Letters

Letters Archive
Spring 1998, Vol. 6, No.2
  • Examining Secrecy and Sexuality
  • Celebrating Ten Years
  • Fellows Look Back at the Center's First Decade
  • His Long Home
  • Celebrating Ten Years

    Paul Elledge

    A humbling honor under any circumstances, the invitation to accept directorship of the Warren Center proved especially appealing because offered to me at a time when its previous directors —Professor Charles E. Scott, now of Pennsylvania State University, and Professor Paul H. Freedman, now of Yale —with the skilled collaboration of Ms. Mona Frederick, assistant director of the Center since its inception, had fashioned it into a nationally prominent site for advanced scholarly inquiry in the humanities. With such a legacy, one is happy to be third — indeed to be associated in any capacity with the Center's laudable history and worthy mission. So firmly and lustrously situated is the Warren Center in the campus consciousness and beyond our borders as an intersection for stimulating intellectual exchange, where entertainment and promotion of cutting-edge ideas respect, balance, and invigorate more traditional perspectives, that my challenging task is to maintain the standards and goals established by my predecessors and to stay clear of the streamlined administrative efficiency of Ms. Frederick, whose name is practically synonymous with the Center's distinguished achievements. As a member of the community of beneficiaries as well as the Center's new director, I am most grateful to these persons for their visionary and productive steward ship, and to the many fellows and program directors over the years who have helped to craft and furbish the Center's reputation.
    This inheritance received its ceremious due on the night of 23 October 1997 when some one hundred and seventy-five guests gathered at Chancellor and Mrs. Joe B. Wyatt’s Belle Meade home to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Warren Center. Amid racks of superb cuisine, banks of yellow roses, and accompanied by an en chanting piano, current and for mer fellows and program directors of the Center, with spouses and partners, circulated among senior University administrators, college deans, donors, and other guests and supporters, including former director Charles Scott, former Vanderbilt development officer Dennis Cross, whose efforts were critically instrumental in securing funds for the Center's establishment, and former Dean of the College Jacque Voegeli, who first imagined a humanities center for the campus and then sponsored and supervised its creation. The celebration had the festive air of a reunion (absent familial tensions!), with many guests remarking upon the convivial exuberance of the company. Indeed, one guest recently observed that it was the most pleasurable institutional occasion she had attended in more than thirty years at Vanderbilt. At the appropriate time, Chancellor Wyatt, recognizing the chief imaginative principle and anchor of the Center, delivered these words of tribute to Mona Frederick, the mention of whose name, even before Mr. Wyatt's encomium, triggered a robust and extended round of applause:

    Over the past ten years...there's been one person who has made the Robert Penn Warren Center what it is today. Mona Frederick . . .[has] been the force behind the Center's impressive list of programs, which include over 100 seminars and lectures featuring many of the finest scholars, writers and thinkers in the country. Under her tutelage, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities has become a national center of learning and discussion. In between paying the bills and keeping track of the many visitors, Mona has provided stability, vision and a keen eye for programs, and a good sense of humor. I know her former directors and fellows join me in recognizing her accomplishments.

    The Chancellor's first possessive pronoun in that last sentence is apt, for those persons do share with Mona a proud and proprietary sense of each other as mutually enabling partners in the enterprise of the Center. At the conclusion of Mr. Wyatt's remarks, I was privileged to present to Mona, on behalf of the University, two gifts in appreciation of her distinguished service: an internationally faced mantle clock and a framed photograph.
    The historic Vaughn Home, where we are housed and about which Ms. Frederick has eloquently written in the previous is sue of Letters, is a handsome, well-appointed facility, but it has lacked, until recently, any physical commemoration, other than signage on its lawn, of the Vanderbilt alumnus for whom we are named. As someone whose admiration for Robert Penn Warren dates back to a (well-lost, I hope) college honors thesis on his novels — then only five! —I felt that absence sharply, and upon my appointment set about remedying it. I contacted Ms. Rosanna Warren, daughter of our name sake and herself an eminent poet, who like her father once served on the Vanderbilt English faculty, with the thought that the family might be willing to lend us a portrait of its patriarch for display m the Center. Mr. Warren, I was told, never sat for a portrait. Not, anyhow, in oil. But in 1971, Rosanna Warren continued, her father had sat for sculptress Joan Fitzgerald, and the resulting bronze head had remained ever since in the artist's Venetian studio, although Rosanna and her brother Gabriel, himself a sculptor, had recently discussed purchasing it as a likeness of their father long admired by them both. Contact with Ms. Fitzgerald followed, photographs arrived, negotiations progressed; and thanks to the generosity of the Chancellor's office, I was able to accept Rosanna and Gabriel's offer of half of the purchase price if we would match it. Both Ms. Fitzgerald and the Warrens registered their pleasure that the bronze would find a permanent home at Vanderbilt, where, the sculptress affirmed, Mr. Warren himself had wanted it to reside. I welcome this opportunity publicly to acknowledge our gratitude to the Warren family and to the Chancellor's office for an exceptional generosity enabling enhanced recognition of one of Vanderbilt's favorite sons.
    In due course the crate arrived from Venice, a package astonishingly resistant to assaults by ham mer, screwdriver, crowbar, and the sweaty, prizing grip of a baffled Director. Tightly bundled in styrofoam batting, the head itself, at last visible from above, only reluctantly yielded to the heaving and hauling of said Director, hopelessly unskilled in the arts of midwifery. He finally laid hold of the ears and wrenched our bronze loose, amidst bursts of detritus, a bonny, flawless specimen, and delivered it with relief into the waiting arms of Nurse Frederick, who ably applied appropriate cleansing materials, with Q-tips, no less.
    It is a splendid, stunning sculpture—strong, bold, powerful, and, as the youngsters say, ''awesome." It captures the sturdiness of principled character, the rugged geniality, the gritty courage and tough substantiality of the man. Ms. Fitzgerald re ports that when Mr. Warren first saw the finished product, he grumped, "It looks like I'm damned mad about something," after a moment adding, "and I am damned mad about a lot of things!" For us, however, he seems less wroth in the representation than, shall we say, aristocratically austere. In any case, we are delighted to have Ms. Fitzgerald's "portrait" on permanent display at the Warren Center, and we were particularly pleased to welcome the sculptress herself to our revel, where she joined the Chancellor in unveiling her art.
    Counterpointing, in some mea sure softening, the sternness of the bronze, is a photograph of Mr. Warren, also unveiled at our tenth anniversary celebration, by the noted portraitist of authors, Jill Krementz (The Writer s Desk, 1996). The liberal gift of a donor who prefers to remain anonymous, this photograph pictures the author relaxed on the veranda of his Vermont home, the woods in vivid chiaroscuro embracing him, a huge smile creasing his famously weathered face. Pictures of a smiling Warren, I am told, are rare; this one is warm, inviting, a little quietly mischievous. Elegantly framed in heavy black, the photograph now hangs over the fireplace in the Center's conference chamber, pre siding over that space, immediately to the left of the front door: with the sculpture situated directly be yond the entrance-way, two handsomely complementary images of Mr. Warren now greet visitors to the Center from the front and flank. I here thank our generous supporter for the gift of this captivating photograph.
    Now about that other photograph, our gift to Mona: Once we had purchased the bronze, Ms. Fitzgerald offered to send us, for purposes of documentation, duplicates of photographs made during Mr. Warren's sitting sessions with her. Among this striking collection, now available for review at the Center, was one of the completed bronze positioned on the sculptress's studio table, several of the subject's books to the side, and the artist's cairn terrier, on point, as it were, in blunt scrutiny, nose-to-nose with the head. Mr. Warren does not appear amused. But the photo now rests on Mona's desk, defying its observers not to be!
    Following the presentations and unveilings at our gala, Chancellor Wyatt introduced "the real star of our show," Professor Joseph Blotner, Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Michigan and much published scholar of American literature and the humanities. Most recently author of the widely-ac claimed Robert Penn Warren: A Biography (1997), Professor Blotner had agreed to speak on the appropriateness of an interdisciplinary center carrying Mr. Warren's name. Summarizing the author's voluminous productivity by genre—from fifteen books of poetry and ten novels through plays, short stories, historical essays, literary and sociological studies, textbooks, and a memoir—Professor Blotner, referring to his assignment, gave us "the bad news" that Mr. Warren's musical collaboration had been handicapped by tone deafness ("he sang in an off-key country twang"; in dutiful attendance with his wife at the opera, Mr. Warren said that he "usually scribble[d] on the back of a pro gram"), but "the good news" that, if we equate genre with discipline, Mr. Warren can be rivaled by few in the range of his inter disciplinarity. In "core artistic identity" a poet, Professor Blotner said, Mr. Warren wrote verse plays (All the King's Men began as drama), history as biography, history as narrative poetry, history (and arguably social and political science) as novels, and film scripts (with Robert Rossen, and later with Robert Redford on the ill-fated film version of A Place to Come To); Yale School of Drama employed him as a professor of playwriting; Audubon: A Vision ranges in subject from the violent frontier to ornithology to American art; historical meditations include works on Jefferson Davis and on the Civil War; and personal reflection issues in the mysterious and gripping Portrait of a Father. Such multiplicity of talent, spaciousness of learning, and commitment to the highest moral and artistic values—recognized, of course, by three Pulitzers over his lifetime—make the Warren name an inspiration, a responsibility, and a daunting challenge to participants in the Center that bears it.
    But there is also the personal suitability. In John Egerton's Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries (1979), Mr. Warren's "Reminiscence remembers:

    The little Nashville of fifty years ago was my first big City. I don't even know my way around the new Nashville, not even the Vanderbilt campus, but I carry the old Nashville in my head, grateful for the friends it gave me and for so much else. How remarkably lucky I was to have been there. I have often thought that for me and my purposes and aspirations, it was the best place in the world.

    It is my hope that the Center will continue as a "best" place to come to for scholars pursuing interdisciplinary inquiry—a place where we recognize our own remarkable good fortune as heirs of a humanitarian tradition modeled by Mr. Warren, a place that carries in its head, so to speak, emblemed in our bronze, respect toward his values and traditions while pushing at the frontiers of our scholarly and interdisciplinary precincts with such daring and vigor as to render this place even more taxing to negotiate—as unfamiliar in its intellectual elaboration and opportunities, if not in its foundation, as Mr. Warren's new Nashville, but inviting, too, a gateway to adventures in disciplinary cross-fertilization that will stretch and excite the larger educational enterprise of the University. That, I believe, is also the message of former Director Charles Scott, whose tribute, quoted below, at the 1989 dedication of the Center, we have in scribed on parchment beneath the Krementz portrait of Mr. Warren in our conference chamber:

    The name of this Center recalls and honors one of Vanderbilt's most creative graduates. By thus commemorating the work of Robert Penn Warren, we forecast the character of the education that we envision for this University's future. We wish to remind our selves that the knowledge, discipline, and creativity borne by his writing help to shape the dream and direct the mission of the Center. We trust that our best heritage—which he figures—will inform the education that we occasion. It isn't an idle name—The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities—it embodies a promise that we have found in our past. And we hope that his spirit haunts us.

    We do. And to facilitate the process, each guest took away from our celebration a party favor in the form of a chic t-shirt featuring on both sides facsimiles of the Warren bronze that focus a presence, inscribe a reminder of who we are as scholarly humanists, and of the responsibilities accompanying that identity.

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    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.


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