Robert Penn Warren
I. On a hot Saturday in September 1962, I crowded with my brothers and cousins into my aunt and uncle’s station wagon and drove off to war. Passing through our county in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we headed toward Charles Town, West Virginia, then crossed over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers at Harpers Ferry into Maryland. We had traveled through the familiar historic landscape of Stonewall Jackson’s skirmishes, Mosby’s raids, Sheridan’s ride, and John Brown’s capture and hanging to witness the centennial re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam.
Saul Bellow: Letters Edited by Benjamin Taylor (Viking, 571 pp., $35) How easy it is, and plausible, to regard a collection of letters spanning youth and old age as an approximation of autobiography: the procession of denizens who inhabit a life, the bit players with their entrances and exits, the faithful chronology of incidents—all turn up reliably in either form, whether dated and posted or backward-looking. Yet autobiography, even when ostensibly steeped in candor, tends toward reconsideration—if not revisionary paperings-over, then late perspectives, afterwords, and second thoughts.
The Notebooks of Robert Frost Edited by Robert Faggen (Harvard University Press, 792 pp., $39.95) ROBERT FROST'S POETRY is full of actions taken on obscure impulse. A man reins in his horse on "the darkest evening of the year" to watch the woods fill up with snow. Why does he interrupt his journey? "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Another man hesitates where "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" and takes "the one less traveled by." These poems are so familiar that it is almost painful to quote them. Others less well known are no less driven by impulse.
All the King's Men (Columbia) 49 Up (First Run) Robert Penn Warren was a poet who also wrote novels. His poetry, much of which is lovely, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and he was the first U.S. poet laureate. But today he is probably best remembered for his novels, particularly All the King's Men, which was published in 1946, won a Pulitzer in 1947, was filmed in 1949, and has now been filmed again. To approach this second film with regard for Warren's poetry, which I certainly have, is to sit for two hours in moderate discomfort.
One consequence of living several thousand miles from the place you grew up and shifting residences every few years is that the people you care for tend to die at a distance. Once a year or so I get a phone call to inform me that someone I had assumed alive and well has suffered a stroke, or shot himself, or neglected to wake up. Upon hearing such news I usually feel a brief but genuine desire to drop whatever I am doing and fly to the funeral. Then I recall the funerals I have attended.
Every culture has its preferred description of the human distinction. These descriptions are analytical and homiletical. We call ourselves not only what we are, but also what we seek to be. This is stirring, but it is also corrupting. It allows us to see the one in the other, to mistake what we aspire to be for what we are. A good rule of thumb is: we are never already what we should be. In our culture, the preferred descriptions have included: the soul, the nous (and other appellations for the mind), the self, the ego, the person. In our time, the preferred description is: identity. In Americ
The fortunate few who can afford Fortune were treated in the November issue to an essay by John Chamberlain on "The Businessman in Fiction." Preaching in Henry Luce's tabernacle for the already converted, Chamberlain made a fervent plea for faith in the businessman not only as the source from whom all our blessings flow, but also as a beneficent force in the culture and an admirable family man and community-conscious citizen who has been treated villainously by the ingrate novelists. Chamberlain's discussion of the novelists from William Dean Howells and Frank Norris to Norman Mailer and Hiram