David Blight on Robert Penn Warren June 14, 2012June 11, 2012Brooks D. Simpson Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailLike this:Like Loading... Related
Now I will have to read “All The King’s Men”…
How was Robert Penn Warren’s perception and understanding of the Civil War as it came to him through the stories of his grandfather impacted, colored or filtered in light of the experience of World War I and the death of optimism that resulted from WW-I? Warren was part of a generation that was coming of age during WW-I. How did that war impact how the grandchildren of the CW viewed and remembered the Civil War their grandfathers had fought in?
On a personal note: I knew David.Blight in his undergraduate years at Michigan State University before he became Dr. David Blight, noted CW historian and author. In the summer of 1968, the two of us took a week to visit Gettysburg, Harper;s Ferry, Antietam, and a good number of the Virginia CW battlefields. That was my first introduction to those battlefields and the memories of those places have stayed with me for a lifetime, Over the years the memory of those places has served to help shape and mold how I view the concept of war. It was interesting to watch this video and see that David’s fascination with the Civil War has remained unchanged,
>> World War I and the death of optimism that resulted from WW-I
Here’s an article on the book “The Unquiet Western Front” that challenges the idea that WWI was seen as futile and pointless by those involved. http://staging.weeklystandard.com/author/h.w.-crocker-iii The full article is behind a paywall unfortunately.
I haven’t read the book yes and can’t comment on it. But it wouldn’t be shocking if the “common wisdom” on that war –the memory of it– was inaccurate given who the reporters of the idea were and are.
Blight’s lecture is interesting. Ultimately, I think he’s right that whoever it was “landed a blow” against Warren by noting that if all the horror of injustice and war can be accounted for by the nature of man (as the critic implies that Warren seems to think or imply), then there is no real explanation expected or needed. And yet there is. Because if all we have to do is chalk up oppression and violence to human depravity, can’t we explain how this expression of oppression of violence happened here and not there, or in this time and not that one?
That’s my problem with Warren. He isn’t the only one with a tragic view of the CW, or any war, or anything. I do to. I have a tragic view too. Life is tragic, and certainly war. But knowing that life and war are tragic explains far to little for reasonable and intelligent people. Why did these persons do what they did, and why were they opposed by others. Invoking a tragic view as any form of specific explanation seems a dodge, and it is hard for me to see that this is anything other than part of a rationalization. If this was sufficient no historian (amateur or professional) would have anything technical to do.
But there is merit to looking at the tragic view, and so there is merit to reading Warren for the reasons that Blight gives. But ultimately, it seems that he’s just too pessimistic. In the 1500s there were those who thought nature itself was decaying, and cultures were all decaying with it. We “stood on the shoulders of giants” they said. Well we do, but they went further and said that we could never be as good or do as well as those who went before because the whole world was decaying, and mankind as a part of it with it. Those who held such a viewed any visible change as decline. Now Warren probably wants to say that too many are inclined to view changes as always good. There are probably those, but I think more than he thinks can accept the middle ground –what I take to be the proper one– that even those who accept the classic tragic view of life can see that some change is good, some bad, and always they are mixed. Bad things happen with good things, and even good can come from what is bad. Lean to far to either extreme and you’ll fall into error. It doesn’t seem to me that Warren hit the middle very well, and I have a hard time when I read him because of that.