Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Cleanth Brooks, March 31, 1978

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:42 - Brooks' parents and childhood

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Partial Transcript: Mr. Brooks, to begin, I'd just like to get a few, uh, details about your, your beginnings.

Segment Synopsis: Brooks discusses his childhood in the western ends of Kentucky and Tennessee, moving a lot as a result of his father's status as a Methodist pastor. He also talks about reading and playing football, as well as his classical education at McTyeire School.

Keywords: Classical education; Family; Kentucky writers; Literature; Mayfield (Ky.); Memphis (Tenn.); Murray (Ky.)

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Christianity.; Classical education.; Criticism.; Families.; Literature.; Methodist

00:03:55 - The name 'Cleanth' and the popularity of the classics in the South

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Partial Transcript: I don't want to give the impression that I was just a little pedant, a little bookworm.

Segment Synopsis: Brooks further discusses his classical education as well as his classical Greek name in relation to the South's love for the classics. He also talks about playing football and baseball.

Keywords: American South; Christianity; Classical education; Cleanth Brooks; Kentucky writers; Methodist; Names; Sports

Subjects: American South; Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Christianity; Classical education.; Methodist

00:09:25 - Brooks' family history and the Civil War

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Partial Transcript: Your, uh, family, how long have they been in America?

Segment Synopsis: Brooks tells the story of either side of his family, how they came from England and Northern Ireland, and their lives before and during the Civil War.

Keywords: American Civil War; American South; Family; Kentucky writers; Nathan Bedford Forrest

Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865; American South; Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Forrest, Nathan Bedford, (1821-1877); Genealogy

00:12:32 - Progression of his classical education

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, I'd like to hear more about your early booklearning.

Segment Synopsis: Beginning with his father's early encouragement of his reading with a book of stories from the Iliad, and dabbling in his mothers' side of the family--the storyteller side, he goes on to discuss his classical education at a private boys' school. He goes on to discuss Vanderbilt's negative effects on his Greek and Latin knowledge.

Keywords: American South; Classical education; Kentucky writers; Vanderbilt University

Subjects: American South; Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Classical education.

00:16:19 - Shifting interests to modern poetry and later interest in history

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Partial Transcript: Did, uh, Ransom have no influence on you at Vanderbilt to maintain your classic--

Segment Synopsis: Brooks discusses the shift, complete by his sophomore year, in his interests from the classical to the modern, living poets, as exemplified by his awe of John Crowe Ransom, not as a scholar, but as a living, breathing poet. Despite this shift, he later came to reappreciate the history he once loved, but from a more intellectual standpoint.

Keywords: John Crowe Ransom; Kentucky writers; Vanderbilt University

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Classical education.; Poetry.; Ransom, John Crowe, 1888-1974

00:19:53 - Admiration of Eric Voegelin

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Partial Transcript: Who, uh, who are some of your--

Segment Synopsis: After discussing his renewed interest in history, he turns to talking about his then most-admired intellectual figure--Eric Voegelin.

Keywords: Eric Voegelin; History; Intellectual history; Kentucky writers

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; History.; Intellectual history.; Voegelin, Eric, 1901-1985.

00:22:31 - Voegelin's idea of Communism and Fascism's Gnostic Christian background

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Partial Transcript: He and his wife had become very fond of America.

Segment Synopsis: Brooks discusses Voegelin's idea that along with the orthodox suppression of Gnostic Christianity, the ideals would bubble up as cults throughout history, eventually becoming secularized to form the very different ideologies of Communism and Fascism. He then goes on to discuss how this plays into political unrest in England, America, France, Germany, Italy, and Europeanized Russia.

Keywords: Communism; Eric Voegelin; Fascism; Gnostic Christianity; Gnosticism; History; Intellectual history; Nazism

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Communism.; Fascism.; Gnosticism.; History.; Intellectual history.; Voegelin, Eric, 1901-1985.

00:31:02 - Voegelin as intellectual powerhouse

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Partial Transcript: Well, I'm off on this line, and it may not be relevant to what, uh, you want...

Segment Synopsis: Brooks discusses the broad scope of Voegelin's intellectual inquiries with examples of his reading T. S. Eliot when LSU's English department ignored it, and writing an insightful treatise on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," within a week of being recommended the novella.

Keywords: "Four Quartets"; "The Turn of the Screw"; Allen Tate; Eric Voegelin; James Henry; John Crowe Ransom; Poetry; T. S. Eliot; The Southern Review

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Criticism.; Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965.; Intellectual history.; James, Henry, 1843-1916.; Poetry.; Ransom, John Crowe, 1888-1974; Southern Review (Organization); Tate, Allen, 1899-1979.; Voegelin, Eric, 1901-1985.

00:36:30 - T. S. Eliot's worldview's influence on Brooks before his time at LSU

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Partial Transcript: Well then, back to, um, this, this, then was a, uh, uh, uh, an influ--a shaping force in your--

Segment Synopsis: Brooks discusses the impact of T. S. Eliot's viewpoint on shaping his own worldview, before he even went to LSU and met Voegelin. He also talks about the importance of religion, as viewed by himself and Eliot, on a societal level rather than on an individual level.

Keywords: Intellectual history; Louisiana State University (LSU); Religion; T. S. Eliot

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965.; Intellectual history.; Religion.

00:42:19 - Faulkner and Tennyson

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Partial Transcript: One of things that interested me in doing this--(cough)--last book on, uh, Faulkner, is how much, though he was a man who was some eight or nine years older than I, how much of his early reading, more or less, was the same as my early reading.

Segment Synopsis: Brooks compares his education to that of Faulkner, discussing their shared relative disillusionment with the romance of the past, and then goes on to talk about his perception of the Romantic Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as one of the early symbolist poets and why he admires Tennyson so.

Keywords: Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson; Classical education.; Criticism; Lord Alfred Tennyson; Poetry; Romanticism; William Faulkner

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Classical education.; Criticism.; Faulkner, William; Literary criticism and cultural theory; Poetry.; Romanticism.; Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, Baron, 1809-1892.

00:44:45 - Early literary ambitions

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Partial Transcript: So you're on you way to Vanderbilt.

Segment Synopsis: Brooks discusses his life at Vanderbilt, and the particular mindset in which he entered. He talks about what encouraged his interest in modern literature, and how his parents reacted to that interest.

Keywords: Criticism; Literary criticism; Poetry; T. S. Eliot; Vanderbilt University

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Criticism.; Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965.; Literary criticism and cultural theory; Poetry.

00:48:32 - Response to criticism of elitism

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Partial Transcript: One thing that I--does annoy me, is, this doesn't come up 'cause of anything that you said or are likely to say--one thing that has annoyed me in the past, is people sometimes write, people who don't know me, uh, the hostile critics, sometimes used to take it for granted or maybe still does, that I am some kind of elitist.

Segment Synopsis: Brooks responds to criticisms of his perceived elitism. He says that he very well understands how hard life can be--that he's been there, taking care of his family by himself. In addition, he hasn't only taught at "sheltered" private universities, but at open admissions public schools like LSU, among others, where he taught "functionally illiterate" students.

Keywords: Colleges; Criticism.; Education.; Elitist; Louisiana State University (LSU); Universities

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Criticism.; Education.; Literary criticism and cultural theory

00:50:58 - His thoughts on American public education

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Partial Transcript: As well as knowing what, uh, it's like to try to teach students, many of whom have goodwill, but who somebody has just neglected or been unable to teach them how to read and write.

Segment Synopsis: Spurred on by his previous mention of the poor status of many LSU students' public education, Brooks discusses changes and measured downgrades in education across the country, as well as major improvements in a few select areas, such as LSU's English department.

Keywords: Education; Louisiana State University (LSU)

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Education, Higher; Education.; Higher education

00:54:44 - Civil ignorance and economics

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Partial Transcript: Are there implications you draw for this--from this for the, uh, world beyond education?

Segment Synopsis: Further encouraged by the discussion of the poor status of American education, Brooks talks about the importance of an educated populace to a functioning country, and the ways in which he perceives our country to be failing.

Keywords: Criticism; Economics; Education; History; Intellectual history; Literary criticism

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth, 1906-1994; Criticism.; Economics.; Education.; History.; Intellectual history.; Literary criticism and cultural theory

00:59:57 - Criticism vs. artistry

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Partial Transcript: I'm interested in the--what you referred to a few minutes ago, uh, uh: you perceive that people have taken you sometimes to be an elitist.

Segment Synopsis: The interviewer proposes Brooks' status as critic rather than a suffering artist to be the reason for his perceived elitism, causing Brooks to discuss his very populist definition of criticism.

Keywords: Criticism; Critics; Literary criticism

Subjects: Brooks, Cleanth; Criticism.; Literary criticism and cultural theory; Poetry.