The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 07, 2015

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A Place for the Negro in the Agrarian Scheme: Robert Penn Warren's Contribution to I'll Take My Stand
Steven D. Ealy

Warren would return to the issues raised in "The Briar Patch" later in his career. Racial identity and race relations are major concerns in two of Warren's novels, Band of Angels and Flood, and in a book-length poem, Brother to Dragons. He also dealt with these questions in three works of social criticism, Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the South, The Legacy of the Civil War, and Who Speaks for the Negro? In Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren was critical of "The Briar Patch," characterizing it as "a cogent and humane defense of segregation."66 While Warren moves beyond the position articulated in "The Briar Patch" in these later writings, the germ of his later criticism is found even in this early essay. In addressing the questions of equality and self-respect as these arose in a consideration of race, Warren took the first steps on a long journey that ended with a sophisticated critique of segregation and race relations in American life. This was a journey that many of Warren's agrarian brethren were unwilling to make.

Steven D. Ealy
Liberty Fund, Inc.


  1. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, edited by John Tyree Fain and Thomas Daniel Young (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974), 237.
  2. Donald Davidson, "'I'll Take My Stand': A History," American Review V (Summer 1935), 301-304.
  3. Paul Conkin, The Southern Agrarians (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 19-22, 58-61.
  4. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, 232-33.
  5. Quoted in Conkin, 72.
  6. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, 251.
  7. Robert Penn Warren, "The Briar Patch," I'll Take My Stand (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930; Harper Torchbooks, 1962), 246-248.
  8. Ibid., 247.
  9. Ibid., 248.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The extremes were those who believed that "the immediate franchise carried with it a magic which would insure its success as a cure-all and fix-all for the negro's fate" and "the group in the South whose prejudice would keep the negroes forever as a dead and inarticulate mass in the commonwealth." Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 249.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Note that Warren thinks this issue is of far broader application than just for blacks. He writes, "In the lowest terms the matter is something like this: are most negroes to be taught to read and write, and then turned back on society with only that talent as a guaranty of their safety or prosperity? Are some others, far fewer in number, to be taught their little French and less Latin, and then sent packing about their business? If the answer is yes, it will be a repetition of the major fallacy in American education and of one of America's favorite superstitions." Ibid., 250
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 251.
  17. Ibid., 251. Again note that Warren emphasizes the similarity of blacks to others, rather than differences. He writes, "Moreover, the leader himself loses his comprehension of the actual situation; distance simplifies the scene of which he was once a part, and his efforts to solve its problems are transferred into a realm of abstractions. The case is not dissimilar to that of the immigrant labor leader or organizer who has in the past left the life he understood and come to this country whose life he did not wholly understand. Both have shown a tendency toward the doctrinaire." Ibid., 251, 252. Warren may be thinking of W. E. B. DuBois. See William Bedford Clark, The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 29.
  18. "The Briar Patch," 252.
  19. Ibid., 252-254.
  20. Ibid., 253, 254.
  21. "Statement of Principles," I'll Take My Stand, xx, xxix.
  22. "The Briar Patch," 255.
  23. While Warren does not have this "exorbitant faith" in industrialism, note that he is not as totally critical as are some of his agrarian compatriots. Warren writes, "Possibly industrialism in the South can make some contribution to the negro's development, just as to the development of the section, but it will do so only if it grows under discipline and is absorbed into the terms of the life it meets. It must enter in the role of the citizen and not of the conqueror-not even the role of the beneficent conqueror." Ibid., 255, 256.
  24. Ibid., 256, 257.
  25. Ibid., 257.
  26. Ibid., 258, 259.
  27. Ibid., 259, 260.
  28. Ibid., 260.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 260, 261.
  31. "But in all cases—owner, cropper, hand—there is the important aspect of a certain personal contact; there is all the difference in the world between thinking of a man as simply a negro or a white man and thinking of him as a person, knowing something of his character and his habits, and depending in any fashion on his reliability." Ibid., 262.
  32. Ibid., 261, 262.
  33. Ibid., 263. See the chapter entitled "The Grid of Violence" in Pete Daniel, Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 50-71. Donald G. Nieman, ed., Black Freedom/White Violence 1865-1900 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), collects more that twenty studies on racial violence. As a young child Warren had heard of a local lynching, so he knew directly of small-town racial violence. See Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks For the Negro? (New York: Random House, 1965), 11, 12.
  34. "The Briar Patch," 263.
  35. Ibid., 264.
  36. "Statement of Principles," xix.
  37. Ibid., xxx.
  38. Ibid., xxii.
  39. John Crowe Ransom, "Reconstructed But Unregenerate," I'll Take My Stand, 23.
  40. Ibid., 14.
  41. Frank Owsley, "The Irrepressible Conflict," I'll Take My Stand, 78.
  42. Ibid., 76.
  43. Ibid., 74.
  44. Ibid., 68.
  45. Ibid., 77.
  46. Andrew Nelson Lytle, "The Hind Tit," I'll Take My Stand, 215.
  47. John Crowe Ransom, "Reconstructed But Unregenerate," 24.
  48. John Gould Fletcher, I'll Take My Stand, 119
  49. Ibid., 121.
  50. Herman Clarence Nixon, "Whither Southern Economy?," I'll Take My Stand, 190.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South (Baton Rogue: Louisiana University State Press, 1978), 232.
  53. Virginia J. Rock, "The Making and Meaning of I'll Take My Stand: A Study in Utopian-Conservatism, 1925-1939" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1961), published by University Microfilms, 1961, 303.
  54. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, 251.
  55. The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, 251. Davidson bemoans the "progressive implications" of Warren's piece and then continues, "I simply can't understand what Red is after here. It doesn't sound like Red at all—at least not the Red Warren I know. The very language, the catchwords, somehow don't fit. I am almost inclined to doubt whether RED ACTUALLY WROTE THIS ESSAY!" This letter, dated July 21, 1930, has been severely edited as printed in The Literary Correspondence of Donald Davidson and Allen Tate; for a more complete version that contains specific examples of Davidson's concerns, see Rock, 263, 264.
  56. Rock, 262-267.
  57. Rubin, 233.
  58. "The Briar Patch," 256.
  59. Rock, 266. Rock concludes that, "In point of view as well as style, the published essay appears to be Warren's." (267)
  60. Conkin, 72, 73.
  61. "The Briar Patch," 264.
  62. Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro?, 12.
  63. "The Briar Patch," 264.
  64. Ibid., 252.
  65. Rubin, 233.
  66. Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks For the Negro?, 11.
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