brown in which Brown, as presented by Warren, is studied as the prototype of the modern fund-raising public relations man.

            Warren and Thornton Wilder are our only two writers to win the Pulitzer Prize in two different genres. Warren won it in fiction in 1947 for All the King’s Men, in poetry in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956, and again in poetry in 1979 for Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978. Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 in fiction for The Bridge of San Louis Rey, in 1938 in drama for Our Town, and again in drama in 1943 for The Skin of Our Teeth. In addition to this obvious connection, I feel there are many other areas of comparison that may connect these two writers. For example, both seemed always to experiment in their fiction. They never wrote the same book twice.

            There are some things that are missing in the Warren manuscripts that would, if found, make dandy papers. In an interview in which Warren is explaining how he happened to write Audubon: A Vision, he says that he remembered one line from an unfinished attempt at the material from twenty years before. He goes on to say that he didn’t stop and go look up the earlier version at that point. This implies that the earlier version was extant at least at the time of the composition of the poem. It has not turned up. It would be a major document from Warren’s period of poetic silence when he says he was unable to finish a poem. It would also be interesting to compare it to the final poem.

            Then there is the that sonnet two lines of which survive in “Old Nigger on One-Mule Cart Encountered Late at Night When Driving Home From Party in the Back Country.” 

                                                . . .And remember

                        Now only the couplet of what

                        Had aimed to be—Jesus Christ—a sonnet:

                                    One of those who gather junk and wire to use

                                    For purposes that we cannot peruse.

What did the other dozen lines look like?

(John Burt told me in Boston when I presented this paper that he found the poem and printed it in his The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, Louisiana State University Press, 1998. You can find it on page 813 of that volume.)

Given the mass of materials in the Beinecke as well as those at UK and Western Kentucky, I would suggest that you keep these fragments in mind so you will know what you are looking at if you ever run across one of them. In the same category, although much less easy to describe, is the missing 8th Chapter of God’s Own Time, one of Warren’s two unpublished novels. The best I can suggest here is that you read the rest of the novel to prepare yourself for the possibility of discovery.

            Another possible topic is suggested by John Burt’s decision not to publish any unpublished Warren poems in his The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. My guess is that many of these would be fragments from the silent period.  I think a study of these unpublished and unfinished poems from the forties would be quite revealing.

            I would like to see someone follow up on the great early work of Allen Shepherd and write a book on Warren’s Development as a prose writer. This would involve trying to document alleged help from Katherine Ann Porter and Caroline Gordon through visits to the Princeton University Library and the library at the University of Maryland. It would involve reading Warren’s unpublished novels and following Shepherd’s lead in realizing they are the source of several of his early stories. Finally it would involve understanding Warren’s concept of fiction as expressed in his criticism as well as in his fiction.

            Warren’s poetry suggests many areas of investigation. I will mention only two. I would like to see someone study the relationship of Warren’s sight to his poetry. Since he had but one eye, I wonder how that affected what he saw and how what he saw affected his poetry. There are instances enough in the poetry of eyes and of blindness, and these should be noted. I would be interested in a paper that used perceptual psychology and an understanding of the interplay between mind and eye that creates such things as depth perception. A knowledge of Warren’s driving habits, especially night driving, would be useful.

            Another topic that appears often in Warren’s poetry is geometry. Since Warren was headed for the Naval Academy before he lost his eye and since he was headed, at Vanderbilt, for an engineering degree before he wandered into John Crowe Ransom’s English class, we can assume that he had a good background in mathematics. That could all be investigated. The writer of this paper should also be aware of the fact that Warren’s second unpublished novel, which is listed as “untitled” in Grimshaw’s bibliography, but which is referred to as “But not the Lark” in a Warren letter to David Clay dated November 8, 1941, opens in a geometry class and that the protagonist, a good geometry student, is chosen to tutor the young woman about whom the plot swirls.

            Recently my reading of John Burt’s introduction to his notes on Warren’s poetry in his wonderful The Complete Poems of Robert Penn Warren, led me to a thought that is too big for a paper. It is more dissertation size. Burt explains that he usually used the first book appearance of a Warren poem as the author’s “settled intentions” for that poem. In doing this he chose not to use the first serial publication of the poem or the later revisions of the poem that appeared in various selections Warren made. I urge you to read his reasons and consider the possibility that most poets should be handled this way. The first serial publication is often only the latest draft in process that continues past that publication. The selected poem is often pulled out of its context by the need to make room for other things. The author may rewrite it to “make it fit” that space in the new book and thereby change the nature and power of the work.  Burt maintains that in the first book presentation Warren paid particular attention to the individual poems as well as to the way in which they fit together. I concur with his observation on Warren and suggest that it could be made for many if not most 20th Century American poets.

    Finally there are a number of questions concerning Warren’s years at Oxford. There is the matter of Warren’s having been tossed out of New College. Blotner used a card on file in the Rhodes House to note cryptically “(kicked out of college).”

    Warren was removed from New College and had to find rooms in town at 3 Wellington Square.  This whole affair is believed to have been over a certain “daughter of Britain” whom Warren had in his New College rooms after hours. Little is known of the affair. Caroline Brown, the Archivist of the Rhodes Trust told me that if I were to write to her with specific questions, she would read the files and provide answers. She suggested that John Burt’s permission for all this would be needed. It may not be possible to learn the identity of the “daughter of Britain” even from the Rhodes House records, but that prospect is intriguing. 

    There is the matter of the overdue books that Warren was concerned with during his summer break in 1929. As we discover in William Bedford Clark’s wonderfully useful first volume of the Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, on September 17th, Warren wrote to Andrew Lytle:

“I must put an end [missing text] library fines. I have nineteen books out       [missing text] bye. Much love to your family. Do I see you in Guthrie—or at          N.Y.?” (165)

I have wondered for some time what books Warren had out over that summer. When we were in England in’98, my wife and I went to the New College Library. Of course we wrote ahead so Caroline Dalton, the archivist there was waiting for us with an account of the meeting of February 7, 1928 of the Warden and Tutors of the College at which R H. Lightfoot speaking for the matriculation committee reported that they had accepted “R. P. Warren of Vanderbilt and Yale University.” She also brought down from the tower room where the archives are housed the huge leather bound Record of the library in which each user wrote the titles he was checking out and signed and dated the transaction. Those of you who have worked with Warren’s original holographs will be surprised to learn that the young R.P.Warren who was checking books out of the New College Library, Oxford in 1928 wrote in a clear, strong, easy-to-read hand.

            The first book Warren checked out was Scott’s History of Scotland.  From this library Warren read books on U.S. History, Jefferson & Hamilton, The Federalist, the works of Thomas Nash, John Donne and Gascoigne. There was no indication there of overdue books. 

We then went to Rhodes House where we discovered that the American History Collection that had been housed there in Warren’s time had been moved to the History Faculty Library. I thought at the time that Warren might have been borrowing the19 books for Allen Tate who was then in Paris working on his life of Jefferson Davis. In the spring of 1929, Warren wrote to Tate:

          “ I’m afraid that this will be a very unsatisfactory letter from several points of   view.  First, I know your dislike for reading any word of mine which does not  come from a typewriter. Second, it is simply impossible to get the books you want. The American History Library has been moved to the new Rhodes House and no books can be taken out. In fact, it is not even open now and I have had the devil’s own time getting permission to go there and hunt up some references I needed. Besides, your books aren’t there ”(Clark 157).

Clark speculates that the books Tate wanted were related to his Jefferson Davis project. We trudged on to the History Faculty Library. There time ran out on us.  Someone could well contact the archivist at the History Faculty library and inquire about possible records of Warren’s borrowings.

So there it is. I hope I have provided you with some topics to pursue or to have students pursue in the future. I would like to leave you with a short list of useful information for researching in Oxford and with copies of two of the poems I have written for my grandsons. I wish you the best.


James A. Perkins is Professor and Chair of the Department of English and Public Relations at Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.  He delivered the above shown paper at the annual ALA meeting held May 24-27, 2001,  in Boston, Ma.  For more information on James A. Perkins click here.