The postmodern exile and alienation from community, The

word and the flesh in A Place to Come To: The postmodern exile and alienation from community, The

Pattison, Felicia

The last of Robert Penn Warren’s published novels, A Place to Come To (1977), is also the most contemporary, sharing features with the novels of a younger generation of writers that includes Walker Percy, William Styron, John Updike, and early John Barth. A Place to Come To is informed by Warren’s earlier statements about postmodern alienation in his 1966 lecture “A Plea in Mitigation: Modern Poetry and the End of An Era,” which anticipates some of Warren’s conclusions in Democracy and Poetry.

Society, with the rise of industrialism, financed capitalism, and the great power state, seemed to be losing its old sanctions; the sense of community and of human ties was being replaced by anonymous forces; communion seemed to be lost in the noise of communication by mass media; the historical sense disappeared into a cynical, or supine, acceptance of the incoherent present. Man, in fact, seemed to be living in a No-Society-in even an Anti-Society-an agglomeration of No-Persons whose relations, in satisfying certain appetites, fundamentally denied certain human needs. The greatest need it denied was the sense of identity-only to be had by a sense of meaningful relation to other man and to nature. (5)

In A Place to Come To, Warren uses the contemporary sensibility, one sensitive to the pressures of deracination in our postmodern experience and a climate more tolerant of explicit sexual expression, to investigate the potential of narrative voice, construction, and structure. Warren uses Jed Tewksbury’s narrative in this novel to provide a textual diagnostic of the extent to which deracination affects the modern self as well as to show, therapeutically, the possibility of textual reparations. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Jed’s oscillating attachment to words and flesh depicts more graphically than in Warren’s earlier novels a necessary element of Warren’s aesthetic: the tension between the abstract or ideal and the physical or real experience. The opposing forces of word-written and oraland flesh, as text and sexual experience, are two of the primary means Jed uses to unite with a community and to further alienate himself from that community.

Warren’s 1974 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, published in 1975 as Democracy and Poetry, is a record of Warren’s thoughts on the relationship between the self and community and the connection art has to that relationship; it is foundational to understanding Warren’s aesthetic practice in A Place to Come To. Democracy and Poetry is in the critical tradition of Plato’s Republic, Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” and Shelley’s “In Defense of Poetry,” all of which position the poet in an influential relationship to society; potentially, the poet is morally dangerous, according to Plato, or morally and/or linguistically regenerative, according to Sidney and Shelley. Warren suggests that, in an age when “art” becomes increasingly commodified by the public and politicized by theorists, there is such a thing as “great” art, and that the artistic work, if reader and writer allow it, has regenerative power for the self (both writer’s and reader’s) and the community.

Warren’s stated purpose in the two essays that make up Democracy and Poetry, “America and the Diminished Self” and “Poetry and Selfhood,” is to discuss “the interrelation of three things: democracy, poetry (really art in general), and selfhood” (xi). Warren defines the “self” as a being who is “in individuation, the felt principle of significant unity” (xii). By “felt,” Warren means “what a more or less aware individual may experience as his own selfhood, and what he assumes about other individuals.” By “significant,” Warren means “continuity-the self as a development in time … and responsibility-the self as a moral identity” (xiii). Warren’s definition is informed by many of the concerns in his oeuvre. First, it connects an individual in some kind of relationship with the individuals around him or her in community. Second, Warren’s definition concerns an individual’s relationship to history-which includes the past as well as an awareness of the future and his or her acceptance of responsibility for his or her actions and the consequences of those actions. Warren asserts that only this kind of self, although for “most of us only partially achieve[d] … can be relevant to either democracy or poetry” (xiii). Poetry, in Warren’s broad definition, comes into play here because “the poetic act, whatever the content, presents an assertion of the self” (xvi). “America and the Diminished Self” looks at the diagnostic dimension of art, while “Poetry and Selfhood” elucidates the therapeutic dimension of art-both as they relate to the tripartite of democracy, poetry, and selfhood.

In the first essay, “America and the Diminished Self,” Warren distinguishes between two types of selves, the fictive self and the true self. The true “self is possible only in a community-a community as distinguished from a mere society, a mere functional organization” (25). Poetry, all art as Warren defines it, should confront the threat of fictive selves and should enable the writer and reader to form a more significant connection to a legitimate community.

In addition to the importance of the contemporary community and its values in the creation of a true self, the individual must consider the historical community. Warren argues that the contempt of the past inevitably means that the self we have is more and more a fictive self, the self of a non-ideographic unit, for any true self is not only the result of a vital relation with a community but is also a development in time, and if there is no past there can be no self. (DP 56)

If a self lacks a conception of the past and of the future, Warren suggests, he or she is unable “to see himself in the perspective of human nature and human accomplishment” (DP 56).

Poetry’s therapeutic influence comes from and spreads in a number of directions. It touches maker and reader alike, stemming from the act of creation as well as from the act of consumption via the works, formal and thematic aspects. These suppositions lead Warren to the conclusion that “poetry … is a dynamic affirmation of, as well as the image of, the concept of self…. “the `made thing’-the poem, the work of art-stands as a ‘model’ of the organized self” (68-69). Warren explains how this is true, the process by which it becomes true, and the relationship of that truth to a writer and reader who are positioned within a community in time:

The poet’s own disorganization may seem, on the record, merely personal, but more often than not the poem he produces brings to focus and embodies issues and conflicts that permeate the circumambient society, with the result that the poem itself evokes mysterious echoes in the selves of those who are drawn to it, thus providing a dialectic in the social process. The “made thing” becomes, then, a vital emblem of the struggle toward the achieving of the self, and that mark of struggle, the human signature, is what gives the aesthetic organization its numinousness. It is what makes us feel that the “made thing” nods mysteriously at us, at the deepest personal inward self. (69)

In “Poetry and Selfhood,” Warren rarely talks about poetry without also talking about its relationship to the self, both reader’s and writer’s, and the community. Poetry can, if the reader and writer surrender themselves to it, restore a sense of a vital self in relationship to a vital community. Poetry performs a critical function in a democracy, for “it keeps alive the sense of self and the correlated sense of a community” (92) by representing in form and theme the disintegration of our true selves-the diagnostic functionwhile, through the same process, the writer’s and reader’s active engagement with the narrative or poetic act provide the means for reintegration of self to community-the therapeutic function.

Warren’s theory of the function of poetry in a democratic community renders poetry a field of tensions and conflicts. There is the pressure of time and history and the individual’s relationship to it, the tension within the self in its search for an authenticity that is balanced with community responsibility, the tension between the self and its community, as well as the tension between the formal and thematic aspects of the poetry. Building on his earlier aesthetic assertions in his 1942 essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” Warren argues that these tensions are necessary, not only in the creation of strong poetry, but in the creation of a true self:

I suppose I see life, for all our yearning for and struggle toward primal or supernal unity of being, as a more or less oscillating process …. For we must live by distinctions. And we may say that poetry provides … the Archimedian point from which we can make distinctions, from which we can consider the world of technology and, indeed, of democracy And to consider, of course, the world of the self. For if once the oscillation, the vibrance, the dialectic ceases, life, as we know it and esteem it, will cease. (93) The “oscillation” Warren asserts is the strength and life of poetry that gives his own work vibrancy A Place to Come To, published just three years after the Jefferson lecture, illustrates most vividly the relationship Warren delineates in Democracy and Poetry between self, community, and art.

While superficially in the bildungsroman tradition-a chronicle of Jed’s movement from innocence to maturity-A Place to Come To is also in the genre of fictional memoir, which allows more room for the free-association of memory and underscores the degree to which Jed has been affected by his self- and maternally imposed exile. Mirroring Jed’s deracinated state, A Place to Come To is more disjointed than Warren’s previous novels. Jed meanders roughly chronologically through his life but permits himself to digress when an incident or thought spurs a tangential memory. Therefore, his narrative is not as unified with specific images or narrative strands as Warren’s previous novels, although image and narrative certainly function as unifying devices to some extent. Through the act of writing, Jed, a college professor, organizes and unifies his self and discovers “A Place to Come To,” the text of his own narrative.

Looking back on his life and solitude, Jed uses the writing of his narrative, the first “made thing” in the novel, as a tool for gathering together his self and assessing his relationship to the human community. As a trained, successful scholar, Jed is also self-conscious about and critical of his own narrative act; throughout it, Jed makes numerous references to the acts of writing and rereading. For example, after having written the first few pages of his narrative, Jed steps away for a few days, then returns, with a more objective eye:

At this point, I have reread what I wrote three days ago, up to the scene under the tree. I wrote that part very fast. It came rushing out, my ballpoint pen rushing ahead-a new experience for me, who am accustomed only to scholarly and critical composition and who, not being of a quick mind or ready to trust my early notions, am inclined to be painfully slow and careful in my formulations. (6)

While initially composing the description of the events surrounding his father’s death, Jed restrains his self-criticism and writes in an outpouring of emotion. Yet, as Jed rereads what he has written about his father’s death and his response to it, he becomes more self reflexive; he looks critically at both the writing and the experience. His angry tone surprises him, but he sees it as “an unconscious will to detach myself from the scene that is my subject, to deny any sense of identity with the weeping child and the whole reality of the scene” (6-7). As a reflection of his desire to “detach [him]self from the scene that is [his] subject,” Jed occasionally slips into the second and third person, distancing himself even more from his own life.

To illustrate the significance of his father’s death for his own identity and fate, Jed begins his narrative with a memory that shows the degree of alienation he felt in Dugton:

I was the only boy, or girl either, in the public school of the town of Dugton, Claxford County, Alabama, whose father had ever got killed in the middle of the night standing up in the front of his wagon to piss on the hindquarters of one of a span of mules and, being drunk, pitching forward on his head, still hanging on to his dong, and hitting the pike in such a position and condition that both the left front and the left rear wheels of the wagon rolled, with perfect precision, over his unconscious neck, his having passed out being, no doubt, the reason he took the fatal plunge in the first place. Throughout, he was still holding on to his dong. (1)

While the grammar, spelling, syntax, and tone of this passage are conventional for the written word and reflect Jed’s scholarship, the colloquialisms “piss” and “dong” belong to the realm of speech rather than writing and are inimical not only to scholarly discourse but to any form of conventional formal writing. Jed’s introduction of oral expressions into his written narrative, a technique he will return to, animates his discourse and connects him to his Dugton past while also illustrating the conflict within his self.

The “I” in the opening passage, representing Jed as a child, is the grammatical subject of the sentence; his father’s death is grammatically subordinate. While the majority of the sentence is occupied with the graphic description of Jed’s father’s death, the grammatical structure of the sentence heightens the effect of that act on the subject. In other words, Jed’s arrangement of the details in relation to himself underscores his father’s death as the first defining point of his life. In a sense, the narrative of his father’s death is the story of Jed’s birth, at nine years old, into alienation and solitude. Whatever life he had before this point, except for the brief glimpses we get of his mother’s consternation at her husband’s drunkenness, is irrelevant. Jed stresses the importance of the opening image and the ensuing confrontation with the men of the community in which Jed first learns of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, when he simply says, “In many places, in many unexpected moments, I have seen that scene” (6). Through the narrative memory of his father’s death, Jed establishes his solitude and his need for significant communion with others.

As the death of his father, appropriately named “Buck,” distinguishes him from his peers and initiates him into a life of exile, the death of his mother motivates Jed to write the narrative of his life. As he explains:

… with the death of your parent you begin to see in each death the weight of “a tale told”-to quote the Prayer Book-and you begin to feel the fleeting impulse to verbally sum it up for yourself, or for some common acquaintance. (325)

The novel is the text Jed Tewksbury writes “to verbally sum it up” for himself. It is the “made thing” that gives form to his life.

The form of Jed’s narrative-the often random association of his selfdeprecating, meandering, and tentative thoughts-and the verbal slippage from intellectual discourse to erotic discourse to semi-literate discourse are the formal representations of the crisis of Jed’s self. Jed feels a divided allegiance to the past, his Alabama heritage, and to his pursuit of an academic career. Such a division in Jed’s allegiance explains his shame at mentioning to Mrs. Jones-Talbot that his mother worked in a cannery as well as the abrupt and abrasive response to a request by a group of graduate students to re-enact his father’s death-performances that previously have garnered him much success. After being persuaded to perform, Jed prepares himself:

Then, in a very stagey sandhill cracker accent, I heard my voice: “You know, I jest wonders why ain’t none of you folks ever told me how any of yore fuckin fathers died.” (18) Jed’s refusal to perform at the expense of his father’s dignity represents, to some extent, a defensiveness about his family and his past, but that defensiveness is eroded by Jed’s distancing of himself from the reenactment scene. By saying, “I heard my voice Jed places himself as an observer or witness of the scene. Concomitantly, the tone and diction of his refusal ridicule his intellectual graduate-student friends and the position of superiority they have taken relative to Jed, Alabama, and the South.

Jed, himself, however, has an uneasy relationship with Dugton, Alabama, and the South. His mother, Elvira, uses her acerbic verbal wit to deconstruct Dugton for Jed, enabling him to move on with little sentimentality: “Dugton,” she would say, shuddering, “do you know how it come to be?” I’d shake my head, and she would give a new version. “One time there was a pigeon big as the Rocky Mountain and he had stuffed his-self on all the pokeberries and cow patties this side of Pikes Peak and the bowel movement hit him about this part of Alabama and they named it Dugton.”

It was my mother, I am sure, who, day by day, expunged all possibility of any memory of Dugton, who accounted for the fact that for years I could not even remember the life there. It was, too, as a corollary of this, and not by her specific exhortation, that I came to the passion for study. (19-20)

Disenchanted with his father and with the drudgery of his mother’s life in Dugton, Jed turns first to language as a way to re-invent his world. Jed teaches himself Latin in the seventh grade, paying a nickel a week to use an older students book over the weekend. Jed explains that he had a “blind need” (21). The need he felt, although he did not yet have the word for it, is the need for the imperium intellectus, a community devoted to the highest intellectual pursuits. What draws Jed to Latin, then Greek, and eventually to a career in comparative medieval studies is the hope that a different language will either create a new world or re-invest his old world with a new reality. Upon reflection, Jed is able to articulate the need that he felt at such an early age: It was not hunger, it was magic. It was as deep, as primitive, as subtle as that. In Claxford County, reality, as I have said, had been bleached away But if you found a new name for a thing, it became real. That was the magic of the name. And if you found the names for all the things of a world, you could create a world that was real and different. The crazy word on the page was like a little hole in a great wall. You could peek through the hole and see a world where everything was different and bright. (21)

Underlying Jed’s early belief in the power of language is the assumption that words sufficiently create or define a reality. Learning a new word for something, agricola for “farmer,” for example, introduces Jed to a world with new possibilities and new realities. When he arrives as an undergraduate at Blackwell College and sees Greek for the first time, he is filled with the same sense of awe: “… and when I first laid eyes on the chickentrack characters of that alphabet, I knew I had found a magic more potent than the codes of all astrologers or coven masters” (41). And, to some degree, Jed’s supposition about language turns out to be true. When he is not accepted into the University of Chicago graduate school, he memorizes a passage from the Aeneid and eventually accosts Dr. Stahlmann, his future mentor, by rattling off the passage, then launching into a passage from Oedipus at Colonus. The delivery, while the pronunciation is “vile,” convinces Dr. Stahlmann to take Jed in and enables him to earn a graduate degree from the University of Chicago.

Jed wins the favor of Dr. Stahlmann through a recitation of the magic words, the texts, the “made things” that he believes will open up to him a new world, which they do. Dr. Stahlmann gives Jed “an image of what life could be” (49). As Jed triumphantly writes, “And now all that my heart had so ignorantly yearned for was revealed to me in its blessed actuality. I had stumbled upon the magic word and the magic had worked” (52). The words introduce him to the imperium intellectus, the community of scholars that shares his value of intellectual pursuit through the word. Dr. Stahlmann describes his vision of the ideal intellectual community to Jed:

I dreamed … of a world not of the nations. Of a timeless and placeless, sunlit lawn, like that of Dante’s vision, where the poets and philosophers and sages sit, and where we who are none of those things may come to make obeisance and listen. We may even, if a little grace is vouchsafed, report something of what we have heard. That others may come. (58)

Here is a community to which Jed can belong, a community to give his life meaning. The problem is that Stahlmann’s interpretation of Dante’s vision fails to acknowledge that this so-called ideal intellectual community is situated in the first circle of the inferno. It may be intellectually stimulating, but it is still hell. Warren uses Dr. Stahlmann’s suicide and Jed’s eventual murder of a Nazi officer-as a civilian scholar, an alleged citizen of the imperium intellectus-to annul Jed’s membership and to deconstruct his shared vision of the ideal intellectual community. He grows increasingly suspicious of the word’s-at least the written word’s-ability to create a world of which he would want to be a part.

A transitional event in Jed’s distrust of the word and reliance on the flesh is the writing of his dissertation, another “made thing,” which

had become dust and ashes in my mouth. I began to regard it as little more than a trick performed by an idiot for the edification of fools, or visa versa. I felt like the prize poodle in a second-rate dogand-pony show jumping through hoops, or like the pony that could count if you stuck a pin in him. If this dissertation represented the imperium intellectus, then to hell with it. But no man can live without some sense of meaning in life, so I improvised one: I would turn it into a parlor trick. (84)

Turning it into “a parlor trick” places his dissertation writing on the same level as his narrative reenactments of his father’s death, which also were performed as parlor tricks to entertain his fellow graduate students and to gain a degree of social success-the only social success, Jed admits, that he has ever had. Intellectual writing has lost its redemptive power; it no longer introduces Jed to a new world but becomes a parody of the fallen one in which he is doomed to exist. Furthermore, as a “made thing,” “Dante and the Metaphysics of Death,” the essay that forms the germ of Jed’s dissertation, is an exploration of Jed’s own struggle with his wife’s death, subtly underscoring Warren’s assertion in Democracy and Poetry that the “made thing” represents in part the artist’s engagement with the self

In Book One, which somewhat randomly covers Jed’s life before he moves to Nashville, Jed’s belief in the word prevails over his reliance on sex. This is not to say that Jed practices abstinence; he’s been copulating for nearly as long as he has been conjugating Latin verbs, but in his Nashville relationship with Rozelle, the redemptive word nearly disappears. Robert Koppelman, in his book Robert Penn Warren’s Modernist Spirituality (1995), argues, however, that Jed’s “language and narrative skill indicate that he appreciates the power and efficacy with which language may shape and redeem one’s identity” (125). This is true insofar as Jed writes his narrative, but his narrative is fraught with suspicion of language’s power, and “the matter of Nashville” (the events in Book Two) brings that suspicion to the forefront of his consciousness. Jed’s sexual relationship with Rozelle challenges the word for influence in his life. Showing himself to be Bucks son, Jed is preoccupied, even obsessed, with sex in Nashville and asserts his new-found philosophy: “debatuo ergo sum” (184). Diane Bonds observes this contrast between the book’s second and first sections: “Book 11 … represents Jed’s greatest estrangement from words and his fullest engagement with the flesh” (818).

Jed goes to Nashville in part to escape from Chicago but also, after his wife’s death and the completion of his successful dissertation, “to find the really commanding subject that would give shape to my life” (118). Jed implies that he looks to the texts of his academic life for redemption, because, between commitments to academic social functions and the parties at Rozelle’s, he “was reading a lot, too” (118). Rather than finding “the really commanding subject” in the study of the word, however, he finds it in the flesh.

The flesh that Jed turns to, however, is rendered first as text. A different kind of “made thing,” Lawford Carrington’s (Rozelle’s husband) sculptures punctuate Jed’s preoccupation with the flesh. Rozelle introduces Jed to her husband’s sculpture:

… and she began to show me some of his sculpture-a female head, that of a young woman, the head arched back so far that the neck was strained to accent the tendons, eyes shut, lips slightly parted and drawn back at the corners, the hair falling straight down backward …. (113)

Even though Rozelle shows the figure to Jed with complete casualness, its eroticism is not lost on Jed, for he interprets the sculpture accurately and accepts the message of Rozelle’s husband’s text: “… who had more right than he to know how her face looked in orgasm?” (114).

The subject of Carrington’s sculptures, except for the bust of Rozelle’s drowned first husband, all concern Rozelle’s sexuality. Carrington’s series, “Ballet: A Suite,” depicts Rozelle’s arms and hands in various erotic positions:

The forks were not symmetrical, the prongs sometimes of different lengths, or twisted from the central stem, so that a pair of arms might seem to spring from an invisible body in some fluid and natural posture. In each case, the main stem of the bracket rose, too, at a different angle from the base, to suggest the primary angle at which the body might be envisaged.

The arms, and hands, too, I should add, spectrally suggested-not crudely, quite subtly, in fact-the ballet of love. (133) Later in the narrative, Jed gives a more vivid and specific description of one particular pose, “Number 5”:

The right arm, elbow bent, reached down and forward, with the thumb and forefinger closing as though about to grasp a stalk, the lower fingers curling slightly inward. The left arm reached out somewhat higher, the palm turned slightly down and the fingers cupped a little, the whole effect being that of a gesture of surprise and delight. (154)

In case there had been any question about the subject of the poses, at a later party, a guest places a banana into the hands of “Number 5”:

From the faces of the audience-ranging in expression from maidenly blush to masculine leer-it was obvious that no further exegesis was required to relate art to life. Indeed, the other “Numbers” of the “Ballet” had all leaped, by contagion, into more precise significance. (155)

These sculptures, and the reading and exegesis of them by Jed and the party guests, portray Rozelle’s body as a text. It still retains its sexual attraction, but, rendered in the cold cast of marble and bronze, Jed is able to divorce the body from the flesh and “read” it in a more objective, detached manner.

Once Rozelle comes to him, his reading of the sculptures influences his interpretation of their first lovemaking. Lucy Ferriss, in Sleeping with the Boss: Female Subjectivity and Narrative Pattern in Robert Penn Warren (1997), believes that Jed describes Rozelle in a cold, detached manner because he is unreliable as a narrator: “[h]is account of Rozelle Hardcastle … is not to be trusted, and by implication his own desire for her and actions toward her are to be interpreted as other than what we are given” (79). But Jed is no more unreliable than any first-person narrator limited to the borders of his own thoughts and perceptions. In fact, Warren carefully establishes Jed’s credibility as a narrator. Jed is critical of himself as well as of his own text and offers various assessments and commentaries on its developing progress. In addition, Warren does not depict Jed as an unstable, ego-maniacal academic like Kinbote in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Rather, Jed’s success as a respected academic is verified with newspaper clippings relating various academic honors.

A more satisfying explanation of Jed’s passionless description of his first encounter with Rozelle is his tendency to textualize her body. His description of her when they make love for the first time parodies his earlier description of “Ballet: A Suite.” His reading of those earlier texts is his means of interpreting Rozelle’s flesh:

… I looked down at the body of Rozelle Hardcastle Carrington. It lay supine before me, the left leg to the right of my down-thrust knee, the right leg extending into the space between that knee and my upright left lower leg, by which I held my balance. The left arm of that naked body before me was extended above the head inert and loose, the palm emptily upward, as the arm had trailed when I had laid hold on the body and drawn it toward me into its present position.. (166)

The passivity he interprets surrounding Rozelle is colored by his earlier readings of her body as text and the shared sense that what is to happen between them has been determined, that there is nothing either one of them can do about it.

While Jed’s early engagement with language connects him to a community-even if that community is later debunked-Jed’s association with Rozelle alienates him from community During his sexual affair with Rozelle, Jed cultivates an increasing contempt for the world and for the communities in which he has been involved, both in Chicago and Nashville. Nowhere else in his narrative is his language as strong as it is in his description of the extent of that contempt:

I did not ever have to play with the pretense or the self-delusion of joining Nashville, or any other goddamned place, of being Southern, or any other goddamned thing, that now I’d never have to stand, while music played and people danced, and have some slick-faced bastard in a two-hundred-dollar dinner jacket, with real kitty-cat-asshole buttonholes worked for the sleeve buttons, grin at me, in congratulation and condescension, and rub thumb across fingertips and whisper ‘moola’…

Now I was free to be only what I was in the moment in which I was. (177)

Jed exposes himself in this passage to be one of Warren’s “fictive selves” (25) by detaching himself from a historical community and prioritizing his own desires.

While in Nashville, Jed does, nevertheless, have a vivid reminder of his prior belief in the power of textual language and of the joy he used to experience in his private study of the word, through their reading of Dante, with Mrs. Jones-Talbot and her friend Mrs. Beacham:

I might, on such occasions, even feel a sense of loss or a pang of envy, at first aimless and irrational; and then I would realize that the motion sprang from the fact that these two women still possessed, innocently and effortlessly, a joy that I had lost. (182)

But he dismisses their belief out of his newfound meaning and purpose in exploring Rozelle’s body: “What was all that fiction, that fancy folderol, in contrast to the truth I knew?” (182). Jed’s use of a term from his mother’s idiom, “fancy folderol,” exhibits his critical skepticism regarding his comparison of word and flesh.

The first two sections of the novel, with their concerns with word and flesh, form the primary tension of Jed’s narrative. The third section, much criticized for how quickly Jed dispenses with his attempts at political activism, his second marriage, the birth of his son, his divorce, and rising reputation in the academy, is merely denouement in contrast to his relationship with Rozelle and his earlier innocent search for meaning in his study of languages. After his experiences in Nashville, Jed does not completely renounce either word or flesh, for he still has time to fill and physical needs to meet, but he no longer sees either one of them as redemptive. The narrative’s pace and the emotional detachment with which Jed dismisses his marriage, sexual relationships, and career illustrate the emptiness of his actions when devoid of community.

The third section is marked by a lassitude that reflects in Jed’s work, which he finds during this period to be “less and less compelling to me, but its mere existence the one thing that, more and more, I could flee to” (289).

But now my research and writing, like women, became valuable to me as a way to fill up time, and as I had more time to fill I had more fame …. I still had one belief, held with some passion, that good technicians-and you notice my choice of the term, for what it is worth-are better than bad ones. (294)

Jed’s aside “and you notice my choice of the term, for what it is worth” betrays his continuing distrust in language’s ability to signify a reality. Nevertheless, limited to words, Jed’s choice of “technician,” presumably to describe his role as academic writer as well as that of lover, corresponds to Yasha Jones’s complaint to Brad Tolliver in Flood that the script Brad submits to him for the Fiddlersburg project is “expert.” “`It is expert,’ Yasha Jones had said. `You have done nothing more expert. In my time on the Coast I have seen nothing more expert. But … it is not you. It is only that you who is an expert”‘ (341). Jed, like Brad, has lost the sense of passion or connection with the events of his life as well as the ability to transmit that passion to his work or to other people.

Not until his late-life friendship with his ex-wife’s uncle, Stephen Mostoski, does Jed give a candid account of the alienation and solitude he has cultivated despite his attempts to curb them by engaging with words and flesh:

So each could tell the other all the things that had happened to him over the years to create the solitude. I told him of all my early years in Alabama, how my father fell to his death to become a legend and a joke, of all the schoolyard fistfights, of my crazy dream that you could peep through a word in a foreign language into a redeemed world. I told him that I had now lost that faith.

I told him how, hating the South, I had fled it, and ever afterwards blamed my solitude on that fact. I had fled but had found nowhere to flee to. I told him how I had tried to buy my way out of solitude by supporting the causes of virtue, but I felt isolated even from that virtue, an interloper, one might say, into Yankee virtue. (295-96) Jed’s introduction of his relationship with Stephen Mostoski accentuates how foreign this friendship is in the regular pattern of Jed’s life: “I almost forgot to say that something very important did happen to me during this period. I made a friend” (295). The friendship with Stephen is a comfort to him, but it also fosters Jed’s solitude because Stephen, having abandoned his pregnant wife and his native country, is more completely solitary. Stephen tells Jed:

I have no country that I recognize as my own, and I am trying to learn to be happy in that condition …. We are merely feeling the first pangs of modernity … the death of the self which has become placeless. We are to become enormously efficient and emotionless mechanisms, that will know … how to breed even more efficient and more emotionless mechanisms. (296)

Stephen’s use of the word “breed” to describe the act of procreation coincides with his prediction of man’s increasing mechanization of self and lack of human emotion and feeling.

Despite how they foster Jed’s loneliness, Stephen’s friendship and philosophy attract Jed because they offer an alternative to his desire for community. But, as Jed observes, Stephen’s philosophy is verified by his study of physics-“a study of the vastness of solitude-infinite motion in infinite solitude” (296). In accordance with Warren’s theory that poetry serves a therapeutic function, Jed’s study in the humanities provides him with repeated examples of community Jed despairs that Stephen’s profession validates his philosophy while his own profession challenges it:

… I suffered the disadvantage that sometimes my professional subject matter, however much I and other scholars might bleach it, treated of moments of human communion, however delusive, and of human community, however imperfect. (296)

The final “made thing” Jed includes in his narrative is the letter he writes to his ex-wife, Dauphine, asking her to resume their relationship. The influence of his mother’s reasoning is evident in the logic he uses with Dauphine-if something was good once and produced something of value (a son), then perhaps there is still something of worth to be salvaged. More importantly, however, Jed recognizes his need for companionship:

I ask for your company because it is what I feel myself most deeply craving.

It is not that I cannot stand solitude. Perhaps I stand it all too easily, and have been, far beyond my own knowing, solitary all my life.

I ask for your company for what blessedness it is. But I say also that in it I may learn, even as the light fails, a little of what I need to know. (341)

By excluding Dauphine’s response, Warren emphasizes the emotional effect writing the letter has on Jed. After declaring that Dauphine’s “company” is what he “most deeply craw[es],” Jed reports: “At this point I laid down my pen and stared into distance for a long time. Then I resumed” (341). Writing “the letter”-just as writing the narrative of his life will later on-enables Jed to put himself back together emotionally, making it possible that he will be able to create a vital connection with another person.

Warren’s conclusion in A Place to Come To is representative of the endings of many of his earlier novels, especially as it investigates the relationship between the self and a community. But, as the final novelistic statement, it bears close inspection. Warren is realistic about the potentials of the text to soothe the disjunction in the self brought on by contemporary experience. Warren cannot change the fact of deracination; he can only, through his art, mediate its devastating effects.

Aesthetically, Warren’s graphic engagement with the conflicts between word and flesh elucidate many similar tensions found in his previous novels. It underscores the struggle between the real and the abstract, realism and romance, narrative and lyric in a way that heightens the experience of those conflicts. The form of A Place to Come To-with its appropriation of the bildungsroman and with the movements between the past and present, the word and the flesh and written and oral discourses-elucidates Jed’s struggle with solitude and alienation and illustrates Warren’s assertion in Democracy and Poetry that poetry is “an antidote, a sovereign antidote, for passivity” because it “demands participation” and “it nourishes our lifewill in the process of testing our values” (89-90).


Bonds, Diane S. “Vision and Being in A Place to Come To.” The Southern Review n.s. 16.4 (1980), 816-828.

Ferriss, Lucy. Sleeping with the Boss: Female Subjectivity and Narrative Pattern in Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: LSUP, 1997.

Koppelman, Robert S. Robert Penn Warren’s Modernist Spirituality. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1995.

Warren, Robert Penn. Democracy and Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

——.A Place to Come To. New York: Random House, 1977.

—-.”Pure and Impure Poetry.” 1943. New and Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1989.

Felicia Pattison

Felicia Pattison, who began her academic career in Linguistics, earned a Ph.D. in American Literature from The Catholic University of America, where she wrote a dissertation on Robert Penn Warren’s later fiction. Since the fall of 1999, she has been Assistant Professor of Language and Literature at Sterling College in Kansas.

Sterling College

Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Spring 2002

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