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 . . . Read More
The New Criticism
Warren’s legacy to literary studies goes far beyond the novels, stories, poems and plays he created. He was one of the founders of a school of criticism called the New Criticism, which dominated the field of English studies for more than a generation. He accomplished this through his role as teacher to countless undergraduate and graduate students who would go on to be teachers and professors, through his influence as founder and editor of two highly influential literary journals (Southern Review and Kenyan Review), and perhaps most important, through the defining textbooks he wrote with fellow Louisiana State University professor and critic Cleanth Brooks.
The theory and methods of the New Criticism will seem to today’s students both obvious and outdated. Simply put, they argued that poems (and other genres, but poems especially) could be read and interpreted on the merits of their own internal and . . . Read More
The story is told by a first-person narrator who is recalling events that happened to him sometime in the past. Not until the epilogue does he reveal that thirty-five years separate the events of that June day from the narration. This distance sets up a contrast between the nine-year-old Seth’s point of view and the forty-four-year-old narrator’s. This structure not only invites comparison between the boy’s perception of events and the man’s, it also asks readers to consider how the mechanism of memory works. In other words, is it the events of that June day that are important, or the recollection of those events over the intervening time period?
Because the adult narrator is capable of understanding and interpreting the events of the day better than the child is, the narrative structure of the story anticipates an explanation. Readers expect that by the end, the elder Seth will provide the missing . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
Dellie is the wife of the sharecropper Old Jebb and mother of Seth’s sometime playmate Jebb. She works as a cook for Seth’s family. They are an African-American family who live in a cabin on the narrator’s family’s farm. On the day the story takes place, Dellie is sick in bed with an unspecified “female” illness. Young Seth is shocked by her ravaged appearance and stunned when she lashes out and slaps her son so hard that he cries.
The father’s first or last name never appears in the story, but he plays a prominent role both in the events of the day and in the elder Seth’s recollections. From the information provided, however, he seems to be a leader in the community, an affectionate father, and a fearless protector of his family. He embodies the virtues of his rural southern roots: chivalry, loyalty, resourcefulness, and restraint. In the . . . Read More
This novelette is a recollection of one memorable day in the childhood of Seth, the narrator, then nine years old. It is told as a first-person narrative, more than thirty-five years later. The title refers to the weather phenomenon of a period of cool temperatures in June. The story takes place in middle Tennessee.
On this unseasonably cold day Seth’s mother forbids him to go outside barefoot, but he disobeys her, wanting to “rub [his] feet over the wet shivery grass and make the perfect mark of [his] foot in the smooth, creamy, red mud.” But before he can get out the door, Seth notices something unusual: “Out of the window on the north side of the fireplace I could see the man… still far off, come along by the path of the woods.” The boy watches the man follow a path where the family’s fence meet the woods. From a distance he can tell that the man is a stranger and that he is approaching the house. After Seth’s mother . . . Read More
The ‘‘true’’ identity of the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the novel to understand. The novel depicts two personalities: the now-dead Phaedrus and the lonely, empty man who remained after undergoing shock therapy. The actual storyteller, it may be argued, is neither one of these personalities alone, but an integrated figure representing both the ‘‘old’’ Phaedrus and the unnamed man on the motorcycle trip. In order to distinguish these figures, the narrator’s past personality shall be designated as Phaedrus; the narrator as the character who embarks on the motorcycle journey with his son shall be designated as the man on the motorcycle (or motorcycle man); and the narrator, who is to be viewed as an integrated version of these two individuals, shall be referred to for purposes of this discussion as the narrator/storyteller. A close reading of the novel suggests that the motorcycle man’s . . . Read More
Conservative Reactions to Communist Fears in the 1950s
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974, but it takes place in two different time periods. The Phaedrus phase of the narrator’s life occurs in the 1950s. The real-life motorcycle trip Pirsig writes about in the novel took place in 1968, several years prior to the book’s publication, but within the same general cultural atmosphere. The narrator relates a few things about both time periods. In Montana in the late 1950s, the place and time in which Phaedrus taught there, was what the narrator describes as ‘‘an outbreak of ultra-rightwing politics.’’ Through his narrator, Pirsig highlights some of the conservative policies of the University administration. He relates that the public statements of professors had to be approved by the administration, and the academic standards of the college were, in Phaedrus’s opinion, deteriorating in order to increase . . . Read More
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is written as a first-person narrative describing the cross-country motorcycle trip of the narrator and his companions. The unnamed narrator refers to himself as ‘‘I.’’ The sections of the book in which the account of the narrator’s travels with his son are being directly related are written in present tense, as are the narrator’s thoughts on motorcycle maintenance and his personal thoughts on the larger implications of motorcycle maintenance attitudes. The narrator’s recollections of Phaedrus and the explanation of Phaedrus’s thoughts are written in past tense, as this personality, his thoughts, and the events of his life occurred in the narrator’s past.
In any first-person narrative, the reliability of the narrator is a subject for consideration: the reader has only the narrator’s account of events as a guide. As this particular story unfolds, the . . . Read More
Classicism versus Romanticism
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator discusses two schools of thought— classicism and romanticism—and explores the reasons these branches of thinking have been set in opposition to one another throughout history. He advocates for a unification of these two ways of approaching the world, stating that ‘‘classic and romantic understanding should be united at a basic level.’’ The narrator also explains that Phaedrus’s quest was to solve this philosophical dilemma. The classical school of thought or mode of thinking, as the narrator describes it, is associated with analysis, reasoning, science, technology, and technological methods. Romanticism is associated with art, intuition, and the view that technology is ugly. The Sutherlands are identified by the narrator as representatives of romanticism. Throughout the novel, the narrator offers examples of the ways these two modes of thought . . . Read More