Fathers and Sons
Throughout his career, Warren was interested in exploring and writing about the relationship between fathers (and grandfathers) and sons, and in Blackberry Winter the theme takes center stage. In an interview, Warren agrees with his critics who say that the search for the father is a recurrent theme in his work: “I’ve been told, and I think it’s true, that the ‘true’ father and the ‘false’ father are in practically every story I’ve written.” Though Warren goes on to say (rather disingenuously) that he has “no idea” what that means, but readers of Blackberry Winter can hardly fail to notice that the young boy is drawn to two strong and contrasting figures in the father and the tramp.
Surely the tramp embodies the opposite of his father: the tramp is cowardly, weak and squeamish, and perhaps worst of all, ungentlemanly. His choice of the switchblade as a weapon demonstrates his untrustworthiness and cowardice, but the blade itself naturally appeals to the boy. When the tramp is repulsed by the dead chicks, the boy “who did not mind hog-killing or frog-gigging,” suddenly sees them anew and feels “hollow in the stomach.” But it’s the tramp’s swearing and spitting at the boy’s father that makes him at once repulsive and irresistible. The boy follows him because he’s the only one he’s ever seen who has not deferred to his father, and because like all boys he will eventually have to do the same in order to become a man, and he wants to know how.
Seth’s father, on the other hand, is a model of strength, affection, and manly southern virtues. At the creek his father displays both civic leadership among the other men and paternal affection by lifting his son up to his horse and placing a hand on his thigh to steady him. When the father finally encounters the tramp on his property, he knows exactly what to do and exercises restraint when the man accosts him. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the father is undercut somewhat by the older Seth’s epilogue when the narrator reveals that the tramp is the man whose image walked before him “all these years.”
Warren’s depiction of the farm in Blackberry Winter is most likely drawn from his own boyhood experiences on his grandfather’s farm in Cerulean, Kentucky. In the narrator’s memory, it is a place of unspoiled innocence—until that cold day in June when the stranger walked up to the house from the path by the woods.
Seth’s boyhood world on the morning of that day is June is a kind of garden of Eden, a ‘ ‘first paradise,” in the language of critic Winston Weathers. The narrator describes how the boy’s understanding of time differs from the adult view: “… and when you are nine years old, what you remember seems forever; for 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.”
Of course, innocence is a state of being only understood from the perspective of its opposite— experience. In Judeo-Christian terms, the opposite of innocence is sin, and the consequences of the fall include being expelled from the garden of Eden. The older narrator of Blackberry Winter is recalling the day when his paradise was lost, when death (the baby chicks, the dead cow in the creek), the destructive force of nature (the flood), and evil (the snarling, malevolent tramp) entered his world and changed him forever. In the words of critic Charles Bohner, “In the span of a single morning, the child has experienced his own blackberry winter. He has been thrust suddenly and violently from the warmth of his childish innocence to the chill knowledge of the ‘jags and injustices’ of an adult world.”
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.