In response to:
Freedom for Sale from the July 22, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
Fintan O’Toole in his review of Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War [NYR, July 22] makes some remarks that cannot go unchallenged, well quite a few, but the most offensive to me concern Robert Penn Warren, whom he lumps with Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate as a Southern Agrarian who “remained a very public and active white supremacist, ‘detached…from politics.’” O’Toole quotes Warren as having written that the “‘Southern negro’ could find only ‘in agricultural and domestic pursuits the happiness that his good nature and easy ways incline him to.’” This is a gross distortion either by O’Toole or Menand of the author of the book Who Speaks for the Negro?
Warren in 1964 interviewed many leaders, activists, and artists engaged in the Civil Rights Movement including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, to name just the most widely recognizable individuals, and in 1965 published transcripts of them together with his reflections, which were anything but white supremacist. James M. Lawson, a leading theoretician of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, said of it, “We have this archival treasure that demonstrates why the Civil Rights Movement in fact gave our land its second equality, life, and liberty movement.” Nikki Giovanni, poet activist, said, “This is still a book worthy of your time and somehow still a part of ours.”
As for Robert Penn Warren being detached from politics, I assume O’Toole or perhaps Menand has not read Warren’s All the King’s Men, one of the greatest American novels about a populist politician drunk with power modeled after Huey Long in Louisiana. Populism is still with us, and the novel is still a good read.
Walter L. Mosley
San Francisco, California
Fintan O’Toole replies:
Walter Mosley makes a very fair point that Robert Penn Warren’s later writings and attitudes can be distinguished from those of his early collaborators. However, I made no suggestion that he remained a white supremacist—that term was used specifically in relation to Donald Davidson. Nor did I suggest that the quote about the “Southern negro” is from Who Speaks for the Negro?, which was published in 1965. It is from Warren’s essay “The Briar Patch,” published thirty-five years earlier in the collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. For context, the relevant passage reads:
In the past the Southern negro has always been a creature of the small town and farm. That is where he still chiefly belongs, by temperament and capacity; there he has less the character of a “problem” and more the status of a human being who is likely to find in agricultural and domestic pursuits the happiness that his good nature and easy ways incline him to as an ordinary function of his being.
The Warren of 1965 may be a different person, but the Warren of 1930 exists too.