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Literature as Life Vocation:
The Example of Austin Warren

Winter/Spring 2013 - Vol. 55, Nos. 1 - 2


This review appears in the Winter–Spring 2013 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


The Letters of Austin Warren,
edited by George Panichas
(Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2011)

“It is a rare pleasure unreservedly to recommend a book.” Thus wrote Austin Warren, eminent modern literary theorist and critic, while reviewing a collection of essays on American literature of which he wholeheartedly approved. The same must be said, with equal enthusiasm and approval, of the late George Panichas’s edition of The Letters of Austin Warren. It is a rare delight, especially in this age of virtual communication, to sample the letters of a truly great epistolary artist. Austin Warren was a man of immense erudition and a master stylist; his Letters ranks among the very best volumes of correspondence in the English language. Yet perhaps this collection’s greatest contribution is its power of example and memory. In The Letters of Austin Warren, the reader is introduced anew to a figure hardly recognized today, especially in university circles: the humanist and man of letters. This learned teacher and scholar, from his place in the university, has a sacred public duty: with patience and humility he must teach, guide, correct, illuminate, and elevate those within his charge. Austin Warren’s letters, which span the entirety of his adult life, document a brilliant literary mind persisting in this lofty vocation.

Austin Warren (1899–1986) is ranked among the most influential literary scholars of his era. He was Irving Babbitt’s MA student at Harvard. After completing his doctorate at Princeton, Warren taught successively at Boston University, the University of Iowa (where he began a lifelong friendship with the comparativist René Wellek), and the University of Michigan, where he taught mostly graduate students for twenty years prior to his retirement in 1968.

Warren is best remembered for his landmark book, coauthored with Wellek, Theory of Literature (1949), which is one of the most influential and enduring treatises of literary theory of the twentieth century. Much like his friend Wellek, Warren resists easy placement in a school of literary criticism. He always felt himself influenced by Babbitt’s “New Humanistic” vision of literature, and as he matured professionally he became very sympathetic to the New Criticism (Warren was friends with many of the southern New Critics). Warren had a lifelong commitment to analyzing literature as a distinct form with its own scaffold of inherent meanings. As a man of letters, he was a model of breadth, erudition, and exploratory scholarship.

By modern professional standards, he was quite a paradox. As a scholar he was narrowly regional in one regard: he always considered himself a citizen of New England and a “New England regionalist” (he is an authority on early American colonial literature). Yet in another regard he was very much a comparative literature scholar: he wrote widely on English and European authors and frequently taught comparative literature during his tenure at Michigan. Warren humorously reflects upon the breadth of his interests in a letter to one of his former students: “Iowa hired me as a ‘New Humanist’ while I had meanwhile become a ‘New Critic.’ Michigan hired me as an ‘American Literature man’ though I had turned into a literary theorist and a Comparativist.”

One of the greatest pleasures of perusing Warren’s Letters is coming to realize how intimately and substantially connected he was with the great literary minds of his generation. Acquaintances and friends among his correspondents include T. S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More, Kenneth Burke, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and George Panichas. Warren’s cultivation of such correspondents was no mere careerist networking: he sought out among his contemporaries those with whom he could seek insight and wisdom.

It is interesting to note that after establishing a familiar correspondence with a select number of his peers, Warren began addressing letters to them in a most curious fashion. Instead of beginning letters with conventional salutations of endearment and friendship, Warren began his letters with the fraternal greeting “Brother.” His later letters to Ransom, Tate, Brooks, Lytle, and Hyatt H. Waggoner often began with “Brother John,” “Brother Allen,” “Brother Cleanth,” and so on. This curiosity is particularly telling, because these correspondents are for the most part not Warren’s most intimate and personal (his letters to his lifelong friend Wallace Fowlie, the French literature critic; his former student Sherman Paul; and the literary critic George Panichas, among others, stand out for their insight into Warren’s personality and interior life).

His sense of fraternal connection with these “Brothers” grew out of a feeling of deep solidarity with fellow scholars, critics, and artists who sought to illumine great texts through their critical writings. Warren’s epistolary brethren were to a man scholars who sought to mediate the insights of aesthetic expression for the benefit of culture and human society. In calling this select group his “Brothers,” one perceives how lofty Warren’s conception of the teacher, scholar, and critic was. Learned persons exist to convey insight and wisdom with eloquence and generosity; such are the requirements for entrance into the fraternal society of the man of letters as Austin Warren rightly perceived it.

Warren seemed to live for the written exchange of ideas and cherished encountering through letters individuals who, like himself, thought deeply about humanistic study. In a letter to his friend in retirement Hyatt Waggoner (noted Hawthorne scholar and professor of American literature at Brown), Warren remarked how he preferred the exchange of letters with his friends to actual physical meetings: “It is notable, and strange, that you and I, who live so near each other, correspond by letter as well as by telephone and conversational visits. . . . In many ways, you and I, like Emily Dickinson, prefer to communicate through the written word, not by the relatively crude encounter of personality in which accidents, as distinguished from essences, unavoidably play so considerable a part.”

Even in his most personal letters, Warren always gravitated toward the discussion of ideas, the life of the mind, and the transcendent. With his most cherished correspondents he would discuss the principles of literary theory, the office of the university professor, philosophy, and, most prominently, religion. Warren thought and wrote about religion incessantly, although he was himself more of a “seeker” than a believer. He cites the Bible ubiquitously, and his written idiom bears an inescapably biblical imprint. A few years before his death, Warren wrote Waggoner a letter discussing religion and the meaning of human existence that concludes with the following line, a line that perhaps best typifies the themes and motives of his lifelong devotion to epistolary exchanges: “I reach out for some permanence, a permanence beyond change.”

While he sought out epistolary fellowship with his peers, Warren was no less ardent and enthusiastic a correspondent with his former students, many of whom pursued academic careers themselves. It is impossible not to be touched, indeed inspired, by Warren’s generosity in his lifelong commitment to mentoring his students and junior colleagues through the exchange of letters. Warren had a keen interest in the type of example they would be as teachers, scholars, and human beings. He eagerly read their scholarship, offering encouragement and constructive criticism; wrote on their behalf to help them obtain academic positions; urged them to be generous and authentic with their students; and also took a personal interest in their spiritual and emotional well-being.

His long and intimate correspondence with his Iowa student Sherman Paul (who became a prominent scholar himself) is a powerful testimony to Warren’s pastoral care for his “literary flock” of students. In a letter to Paul, Warren encourages his former student (at the letter’s writing an experienced college professor) to embrace the office of university professor as one of high dignity and spiritual importance: “We have been the spiritual (not just intellectual) parents of many, so many. We have been priests and pastors, as, I think, all good professors whom you & I respect must be.”

Warren’s use of the pastoral and religious idiom in discussing the professoriate is no idle metaphor; for him it is a literal depiction of the office. What exactly is it that a teacher and critic of literature does? Like a pastor he mediates the text to his students in the congregation of the classroom; and like the theologian, he amplifies the text’s meaning through written commentary and analysis. For Warren, teaching and scholarly writing were intimately linked and the natural cycle of the man of letters; to do one seemed hardly possible without the ballast of the other. In a letter to another former student, Nathan Lyons, Warren enlarges upon his understanding of the professorial vocation in terms of his own life. Warren refers to himself as

a man whose concern was acting as a mediator between the sacred texts of literature and the existential needs of the students. That simple office still seems to me the proper concern of the teacher of literature—that, and . . . the production by the teacher of writing of his own of some sort, in some mode. I believe . . . that one must write, and publish, to confront his own peers . . . but I believe still more that a man’s writing, out of his own center, is the teacher’s, the rabbi’s, own therapy and his own “working out his salvation, with fear and trembling.”

Warren’s message—that the university exists to train the soul as well as the body, that the literature professor is pastor and priest in service of the sacred as well as conveyer of information—could hardly be more timely. The field of literary studies has quite literally lost its center; it no longer understands why a text is valuable, what texts should be taught, and to what purpose. Warren reminds us that the literature professor must exercise humility before great texts and not seek to subdue them in the name of some fashionable ideology. Further, teaching literary texts in the classroom isn’t for the sake of social engineering as much as for the elevating of hearts and minds. Warren was closely aligned with the formalism of the New Critics, but like his New Critic “Brothers,” his critical formalism was itself the vehicle whereby the critic, teacher, and student could experience literature as powerfully transformative for human lives.

Further, the religious idiom in Warren’s letters, always used to illuminate the role of the scholar and teacher, is particularly significant due to the fact that for most of his adult life, Warren was personally agnostic. For many years he clung to the form and practice of Episcopalianism, but he always considered himself a “seeker” after religious certitude, a certitude he never felt he possessed in this life. It is thus doubly significant that Warren retained the theological metaphor in his articulation of the professorial office: he had no narrowly sectarian purpose for doing so; he simply believed the teaching of literature to be inherently transcendent and better explained in the language of religious praxis than secular educational theory.

Finally, in Warren’s view, the academic, the literary man, must write. It is patently clear that Warren did not intend “writing” as merely the production of scholarship for the sake of reputation and career promotion. For Warren, writing was the great complement to the life of study and teaching. Warren literally believed it was impossible to know himself, his own mind and thoughts, the depth of his being and the significance of his own views, without the act of writing. Well into his retirement, Warren wrote to Hyatt Waggoner that “the word writing carries for me an intense and serious freight: it means nothing less than self-confrontation and reality-confrontation.”

This fact was as true of his letters as of his prolific scholarly writings, and in some regards shines through more in his correspondence. Warren loved his epistolary friendships because such exchanges, which often endured for many years, were profoundly incarnational: two minds, seeking to share their depths, took on the body of language and text, and in this miraculous exchange both parties found consolation, illumination, and wisdom. Through a long life with considerable hardships, including the untimely death of his first wife, a series of mental breakdowns in midcareer, and the partial loss of one of his limbs in retirement, Warren continued to reach out to his epistolary friends unflaggingly for sustenance.

Warren once wrote a friend that “it is one of my lifetime missions to try and perpetuate . . . the practice of the art of letter-writing,” and he was fond of referring to the “epistolary art” as “one of the measures and hallmarks of civilization.” The Letters of Austin Warren amply demonstrates that Warren was an “epistolary artist” of the highest order. With its publication, The Letters now joins a lengthy bibliography of Warren’s writings. Warren was the author not only of his celebrated Theory of Literature; he published two volumes of essays during his life, and another was published posthumously (Rage for Order, Connections, and In Continuity: The Last Essays of Austin Warren). He wrote two major books on New England literary figures, New England Saints and The New England Conscience, a book on Richard Crashaw, and an autobiography titled Becoming What One Is (published posthumously). Further, his uncollected essays and reviews are too numerous to recount. Yet one might venture that Warren’s Letters is his most precious literary legacy, and the one from which the republic of letters might take the most inspiration. In the conclusion of his autobiography, Warren wrote the following: “The spiritual center and motivation of highest usefulness in one’s profession is the finding of one’s vocation.” The Letters of Austin Warren is the chronicle of a teacher, scholar, and man of letters finding his vocation. His letters show Warren to be a man who pursued the truth, loved his friends honestly and loyally, poured himself out for his students, and cherished his correspondents, urging them to seek after permanence as he always did. It is sincerely hoped that The Letters of Austin Warren finds its readership and that men such as he was do not altogether disappear from the groves of academe. ♦


Aaron Urbanczyk is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee.