Filled with entertaining anecdotes and personal reflections, this collection of twenty-four conversations with Robert Penn Warren provides an illuminating glimpse of the man and his thoughts on life and literature. Warren's wide interests--history, politics, technological change, teaching, race relations--span a period of more than three decades.
"Perhaps in no literary genre is an author more completely and accurately himself than in an interview," the editors note. "Every attribute of Robert Penn Warren--his folksiness, his wit, his honesty and openness--or, in short, the full man--is peculiarly adapted to the genre." Strongly apparent, for example, are Warren's feelings about his country. "I'm in love with America; the funny part of it is, I really am," he tells Bill Moyers. Even so, he does not shrink from criticizing America's shortcomings as his comments to Edwin Newman about the Civil War and the country's involvement in Vietnam make clear.
Warren's asides are replete with biographical gems. To interviewer Peter Stitt he remarks that he never intended to go to Vanderbilt, but to Annapolis, and that once at Vanderbilt, his original chosen vocation was chemical engineering--a goal that changed after he enrolled in a literature class taught by John Crowe Ransom. Particularly revealing, however--especially to young writers--are Warren's reflections on the creative process. "Don't leave a page until you have it as near what you want as you can make it that day," he advises. When Warren speaks of his own writing career, there is no false modesty in his statements about his "trying" to be a writer or of "inching" along in the creative process. Rather, one sees a man who knows very well the very tentative and makeshift nature of literary effort.
While offering views on other writers--from Homer and Shakespeare to Hemingway and Nikki Giovanni--Warren reflects as well on the role of criticism: "All the study about a writer or a work, all the analyses of background or ideas or the structure of a work--he purpose of all this is to prepare the reader to confront the work with innocence, with simplicity, with directness." And when asked if "poetic value" can be defined, Warren answers, "Well, if I could define it today, I wouldn't accept the same definition tomorrow."
Robert Penn Warren, the country's first poet laureate and the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and poetry, left no autobiography. Thus, Warren's conversations become one of the most important single sources for anyone seeking to understand his life and art.