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Original Sin in the Writings of Robert Penn Warren
by Michael M. Jordan
Flannery O’Connor’s remarks in Mystery and Manners about the “Christ-haunted” South and her claim that “Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not” (44, 167) are easily applied to the work of her fellow Southern writer Robert Penn Warren. Although Warren was not a Christian—he called himself a “non-believer” and a “yearner” (Robert Penn Warren Talking, 204)—he had a religious temperament and utilized Christian concepts in his imaginative literature. His South is not Christ-centered, but it is haunted by a memory of the moral and spiritual teachings of the Christian faith. This is especially evident in the role sin (Original Sin and actual sin) plays in his work. He based many of his dramas on the bedrock of Original Sin, and images and symbols of Original Sin and characters haunted by sin abound in his poetry and fiction.
I believe it is possible to say that Robert Penn Warren himself was haunted by sin. His daughter Rosanna’s recollections of childhood make the claim feasible. She remembers her father’s “melancholia,” his railing against Ralph Waldo Emerson and other optimists.1 Rosanna also recollected: “One of the very first phrases I heard, or remember, was ‘Original Sin.’ That was pounded into my ears. He was constantly joking about it, but it meant he believed in it” (Blotner, 372–373). Warren himself has observed that “Literature springs from the attempt to inspect one’s own soul rather than from the attempt to cure the souls of others” (Robert Penn Warren Talking, 194). Thus there would seem to be some definite connections between the author and the images and symbols of sin and the sin-haunted characters in his writing.
Blackness of Truth
The sin-haunted world of Robert Penn Warren clearly can be seen in several of his major works. Take, for example, his best-known, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men (1946). Willie Stark, Warren’s fictionalized version of Louisiana populist and governor Huey Long, begins his career in politics as an innocent idealist with a fairly high view of human nature. In time, however, he changes his view of man to one that accords with the Judeo-Christian view. As Stark vulgarly puts it, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud” (49). Willie’s confession reminds us of King David’s slightly more dignified confession in Psalm 51, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” King David and Willie Stark are both testifying about the general sinful condition of humanity. To use the language of Christian theologians, they are talking about Original Sin, or about the results of the Original Sin.
As governor of Louisiana, Willie Stark discovers that his knowledge of human depravity is useful. His chief investigator, Jack Burden (the narrator of the novel), can find the dirt on anybody. Thus any legislator, judge, or prominent citizen who refuses to do Governor Stark’s bidding can be blackmailed into submission. Jack Burden is a student of history, and he tells us that he “does not care what he digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past” (157).
His boss puts him on the trail of Judge Irwin, a man thought to have been honorable in his office of judge, free from any vice or sin that he would not freely acknowledge to all men. Jack Burden initially believes the judge is spotless; he does not think he will find any dung on the honorable judge. Yet he does find something (that the judge has been involved in graft), and he also realizes that, since the judge is his friend, he does care about what he digs up out of the judge’s past. He is unwilling to share his discovery with Willie Stark; he is reluctant, as he puts it, to “frame” the judge. His boss replies: “I never asked you to frame anybody. And you know why? . . . Because it ain’t never necessary. You don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient.” When Jack Burden ironically comments on Stark’s “high view of human nature,” Stark replies: “Boy, I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck” (337). What stuck, of course, was the Calvinistic teaching of total depravity, and the Christian teaching about Original Sin.
Jack discovers, as he puts it towards the end of the novel, “that the truth is a terrible thing. . . . For there is a blackness of truth, too” (342). He discovers more than graft in the judge’s past. He learns that the judge is his father, and that his father “had cuckolded a friend, betrayed a wife, taken a bribe, [and] driven a man, though unwittingly, to death” (353). Jack learns too, that he himself is a brother in guilt with despicable people like Tiny Duffy, the new governor of Louisiana, who played a key role in the assassination of Governor Stark (417).
At one time Jack Burden viewed man as nothing more than a mechanical mixture of blood and nerves, a creature without a soul, without moral sense, without any individual or societal responsibilities. He believed this because it exonerated him from moral responsibility and moral guilt. But he learns that man, man’s history, and God’s Providence are mysterious and complex, that the past, the present, and the future are inextricably intertwined. In the end he sees that choices made in the past by himself and others, even seemingly innocent choices, profoundly affect the present and the future. Jack learned this truth in his scholarly study of Cass Mastern (the subject of his unfinished doctoral dissertation) and in his own experience. He
learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. (188–189)
At the conclusion of the novel, much like Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden of Eden, Jack Burden and his wife Anne go “into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time” (438). The novel ends on an Old Testament note; it ends where Genesis, chapter three begins: Jack is unable to escape history and time. He is burdened (here his name is certainly significant) with moral responsibility and sin, but not redeemed by the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection.
In All the King’s Men two fundamental or foundational Christian doctrines are affirmed: First, man, all men, even the seemingly innocent, are prone to sin and in fact do sin. And second, men are responsible, morally responsible, for their sins. They cannot blame their iniquity on Adam or the devil. Like Jack Burden, like Adam and Eve, they must live in “the convulsion of the world” and assume “the awful responsibility of Time.” However, God’s gracious response to this human predicament is not a theme in All the King’s Men.
A second novel, World Enough and Time (1950), is as unrelenting in its portrayal of a sinful world, a fallen world, as is All the King’s Men. I will focus on only two passages, which strikingly illustrate the doctrine of Original Sin. The most depraved and grotesque character in the novel (one of many) is Ole Big Hump, a gigantic humpbacked pirate and despot who rules a community of outlaws on an island in a swampy backwater of the Ohio River in the early 1800s. He was born in Louisiana of Indian, Negro, Spanish, and French ancestry. In other words, he has red, black, and white blood in his veins. He has betrayed both white man and Indian when both struggled for control of lands west of the Appalachians. He is a pirate, a murderer, an alcoholic, and a prodigious fornicator who has sired children with white, Indian, and Negro women, some of them his near kin. Ole Big Hump dies, and his descendants in time become respectable. They
raised up sons who learned the rules and tricks of [the] world, who read the books and wore the clothes of the world, and voted and paid taxes and owned tidy houses with green lawns or subdivision palaces and went to the field or factory or office, and became farmers, storekeepers, statesmen, heroes, mechanics, insurance agents, executives, bankers. (432–433)
They have forgotten Ole Big Hump, but Warren has not, and he won’t let us forget him either. Warren writes:
[B]ut more than a century later, lying under the earth of his island, [Ole Big Hump] might grin to think that the joke, in the end, was not on him but on the world, for those most respectable descendants, who did not know him and would have denied him with shame, still carried under their pink scrubbed hides and double-breasted sack suits . . . the mire-thick blood of his veins and the old coiling darkness of his heart. (433)
A second passage from World Enough and Time describes venereal disease as a type of Original Sin. Jeremiah Beaumont, the novel’s sin-stained and guilt-haunted protagonist, contracts the disease in a casual but nonetheless sordid affair with one of Ole Big Hump’s former mistresses. Jeremiah reflects on the significance of the disease in his journal:
Sore worse this morning. As I looked at it . . . I knew what it was. Why had I not guessed before. . . . I should have known because it is right that my blood should take on corruption from the corrupt blood of that woman, which corruption she herself had had from some man whom I have never known, as he in turn from another, like a rich legacy coming to me in this far and secret place across the thousands of miles of the deep ocean and across the dark land and forests and down the passage of years and the buried channels of the corrupt blood of all those who have labored to nurse and pass on this heritage to me. (446)
Moments later he adds with bitter irony: “Let me regard this canker with reverence and amaze, like a jewel fit for royal diadem. It proclaims me one of them, and of their great descent” (446).
Both passages from World Enough and Time focus on the blood of man, corrupt blood that is passed on from generation to generation, in one case leading back to Ole Big Hump, a type of Adam in that he is the father of a people, and in the other case leading across the Atlantic, back thousands of years—in short, leading back to Adam and Eve. Ole Big Hump, with the mixture of races in him, is a composite of human history unredeemed. Jeremiah Beaumont seeks expiation for the “unpardonable” sin. The unpardonable sin, he says, is “the crime of self” (458). Longing for redemption, Jeremiah wonders if the word (the Christ, the idea, the ideal) ever becomes flesh to live amongst men (436–437, 460). But neither the Platonic Ideal nor the Christian Word comes to expiate, to redeem the fallen world. As Jeremiah concludes, “all we need [is] knowledge. [But that] is not redemption” (460). He dies knowing that he is a sinner and hoping that his own suffering will serve to expiate the crime of self.
Brother to Monsters
The last work I shall briefly examine is Warren’s long poem Brother to Dragons (1953, 1979), an extremely powerful and disturbing commentary on human nature and American history. This poem is based upon a brutal and disgusting historical incident: In 1811 Lilburne Lewis, Thomas Jefferson’s nephew, butchered a sixteen-year-old Negro slave. With a meat ax he hacked off the boy’s hands and feet, then burned his body. The slave’s crime: he had accidentally broken a water pitcher that belonged to Lilburne’s mother. While Jefferson himself never mentioned this senseless and cruel episode in any of his writings, Warren constructs the poem so that we see Jefferson’s struggle to reconcile this vicious deed, committed by his own flesh and blood, with Jefferson’s bright view of man and man’s possibilities for glory and greatness.
In Warren’s poem Jefferson is presented as a typical enlightened thinker of the eighteenth century with a high view of human nature. Reason is his guide, and confidence in man his theme. Several passages from the poem show this confidence in man (and in man’s prospects of establishing a glorious nation in America) undermined by the depravity of his nephew. In one passage Jefferson is speaking of the time just before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, when he assembled in convention with other American patriots. Looking at these now famous American statesmen, he saw
On every face, face after face,
Bleared, puffed, lank, lean red-fleshed or sallow, all—
On all saw the brightness blaze. (7)
His hopes for man rising, Jefferson sees a vision of man in all his greatness and potential. He cries out in his heart:
“Oh, this is Man!”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the towering
Definition, angelic, arrogant, abstract,
Greaved in glory, thewed with light, the bright
Brow tall as dawn. (7–8)
Inspired by this vision, he pens the Declaration of Independence. This is in 1776, a high moment in Jefferson’s and America’s history. But after his nephew brutally murders the slave in 1811, Jefferson’s confidence is shaken, and he realizes that man has a potential for more than greatness, that man is not so perfect as he had thought. He says,
I had not seen the eyes of that bright apparition.
I had been blind with light.
I did not know its eyes were blind. (8)
Shaken by his nephew’s iniquity, Jefferson claims,
There’s no forgiveness for our being human.
It is the inexpungable error. It is,
. . . the one thing we have overlooked
In all our cunningest contrivances.
And I who once contrived so confidently should know that now. (19)
Jefferson now affirms that
all earth’s monsters [snakes, tigers, and other animals] are simply innocent,
But one, that master-monster—ah, once
I thought him innocent. (26)
And of course the master-monster is man.
So in Warren’s poem Jefferson is disillusioned. The great bringer of light acknowledges he was blind, blinded by his confidence in man’s angelic nature. He had subscribed, in his vision, to an idealized view of man and his potential. Now in humility he affirms a more realistic view. In the end Jefferson claims kinship with his bloodstained kinsman. He humbly admits that he, too, the great and honorable Thomas Jefferson, is brother to monsters such as Lilburne Lewis. He accepts the past, acknowledges not only the glory and greatness of man but also man’s wickedness and propensity to violence.
No New Eden
Brother to Dragons examines more than Jefferson’s struggle to come to terms with his nephew’s iniquity. It also examines and explodes the myth of the New American Adam, or the myth of American exceptionalism. According to the myth of the New American Adam, European man crossed the Atlantic to redeem the untamed and barbaric wilderness, “to redeem the wild land to the Western Shore,” as Jefferson puts it in Warren’s poem (27). According to the myth, Western man brought civilization and enlightenment to the New World without bringing with him the corruption of the Old.
Brother to Dragons dispels the notion, popular in much Puritan, romantic, liberal, and neoconservative literature written in the last four centuries, that Americans, given the chance to live in a newfound world free from the pride, perversity, evil, and oppression in the Old World, can or did indeed establish a new Eden on these shores.
In the Foreword to the 1979 version of the poem Warren states:
If the moral shock to Jefferson administered by the discovery of what was possible in his blood should turn out to be somewhat literally short of what is here represented, subsequent events in the history of our nation, which he helped to found, might amply supply the defect. (xii)
Warren reminds us of the master’s mistreatment of the slave, of America’s unjust and violent treatment of Indians in the Trail of Tears, of the violent conflict between workers and police at Haymarket, and of other dark and unpleasant episodes in America’s past. Warren reminds us that the snake is in the garden here, too. Or that the Old Adam is in the new American Adam.
The poem, however, does not end on a note of despair. Near the end of the poem Jefferson claims that “All is redeemed / In knowledge.” This is not good Christian theology unless that knowledge is knowledge of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. Yet this knowledge—the knowledge “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19)—is not a factor in Brother to Dragons. Its emphasis, and the emphasis in the two novels I have mentioned, is on the knowledge of human weakness, human sins, human limitations.
While this knowledge leads Warren’s protagonists to only a secular or naturalistic redemption, it is good knowledge to have. Half the truth is better than no truth at all. Knowledge of sin is perhaps the first step toward reconciliation with God and the redemption of man. Honestly accepting the human condition—all man’s errors and iniquity, and both individual and corporate sin and guilt—prepares one for accepting the gospel. And no man will accept the gospel unless he first recognizes his need of it.
A Deeply Thinking Man
Other works by Warren present additional images of Original Sin. One thinks of the poem “Original Sin: A Short Story,” in which Original Sin takes the form of a nightmare that haunts the protagonist in his travels to Omaha, to Harvard Yard, to every new address. Perhaps, the speaker of the poem suggests, perhaps “Grandpa’s will paid the ticket”—an Adamic inheritance enabling the nightmare to accompany the protagonist wherever he goes.
How do we account for the emphasis on sin (Original Sin and particular sins as well) in Warren’s work? Perhaps Warren looked into his own heart and reported on what he found there. Perhaps he looked at history (all three of the works we have examined are anchored in history or historical events). Perhaps, with G. K. Chesterton, Warren believed the doctrine of Original Sin was the one Christian doctrine empirically verifiable. Since Warren himself advised novelists and aspiring novelists to read and mark their Bibles, it is likely that Warren himself did, and this could account for the emphasis on sin in his work (Stewart, 263).
It may be that Warren was one of those “deeply thinking” men Herman Melville wrote about in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse. Melville claimed that he was fixed and fascinated by the great power of blackness in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction. He attributed this “great power of blackness . . . to [Hawthorne’s] Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin,” and he declared that “no deeply thinking man” could ignore the doctrine of Original Sin. Why? He replied: “For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance” (2,204). For whatever reason, Robert Penn Warren could not dismiss the doctrine of Original Sin, and consequently discussions and images of Original Sin abound in his fiction and poetry.
Although Robert Penn Warren was not a Christian, he knew the Bible well and had a religious temperament. Both the Bible and Christian theology inform his work, though there is more Old Testament than New Testament theology in it. In his fictional and poetic world, the American Adam leads an essentially tragic existence. He sins, he falls, he suffers. In Warren’s works, this fallen world is not Christ-centered, but it is certainly Christ-haunted, that is to say, haunted by the biblical emphasis on human sinfulness. Because his world is not redeemed by divine grace, it is fundamentally tragic rather than comic. While I regret that his literary world is not fully redeemed, I am grateful that Warren has honestly and powerfully portrayed a fundamental feature of the human condition. Jack Burden of All the King’s Men tells us that “each of us is the son of a million fathers” (436). Warren reminds us that one of them is Adam.
1. Emerson dismissed the doctrine of Original Sin as nonsense and maintained that “the law of gravitation” and the “purity of [man’s] heart” were both natural laws (1,045). To Warren, Emerson’s dismissal of Original Sin was nonsense. In his poem “Homage to Emerson, On Night Flight to New York,” Warren claims that “At 38,000 feet Emerson / Is dead right” (Collected Poems, 194). That is, only from an “angelic” perspective, 38,000 feet above the earth, can anyone make sense of Emerson’s transcendental optimism, which tends to ignore unpleasant facts such as warts, sin, and evil. Warren is never comfortable with either Emerson’s optimism or his dangerous tendency to abstraction. In another context, Warren had this to say about Emerson: “By the way, when it comes down to Hawthorne and Emerson meeting on the wood paths of Concord, I’m strictly for Hawthorne. I really have something that’s almost a pathological flinch from Emersonianism, from Thoreauism, from these oversimplifications, as I think of them, of the grinding problems of life and of personality” (Interview with Marshall Walker in Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950–1978, p. 181).
Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Divinity School Address.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., vol. 1. Ed. Nina Baym, et. al. New York: Norton, 1944, pp. 1,033–1,045.
Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., vol. 1. Ed. Nina Baym, et. al. New York: Norton, 1994, pp. 2,201–2,212.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961.
Stewart, Randall. Regionalism and Beyond: Essays of Randall Stewart. Ed. George Core. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.
Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men. 1946. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.
—. Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. A New Version. New York: Random House, 1979.
—. The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Ed. John Burt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
—. Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950–1978. Eds. Floyd Watkins and John Hiers. New York: Random House, 1980.
—. World Enough and Time. New York: Random House, 1950.
Michael M. Jordan is the Russell Amos Kirk professor of English and Director of American Studies at Hillsdale College.