Letters Archive

Fall 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Robert Penn Warren

Admiral Robert Penn Warren and The Snows of Winter
a tribute by William Styron

On April 10, 1975, the Lotos Club, one of New York’s oldest private literary organizations, paid tribute to Robert Penn Warren with a state dinner in honor of his soon-to-be seventieth birthday. Lionel Trilling, John Palmer, and William Styron gave remarks that evening. The draft notes for Styron’s speech were included in a large donation of papers Styron made to Duke University Library, and they were subsequently published in 1978 as a special edition pamphlet bearing the title “Admiral Robert Penn Warren and The Snows of Winter.” Styron later included the address in his volume This Quiet Dust and Other Writings as simply “Robert Penn Warren” in a section headed “Portraits and Farewells.” The essay is a touching illumination of the friendship between these two Southern writers, and a thoughtful reminder of the power of Warren’s most celebrated work, All the King’s Men.

I have been lucky to have known Red Warren well for quite a few years and to have been privy to certain personal matters known only between good friends. I am therefore aware of an interesting fact about Red’s early life that is not generally understood by less favored mortals. This is that, as a boy in his teens, Red’s simple but very red-blooded American ambition was to become an officer in the United States Navy. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the truth, not an idle fiction. Indeed, it was more than an ambition; it was a goal very close of attainment, for Red had obtained his appointment and was all but packed up and ready to leave the bluegrass of Kentucky for Annapolis when he suffered an injury to his eye which made it impossible for him ever to become a midshipman. There is irony in this, for it always has seemed to me that Red at least looks like a sailor. If you will glance at him now you will see it: that seamed and craggy face which has gazed, like Melville’s, into the briny abyss, that weather-wise expression and salty presence which have made him physically the very model of a sea dog; and, as a consequence, I have often become thoroughly bemused when speculating on Red’s career if he had gone off to the Navel Academy. I would like to consider this prospect for a moment.

First, let no one underestimate the military mind; at the highest levels of command great brilliance is required, and for this reason Red would have been what is known as a “rising star” from the very beginning. Thus I visualize the scenario—if I may use that awful word—like this. Number one in his class at Annapolis, Red becomes the first naval Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where his record is also spectacular. He takes his degree in Oriental History, writing a thesis which is a revisionist examination of Genghis Khan, largely laudatory in tone. Later in my fantasy I see Red at the end of World War II, much decorated, at the age of forty the youngest captain in the seagoing navy, attending the Naval War College at Newport, writing learned dissertations on the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet fleet. His recommendation is: Let’s press the button, very softly, before the Russians do. During the Korean War, a rear admiral now, he wins his fourth Navy Cross, is made commander in chief of the Pacific fleet, is on the cover of Time magazine, has a tempestuous though necessarily discreet affair with Ava Gardner. Through the dull and arid years between Korea and Vietnam, Red Warren plays golf with Eisenhower, rereads Thucydides and Clausewitz, hobnobs with Henry Luce, Barry Goldwater and Mendel Rivers, and is appointed Chief of Naval Operations under Lyndon Johnson.

I don’t know why my fantasy brightens and becomes happy at this point. Maybe it’s because I see Red Warren miraculously turn a major corner in his life, undergoing—as it were—a sea change. He becomes a dove! After all, a great Marine general, ex-Commandant David Shoup, did this: why not Red in my fantasy? Now as he reverses himself, the same grand historical imagination which in his alter ego produced All the King’s Men, World Enough, and Time and Brother to Dragons is suddenly seized with the folly and tragedy of our involvement in Southeast Asia, so that on one dark night in 1966 there is a confrontation, many hours long, between the admiral from Kentucky—now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and the Texas President, two Southerners eyeball to eyeball; and in this passionate colloquy it is the Kentuckian who finally gains the upper hand with his forceful, humanitarian argument—founded upon the ineluctable lessons of history of which he is master—that this war can only lead to futility, disaster and national degradation. I even see the droplets of sweat on Lyndon Johnson’s forehead as, after a grave long pause, he gives in, saying, “God damn yore soft-hearted hide, Admiral Warren, you’ve convinced me!” And immediately I see him getting on the telephone to McNamara: “Bob, git those advisors out of Vietnam! We’re going to nip this here dirty little war in the bud!”

But this kind of wish-fulfillment becomes almost unendurable, and so in my mind’s eye I bring Red’s naval career to a merciful close, seeing him as grim and cruel reason dictates he most likely would be today—not basking in well-deserved homage at the Lotos Club but retired to the Pacific seaside at Coronado, cultivating prize asparagus or roses, writing letters to the San Diego Tribune about stray dogs, queers and the Commie menace, and sending monthly donations to Rabbi Korff.

So, by that fateful accident years ago, America lost a master mariner but gained a major novelist and poet, a superb essayist, a literary critic of great breadth and subtle discrimination, a teacher of eloquence, a sly and hilarious storyteller, and altogether one of the best human beings to break bread with, or join with in spirituous companionship, or just simply be around in this desperate or any other time…

I would like to conclude with a couple of brief reminiscences having to do with Red Warren which in each case are oddly connected with—of all things for two good ole Southern boys: winter snow. The first of these events occurred a long time ago in New York City during the famous blizzard of late December 1947 (which many of you here doubtless still remember), when I—a young and aspiring and penniless writer up from the Virginia Tidewater living in a basement on upper Lexington Avenue—first read All the King’s Men. I think it is absolute and unimpeachable testimony to a book’s impact on us that we are able to associate it so keenly with the time and the surroundings and the circumstances in which we read it. Only a very great work can produce this memory; it is like love, or recollections of momentous loving. There is what psychologists call a gestalt, an unforgettability of interwoven emotions with which the work will ever in recollection be connected with the environment. Somehow the excitement of reading All the King’s Men is always linked in my mind with the howling blizzard outside and the snow piling up in a solid white impacted mass outside my basement window. The book itself was a revelation and gave me a shock to brain and spine like a freshet of icy water. I had of course read many novels before, including many of the greatest, but this powerful and complex story embedded in prose of such fire and masterful imagery—this, I thought with growing wonder, this was what a novel was all about, this was it, the bright book of life, what writing was supposed to be. When finally the blizzard stopped and the snow lay heaped on the city streets, silent as death, I finished All the King’s Men as in a trance, knowing once and for all that I, too, however falteringly and incompletely, must try to work such magic. I began my first novel before that snow had melted; it is a book called Lie Down in Darkness, and in tone and style, as any fool can see, it is profoundly indebted to the work which so ravished my heart and mind during that long snowfall.

Many years and many snowfalls later, I was walking with Red Warren one late afternoon on, of all absurd things, snowshoes through the white silence of a forest in Vermont—a rather clumsily comical trek which, had you told the young man on Lexington Avenue he would be making it in the future, would have caused him both awe and incredulity. Red and I were by this time fast and firm friends, bonded in a friendship long past the need of forced conversation, and as we puffed along in Indian file across the mountainous snowdrifts, each of us plunged in his own private meditation, it creepily occurred to me that we were far away from home, far away from the road, still miles away from anything or anybody—and that, worst of all, it was almost night. I had a moment of terrible panic as I thought that Red and I, having unwittingly strayed in our outlandish footgear off the beaten track, would find ourselves engulfed by darkness in this freezing wilderness, utterly lost, two nonsmokers with not a match between us, or a knife to cut shelter—only our foolhardy, vulnerable selves, floundering in the Yankee snows. After the initial panic slid away and I had succumbed to a stoic reckoning, a resignation in face of the inevitable, it occurred to me that if I had to die there was nobody on earth, aside from perhaps Raquel Welch, that I’d rather freeze to death with than Robert Penn Warren: this noble gentlemen from Guthrie, Kentucky, whose humane good sense and lyric passion had so enriched us all through these many novels and poems and essays and plays, and whose celebration of the mystery and beauty and, yes, even the inexplicable anguish of life had been one of those priceless bulwarks against death in a time of too much dying. Just then I heard Red casually say, “Well, here’s the road.” And I was a little ashamed of my panic, but not of those thoughts, which also had included my heartfelt thanks to God that Red Warren never became an admiral.

From This Quiet Dust and Other Writings by William Styron, copyright 1953, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982 by William Styron. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.

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