Letters Archive

Spring 2008, Vol. 16, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Robert Penn Warren and the University in its Time

Helmut Wasler Smith

Helmut Walser Smith

We are in the year 2008, and we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Robert Penn Warren Center among the forerunners of humanities centers throughout the country and, indeed, throughout the Englishspeaking world. The celebration of the Warren Center necessarily evokes the name of Robert Penn Warren himself. An undergraduate at Vanderbilt, he also taught briefly in the English Department before moving on to posts at LSU, Minnesota, and Yale. To a significant degree, Warren derives his connection with Vanderbilt from a group of poets and intellectuals known as the Fugitives, and, in a different constellation, from the Southern Agrarians. The manifesto of the Southern Agrarians, “I’ll Take my Stand,” counts as one of the most complex and interesting documents of southern literature. It is also a defense of racial segregation—“ let the Negro sit beneath his own vine and fig tree,” as Warren put it in “The Briar Patch,” his contribution to the manifesto.

Every university has its moment, and this was, for good or ill, a significant moment for the humanities at Vanderbilt. “I’ll Take my Stand” was a public pronouncement by southern intellectuals, almost all of whom had been either students or professors at Vanderbilt. The most prominent figures, in addition to Warren (who was at Oxford at the time) and the poet Allen Tate, hailed from the Department of English; they included John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and John Donald Wade. Herman Clarence Nixon had taught in the Department of Political Science, and Lyle Hicks Lanier in the Department of Psychology, then a discipline closer to the humanities. History also had representatives. Frank Lawrence Owsley came from the Department of History, and the book was dedicated to Walter L. Fleming, then the history department chair. Not all faculty members at Vanderbilt supported the manifesto, and some, like English Department Chairman Edward Mims, publicly opposed the views of the Agrarians. Nor did the administration officially support it. Still, “I’ll Take my Stand” was a document that had become associated with Vanderbilt University. When I arrived in 1991, I remember reading recommendation letters that referred to it— positively.

But Vanderbilt was not the only university which, when called upon, called it wrong.

There is the far more famous case of the University of Salamanca, whose professors deliberated in 1491 on a proposal offered by Christopher Columbus. If we believe Washington Irving, and we should not, the scholars quoted scripture and conjured a flat earth, while Columbus cited science and courageously planned to sail the convex of the earth all the way to the Indies. “You cannot do it,” the scholars harrumphed. The scholars, of course, were dead right. Columbus’s calculations were based on the second-century coordinates of Ptolemy, who imagined the earth as smaller in circumference than it actually was. Columbus, the scholars rightly maintained, would have sailed his ships and crew into a vast nothingness, where—ill-provisioned— they would have disappeared without trace. The scholars did not believe that the earth was flat—almost no one did; rather, they knew its expanse. But a group of unknown islands and two continent- sized land masses saved Columbus and his crew from the fate the scholars grimly foresaw. Now, however, we remember the collective obstinacy of the faculty of the University of Salamanca, and we chalk it up to the timidity of their erudition.

Erudition is not besides the point, however, for it speaks to a kind of intellectual patience prized by the Southern Agrarians, whose stinging critiques were also directed against the frenetic pace of modern industrial society. The Southern Agrarians did more than prize erudition: they powerfully developed an approach to literature that focused on the text itself, an approach whose name derives from John Crowe Ransom’s “The New Criticism,” published in 1941. New Criticism, though also developed by I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot, constitutes one of the remarkable contributions of Vanderbilt’s humanities to scholarship; here, Robert Penn Warren was of central importance, in particular, through two works—penned at LSU but partly conceived at Oxford—entitled Understanding Poetry (1938, coauthored with Cleanth Brooks), and Understanding Fiction (1943). Against a prevalent tendency to emphasize the biography of authors, the social context of writing, and literary history, Warren and the New Critics focused on the formal aspects of poetry and writing, and they underscored the aesthetic unity of literary works. This approach powerfully influenced subsequent criticism, and it came to represent a mainstream position in English departments for the next quarter century. At once elitist and serious, New Criticism was also a potent science of erudition. A Vanderbilt contribution, it was also a contribution that, like most scholarly contributions, bears the mark of a far wider republic of letters, including Oxford University, Louisiana State University, the University of Minnesota, and Yale. Universities in their time rarely stand alone.

Just over fifty years after its deliberations on Columbus, the University of Salamanca faced another question. The faculty of theology was asked to comment upon a Latin-language dialogue written by Ginés de Sepúlveda and intended to justify the Spanish decimation of the Indians. Sepúlveda argued that the Indians were subhuman “Homunculi” with “hardly a vestige of humanity.” Cannibals, dirty and uncouth, the brutish Indians, Sepúlveda averred, were “like pigs with their eyes always fixed on the ground.” Closer to animals than to men, they were natural slaves—so Sepúlveda argued. The faculty found the argument unsound and voted to censor the book, which, in fact, did not appear until the nineteenth century. But Sepúlveda was a court historian with significant influence, and he managed to commute the censorship into a debate, which was then held in Valladolid from 1550 to 1551. His opponent was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who had eloquently argued that the Indians were among God’s children, and that the Spanish devastation of the native populations was a crime. Las Casas, it is true, provided justification for the colonization of the new world in the name of the Church, and he had not the slightest doubt that eternal damnation awaited natives who did not see the light. He also offered an early justification for paternal colonization of “backwards” peoples, and argued, long before Rudyard Kipling, that colonization imposed a moral duty on the colonizers. We may now look back on Las Casas’s arguments critically; but, within the terms of the debate, his was the more humane position. The debate, alas, was a draw, but the theologians of the University of Salamanca sided with Las Casas, and, two hundred years later, Samuel Johnson could still say, “I love the University of Salamanca, for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their conquering America, the University of Salamanca gave it as their opinion that it was not lawful.”

This is the university in its time. There are other examples: when the University of Padua became the center of humanistic learning in the 1450s, or when, in the 1580s, the University of Leiden developed neo-stoicism— formidable moral and political doctrines for a Europe torn by war and plague; other possibilities include 1699, when Cambridge elected Sir Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, even though he was not active in the Anglican church, or when, in the mid-eighteenth century, the Universities of Glasgow and of Edinburgh became the centers of an Enlightenment whose luminaries include, among others, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith. Such a list could be easily extended— to include the University of Berlin at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it developed seminar education and a new understanding of scholarship and science; the University of Basel in mid-century, with which we associate the names of Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche; and Johns Hopkins University at the end of the century, which adopted European models of graduate education and, in this way, influenced the dynamic world of higher education in the United States. The twentieth century, too, is replete with instances of universities in their time: Peking University, from which the bulk of students of the anti-imperialist May fourth Movement of 1919 came; Brooklyn College, which, finding itself in the epicenter of European immigration in the 1930s, became a hothouse of new ideas; the New School of Social Research, set up in the 1940s and 1950s as the haven for critical theorists once associated with the University of Frankfurt; the University of Paris X, Nanterre, a revolutionary hot spot in 1968, but also the university of Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Ricouer; Yale University in the 1970s and 1980s, when French-influenced deconstruction turned the university’s gentile if learned literary debates into productive acrimony; and Peking University, again, from whose halls came many of the students who formed the largest single instance of student protest in world history—on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It seems to me that the career of Robert Penn Warren tells us something about Vanderbilt in its time. By the 1950s, Warren recanted his earlier political views (but not New Criticism), and, as a public intellectual, he embraced not only desegregation but the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, he published a highly influential book, entitled Who Speaks for the Negro? The book interlaces commentary with a series of printed interviews with leading civil rights leaders (the audio transcripts of these interviews can soon be heard at the Vanderbilt University Library). In crucial ways, Who Speaks for the Negro? contributed to the opening of a dialogue between white and black intellectuals. Warren also wrote a series of essays reflecting on the divergent paths of north and south after the Civil War. In these capacities, he represented simultaneously the most empathetic and withering critic of the white south.

The Robert Penn Warren Center was founded twenty years after 1968, a turning point for civil rights and for political culture in this country more generally. At the time of the Center’s founding, in 1988, Vanderbilt still confronted the political legacies of agrarianism, which was still largely regional in focus, and the university counted few minorities in its student body. It also remained a hierarchically organized university in which assistant professors could not speak to deans (to say nothing of provosts and chancellors) without the accompaniment of department chairs. It had a small number of brilliant professors and a small number of outstanding students. Much of this has since changed, and the Warren Center has helped by creating an atmosphere of open criticism and interdisciplinary thinking. It has, in other words, been an important part of a remarkable transformation which, in the last twenty years, has seen the creation of top-flight faculties in the humanities—a number of which, whatever the official rankings say—are genuinely in the top twenty in the country, and some of which are in the top ten. More importantly, the faculty in the humanities has become more diverse, and the density of cutting- edge scholarship in the humanities more impressive. Better students have followed.

Is it possible that Vanderbilt will again have its time—a second moment like that of the University of Salamanca? Perhaps it will, as a part of a wider republic of letters—the way that universities almost always make their marks. Perhaps it will by building on elements of its tradition— on the remarkable attention to textually immanent interpretation that defined New Criticism, which might now be reinterpreted as a trans-disciplinary philology. Or perhaps distinction will arise from the immensely productive domain of medicine and society, or of religion and culture, or of ethics and the environment, or for our remarkable focus on the Americas. Perhaps it will come from scholars who conceptualize the category of race anew. Or, perhaps it will come from a scholar working alone.

It is October 12; the old Columbus Day. The BBC reports that Al Gore and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” It is the second year in a row, following Muhammad Yunus, that someone with ties to Vanderbilt has won the Peace Prize. Is this the University in its Time?

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