Critics of Warren’s finest story, “Blackberry Winter,” have focused on his presentation of universal themes and his deft use of imagery and atmosphere. While it certainly is true that the story invokes age-old and timeless human narratives, like the expulsion from the garden of Eden and the rebellion against the father, it can also be understood in its own particular historical and cultural context. Because the events that happen to young Seth that day in June, and which continue to haunt him thirty-five years later, is about how human beings create and carve out identity from their surroundings, it seems especially important to attend to where these events transpire in time and space, to the here and nowness of the story. “Blackberry Winter,” for all its symbolic resonance, is very much the story of a thoughtful young (white) boy’s experiences in and around his parents’ farm in middle Tennessee at the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century.
The first indication that this day will be significant, and possibly transformative, appears in the story’s opening paragraphs when the child assesses how this moment seems unique, different from each that has come before. Seth’s understanding of time and the passing of the seasons is childlike: if it is June, you can go barefoot. It never crosses his mind, he says, “that they would try to stop you from going barefoot in June, no matter if there had been a gullywasher and a cold spell.” For Seth, time and nature are familiar and knowable things, not the troubling abstractions they become for adults. At that age, “you remember everything and everything is important and stands big and full and fills up Time and is so solid that you can walk around and around it like a tree and look at it.” His connection to nature is similarly seamless: “When you are a boy and stand in the stillness of woods, which can be so still that your heart almost stops beating and makes you want to stand there in the green twilight until you feel your very breathing slow through its pores like the leaves.” Poets and theologians would define Seth’s state of mind at the beginning of the story as “innocence.” He has no understanding of his self as separate or different from the world around him. Psychologists would call Seth’s identity “undifferentiated.”
During the course of the day, Seth begins the wrenching process of differentiation, of exploring the boundaries where self ends and other begins, of understanding that his particular reality cannot be mistaken for universal truth, and of recognizing that he only knows who he is by defining others as “not him.” What makes Warren’s story so poignant and effective is that Seth’s self-knowledge comes incrementally and tangibly. The landscape which he traverses is not some vague, mythical place, not are the other characters he interacts with merely empty symbols themselves. Instead, Seth’s experiences that day have everything to do with rural Tennessee, with the south, with who his father is, with the arrestingly cool weather of blackberry winter. The arrival of the stranger sets in motion a series of events that cause Seth to redefine himself and his place in the world, and, as he will come to understand more deeply in the thirty-five years before he narrates the story, he will lose forever the innocent certainty of being perfectly at home in the world.
That morning, when Seth first sees the man out the window, he is struck by the incongruity, the strangeness, of the sight. In fact, the hallmark of the man is his strangeness: he does not know anything about dogs, his clothes are all wrong, and he carries a mysterious package. To Seth, the man is more than strange, however, his entrance into the world defies explanation and challenges the laws of Seth’s universe. Even Seth’s mother cannot account for his presence. She says that she does not “recognize him,” and when Seth asks her where he could be coming from, all she can say is “I don’t know.” Shutting his eyes and hoping the figure of the man will disappear, Seth thinks,”There was no place for him to have come from, and there was no reason for him to come where he was coming, toward the house.” But he is there, and his presence does not just challenge Seth’s world view, it forever changes it. Now Seth must include new phenomena in his comprehension of what is possible, and furthermore, he will no longer enjoy the feeling of certainty with which he began the day. Even thirty-five years later, the narrator still cannot make sense of the encounter with the stranger. The man’s voice, he remembers “seemed to have a wealth of meaning, but a meaning which I could not fathom.” In retrospect, he can still only hazard a guess that “it probably was not pure contempt.”
The tramp’s intrusion into Seth’s world changes everything. The strange man’s emergence from the woods, “like a man who has come a long way and has a long way to go,” is trespassing in several senses of the word. He is a trespasser in the legal sense in that he walks across the family’s property (and surely the property of others as well) without permission or regard for their rights. But trespass also means to sin or transgress. The tramp’s entrance into Seth’s world is literally a transgression, a crossing of boundaries (the fence), and figuratively (stepping over the line between the possible and the impossible). His sin does not take the form of any specific act, however. Rather, he is sin embodied and his very presence forces Seth to acknowledge the existence of sin and evil in the world. That knowledge, in turn, alters the way he perceives himself and everything else in his now fallen world.
The familiar sights of his world suddenly look strange to Seth. When he arrives at the bridge, for example, a ritual repeated every spring flood, the faces of the men look “foreign” and “not friendly.” When he comes up alongside his father “within touching distance of his heel,” Seth is unable to “read” his father’s “impassive” face. The spectacle of the dead cow also takes on new dimensions for Seth, who understands for the first time that the cow is not just “dead as a chunk.” It represents a devastating loss to Milt Alley and his “pore white trash family.” Seth’s concern and empathy for Mr. Alley and his “thin-faced” children is genuine, but part of his interest in their circumstances is triggered by his dawning awareness that the brutal forces of the rural economy make the Alleys poor and his family comfortable. He seems to recognize that his relative wealth depends on their poverty, that the idyllic comfort of his family’s farm is built on the hard work of others. After Seth listens, only half understanding, to the men and boys discuss what hunger will do to a man, he gets another glimpse of life outside of the garden of innocence. And once he has that knowledge in his possession, he cannot return to his former state of consciousness. This inability to return to innocence is symbolized by Seth’s choice not to go home after his father drops him off at the gate to the farmhouse.
Shivering, both from the cold and from uncertainty, Seth goes instead to Dellie and Jebb’s cabin where he hopes to be able to play with Little Jebb, the boy close to his own age. Expecting warmth and reassurance in the family’s humble cabin, Seth finds instead disarray, sickness, and violence. The first thing that Seth notices is “that the drainage water had washed a lot of trash and filth out from under Dellie’s house.” Like the appearance of the tramp coming across the yard, and revelations of poverty at the bridge, the trash in Dellie’s yard is jarring because it defies the laws of the universe as Seth has understood them up to this point. Although the cabin looks “just as bad as the yards of the other cabins.” To Seth’s eye’s “it was worse… because it was a surprise.” The interior of the cabin is no less familiar. Dellie herself is sick, and looks so strange that Seth “scarcely recognized” her face. When she calls Jebb over to her bedside and then slaps him so hard that he cries silently, the last of Seth’s illusions are shattered. He is forced to acknowledge the psychological consequences of poverty and to accept his role in the social and economic mechanisms that keep Jebb and his family in a dirt-floored cabin. It is as if Seth realizes for the first time that his friend and his family are black, that he his white, and that in the time and place where they live, that signifies an unerasable and fundamental difference.
Everything changes after the tramp arrives on Seth’s family’s property. He does not do anything menacing or sinful, or destroy or change anything, but when he walks in to Seth’s garden from the outside world, he represents the intrusion of the outside world into the fading agrarian ideal of the south. He represents the city, industrialism, materialism and the ruthless cult of success. The stranger’s presence destroys their shared illusions about race, class and identity in the south. Now, Seth sees, black and white are not just unequals, they are adversaries. In short, the tramp represents everything that threatens the middle Tennessee rural way of life and once Seth sees the world through the tramp’s eyes, he is destined to follow him “all the years” because he knows he cannot stay where he is.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Robert Penn Warren, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.