Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Mary O'Connor, August 3, 1978

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:35 - Time at Louisiana State University

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Partial Transcript: Mrs. O'Connor, I'd like to talk a little bit today about your, um--what, what you know about Robert Penn Warren.

Segment Synopsis: O'Connor examines her tenure at Louisiana State University during which Robert Penn Warren worked as a professor there. It is revealed that O'Connor spent her honeymoon at the Warrens' in Baton Rogue. The Warrens' servant is briefly mentioned. O'Connor's husband and his educational background are explored. Parties hosted by Warren and the people that attended them are discussed as well.

Keywords: Cleanth Brooks; Columbia University; Conversations; English departments; Lectures; Lionel Trilling; Louisiana State University (LSU); New Criticism; Parties; Punch; Robert Heilman; Robert Penn Warren; Servants; The Southern Review; Vacation; Weddings

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Education; Friendship; Professors

00:05:13 - Robert Penn Warren and Minnesota

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Partial Transcript: We left LSU after that first magic year.

Segment Synopsis: How O'Connor ended up leaving Louisiana and later working at Minnesota (by way of the University of Missouri) is investigated. The hiring of Warren at the University of Minnesota is recalled. Other academics who became friends with Warren are described. The dynamics of Warren's marriage are illustrated, as well as criticism of the union from a friend of the Warrens. Instances at the home of Joseph Warren Beach are remembered. The impact of Warren's departure upon the university is investigated. Additionally, O'Connor's interactions with Warren in Minnesota are elaborated upon.

Keywords: Caroline Gordon; Connections; Emma Brescia; English departments; Eric Bentley; Joseph Warren Beach; Lunches; Marriages; Parties; Robert Penn Warren; Saul Bellow; Southern values; Summers; Swimming; The University of Minnesota; The University of Missouri; WWII; World War II; Yale University

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Education; Friendship; Life; Professors

00:12:59 - Life in Connecticut / poetry

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Partial Transcript: By the time of that move to Yale, which I mentioned earlier, the divorce was in progress.

Segment Synopsis: O'Connor tells of Warren's divorce from Brescia and his subsequent remarriage to Clark. O'Connor also remembers a letter written to Joseph Warren Beach from Warren that detailed the birth of his first daughter. Beach's reaction to this is documented. The change in Warren's poetry following the divorce is also noted. O'Connor expresses her approval of the poetry written during the marriage to Brescia as well.

Keywords: Children; Connecticut; Divorces; Eleanor Clark; Emma Brescia; Inspirations; Italy; Joseph Warren Beach; Letters; Promises; Pulitzer Prize; Robert Penn Warren; Rural; Writing; Yale University

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Health; Life; Poetry

00:18:12 - Family

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Partial Transcript: I consider him to be among the proudest fathers that I know.

Segment Synopsis: Warren's affection and love for his children is established. The naming of Warren's son is briefly mentioned, as well as an affinity for classical literature, specifically Greek mythology. A shared interest (concerning familial relationships) between Warren and Beach is examined. Warren's relationship with his father and how it is reflected in his literature is discussed. Warren's desire to become familiarized with his genealogical history is explored. An inclination to understand and know one's father is found to be a common theme in modern American literature. Lastly, the re-write of "Brother to Dragons" is detailed.

Keywords: Blackberry Winter (Book); Brother to Dragons (Book); Charm; Children; Classics; Doctors; Fathers; Gabriel Penn Warren; Grandfathers; History; Joseph Warren Beach; Letters; Motifs; Narrators; Pride; Relationships; Robert Penn Warren; Searching; Telemachus; Understanding

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Parenthood

00:25:58 - "Proud Flesh" / teaching

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Partial Transcript: He once gave us a manuscript and I'm not sure what we did with it.

Segment Synopsis: O'Connor notifies the interviewer of a play manuscript called "Proud Flesh," that later became the novel "All the King's Men." A definition of the phrase 'proud flesh' (in the Southern sense) is given as well. The production of the play is also discussed, and how O'Connor obtained a copy of the manuscript. Warren's essay on the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is acclaimed by O'Connor for its educational value. Warren's exemplary teaching skills are highlighted in a seminar at the University of Minnesota as well.

Keywords: A Poem of Pure Imagination (Essay); All the King's Men (Book); Corruptions; Definitions; English departments; Huey Long; Idealists; Louisiana State University (LSU); Manuscripts; Overreaching; Proud Flesh (Book); Robert Penn Warren; Seminars; Taint; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Book); The University of Minnesota; Thomas Hardy

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Education; Friendship; Plays; Professors

00:31:30 - Warren personally / Warren's wives

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Partial Transcript: I've always thought the most attractive thing about Red apart from his generous kindness and his decency is his capacity for good talk.

Segment Synopsis: Warren's distinctive voice is recalled. This attribute is found to be an advantage in the teaching profession. An anecdote about Warren's unique voice is given from friend Allen Tate. Warren's manner of walking is also specified. The author's sense of style (or lack thereof) is examined. A physical description and characterization of Warren's first wife, Emma Brescia, is given. The musical background of Eleanor Clark (Warren's second wife) is briefly mentioned. A physical ailment of Brescia's is discussed, as well as her own friends compared to Warren's. Next, O'Connor chronicles what became of Brescia following the divorce. Finally, the psychological effects of Warren's first marriage are speculated on.

Keywords: Allen Tate; Candor; Caroline Gordon; Columbia University; Complexion; Crippling; Discomfort; Eleanor Clark; Emma Brescia; Fashion; Friends; Graceful; Humor; Intelligence; Italian; Neurotic; Problems; Robert Penn Warren; Sharp; Style; Suits; Uneasy; Unstable; Vitality; Voice; Walking; Wives

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Education; Friendship; Health; Life; Music; Professors

00:41:29 - Results of first marriage / theology

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Partial Transcript: Uh, two things that have come together right here in my mind.

Segment Synopsis: O'Connor explores the notion of Warren as an aid to those who had similar issues with instability as his ex-wife, Emma. An instance of helping a colleague through a difficult time is given as an example. Despite this, the circumstances were purely workplace issues, as Warren was very guarded and private. The presence of original sin in Warren's writing is also discussed. A philosophical disagreement concerning original sin between Warren and a friend is told as well. O'Connor expresses her interest in asking Warren about his religious beliefs through an experienced interviewer (preferably someone who he is acquainted with). O'COnnor says that another possible source of information is a cousin of Caroline Gordon's (Danforth Ross) who also knew Warren considerably well.

Keywords: "Original Sin"; Allen Tate; Cleanth Brooks; Danforth Ross; Emma Brescia; Forgiveness; Guidance; Help; Indirect; Intelligence; Interviews; Marriages; Mental health; Praise; Private; Problems; Professors; Protestantism; Religion; Rhodes College; Robert Penn Warren; Security; Tennessee

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Health; Life; Professors; Religion

00:53:59 - Eric Bentley and Warren

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Partial Transcript: --things speaking of, uh, his attitude toward people--

Segment Synopsis: The hiring of Professor Eric Bentley at the University of Minnesota is examined. Bentley's outlandish behavior is also recalled. An accusation about Warren's political leanings is explored. Another instance of Bentley's erraticism is mentioned as well. The reasoning and motivations behind Bentley's demeanor are speculated on. The departure of Bentley from Minnesota to Columbia University is illustrated. Bentley's personal life is revealed, including a divorce and change in personality (among other aspects). He discusses why many people made accusations of Fascism against Warren.

Keywords: Attack on Pearl Harbor; British; Children; Columbia University; Divorce; Domenico Brescia; Drama departments; Emma Brescia; Eric Bentley; Fascism; Insecurities; Italy; Joseph Warren Beach; New York Times; Robert Penn Warren; Rude; Southerners; Stingy; The University of California, Los Angeles; The University of Minnesota; Tolerance; WWII; World War II

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Education; Fascism; Friendship; Liberalism; Professors

01:08:00 - Warren in the workplace

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Partial Transcript: Well, we were talking about, uh, his position in the department at Minnesota.

Segment Synopsis: Warren's role in the University of Minnesota English department is revealed. Warren's departure is also found to have had a great impact upon the overall dynamics of the department. Warren's close relationship with Joseph Warren Beach is explored. The pure intentions of the colleagues are emphasized. The hiring of Warren at Minnesota and the circumstances behind this venture are speculated. Warren's administrative style is discovered to be similar and heavily influenced by the habits of mentor and friend John Crowe Ransom.

Keywords: Campus politics; Collaborations; English departments; Ideas; Intentions; John Crowe Ransom; Joseph Warren Beach; Louisiana State University (LSU); Open; Robert Penn Warren; The University of Iowa; The University of Minnesota; Vanderbilt University; Vibrant

Subjects: Administration; American literature--20th century; Education; Friendship; Professors

01:14:54 - Warren's parties

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Partial Transcript: Uh, did, did Warren, uh, orchestrate these things?

Segment Synopsis: The parties of Warren are described, including the types of guests who attended. Many guests are found to have worked outside the university. O'Connor gives her opinions of the political system in Minnesota, and compares it to those of other regions of the United States. An eccentric, wealthy man with interests in drama is brought up as an example of the varying backgrounds of the guests. The motivations behind Warren inviting unconventional people to the gatherings are hypothesized on. These guests are also thought to be an inspiration for a collection of Warren's short stories called "The Circus in the Attic."

Keywords: Doctors; Eastern United States; Eccentric; Freedom; Lobotomies; Louisiana State University (LSU); Minnesota; Nurturing; Parties; Politicians; Publishers; Robert Penn Warren; Social affairs; The Circus in the Attic (Book); The University of Minnesota; Wealth; Western United States

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Life

01:21:41 - Warren's literature / more on Warren's parties

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Partial Transcript: One of his most neglected works I think is, uh, "At Heaven's Gate."

Segment Synopsis: O'Connor praises Warren's underrated novel, "At Heaven's Gate." The conclusion is reached that many of Warren's best works are unknown to mainstream critics. Warren's poetry is also found to have gained more notoriety than the novels in recent years. The subject of Warren's parties is revisited. How many people attended the parties is estimated. Details are given on the food and drink as well. Additionally, the gatherings in Minnesota are compared to those given in Louisiana. Lastly, an anecdote about a servant the Warrens had in Baton Rouge is recalled.

Keywords: All the King's Men (Book); At Heaven's Gate (Book); Band of Angels (Book); Baton Rouge (La.); Circulation; Criticism; Drinking; Drinks; Eric Bentley; Food; Joseph Warren Beach; Minneapolis (Minn.); Morals; Movement; Nashville (Tenn.); Night Rider (Book); Parties; Robert Penn Warren; Servants; Socialization; World Enough and Time (Book)

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Life; Novels; Poetry

01:27:19 - Warren's house / first meeting

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Partial Transcript: What was the, uh, the--what was the Warrens' place like?

Segment Synopsis: The Warrens' home in Baton Rouge is discussed. It is described as a farm house with a reconfigured layout, perfect for throwing parties. O'Connor reveals her self-proclaimed ignorance of Warren and his work when she first arrived at Louisiana State University. How O'Connor got to know her husband (who worked at the university) is examined as well.

Keywords: Baton Rouge (La.); Country; Emma Brescia; English departments; Farmhouses; Farming; Highways; Husbands; Latin; Layouts; Louisiana State University (LSU); Medievalists; Robert Penn Warren; Rural; The South

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Architecture; Friendship; Life