Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Peter Davison, February 23, 1981

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - First encounters with Robert Penn Warren

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Partial Transcript: The following is an unrehearsed interview with Peter Davison for the Robert Penn Warren Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Davison recalls his memories of Warren from his childhood in the 1930s. Several instances of Mr. and Mrs. Warren as a couple are remembered. Other memories include trips to visit the Warrens in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and while the families were both living in Washington, D.C.

Keywords: Boulder (Colo.); Childhood; Emma Brescia; Family; Robert Penn Warren; Swimming; The Library of Congress; Washington (Pa.); Washington, D.C.; World War II

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Early life; Friendship; Washington (D.C.); World War, 1939-1945

00:09:54 - Davison's adulthood with Warren

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Partial Transcript: But to jump forward again about ten years to the late forties...

Segment Synopsis: Davison describes his encounters with Warren later in his life, including numerous times in New York City. The dynamics between Warren and his friends following his divorce are also explored. Warren's encounter with Thomas Wolfe is mentioned as well.

Keywords: Eleanor Clark; Emma Brescia; Hunter College; New York (N.Y.); Robert Penn Warren; The University of Colorado

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

00:14:23 - Later years with Warren

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I remember after Eleanor and Red were married we met...

Segment Synopsis: Davison's friendship with Warren in recent years is explored. His first encounter with Warren's second wife is remembered. The death of Davison's father and Warren's reaction is also mentioned. The friendship between Davison and his wife with Warren's daughter is talked about as well.

Keywords: Alcoholism; Brother to Dragons (Book); Concerts; Connecticut; Eleanor Clark; Fathers; Letters; Poetry; Robert Penn Warren

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Children; Friendship; Parents

00:19:06 - Warren's illness / Warren's domestic life

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Partial Transcript: After Red's serious illness, uh, in, um, in Italy.

Segment Synopsis: Davison discusses the time before Warren fell ill with a liver ailment. Back in the United States, Davison reveals the couple's present routine in both working and entertaining. Warren's dedication to his profession is praised by the interviewer as well as his strong character in comparison to other writers.

Keywords: Bellagio (Italy); Commitment; Family; Poetry; Robert Penn Warren; Rome (Italy); Schedules; Writers; Writing

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

00:24:24 - Warren's struggles in writing

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Partial Transcript: No, I think there, there definitely has been difficulty in his work.

Segment Synopsis: Warren's struggles to write literature, especially non-poetic pieces are documented. Warren is also compared to earlier writer Thomas Hardy, as they are found to have similar personal lives despite their generational differences.

Keywords: Brother To Dragons (Book); Long fiction; Poetry; Robert Penn Warren; Short fiction; Thomas Hardy

Subjects: American literature--20th century; British writers and their work; Friendship

00:27:13 - Davison's influences

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Partial Transcript: Another thing that comes to mind, just to go back a few minutes, is when you're talking about swimmers and the poem you've written...

Segment Synopsis: The literary inspirations of Davison are explored, including Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren. Both writers and their styles are compared, including the subject matter the two focused on.

Keywords: Americans; Dedication; Memoirs; Moral forces; Personalities; Racism; Robert Frost; Robert Penn Warren; Slavery; Thomas Jefferson; William Faulkner

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

00:31:46 - Racism today

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Partial Transcript: Well, I don't honestly feel that we've made that much progress in moral imagination.

Segment Synopsis: Davison talks of modern racism in relation to what Warren wrote in his earlier novels and poems. A brief discussion of racism in the North as it was during the time of the interview in the 1980s is also mentioned.

Keywords: All The King's Men (Book); Boston (Mass.); Racism; Robert Penn Warren; Segregation

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Moral imagination; Race discrimination; Race relations; Racism

00:34:18 - More on Davison's influences

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Partial Transcript: Any other ideas about Warren as a influence on you personally or on your work?

Segment Synopsis: Davison elaborates on Warren's impact on his writing style. It is found that Davison was able to connect with Warren's poetry in a more effective manner by reading them in chronological order. An instance of Warren reading poetry aloud is told, and the effect upon the interviewee is given. Warren's storytelling ability is also highlighted.

Keywords: American experience; Brother to Dragons (Book); Metric poetry; Music; Perception; Poetry; Robert Frost; Robert Lowell; Robert Penn Warren

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Friendship; Storytelling

00:39:55 - Warren's personal life in general

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Partial Transcript: --halls of Yale, the Gold Coast of Connecticut but also I've spent some time near where he lived...

Segment Synopsis: Davison begins to describe Warren's adventures while living abroad in Italy. More comparisons of Warren to Thomas Hardy are made as well. The possibility of comparing him to Nathaniel Hawthorne is also alluded to. The first wife of Warren is described by Davison through encounters from his childhood and by several third party accounts of her. Warren's children are also briefly mentioned.

Keywords: Alcoholism; Childhood; Children; Divorces; Emma Brescia; History; Hunter College; Italy; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Poetry; Prose; Richard Lowell; Robert Penn Warren; Thomas Hardy

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Early life; Friendship; Mental health; Parents

00:51:48 - The Warrens in Baton Rouge

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Partial Transcript: What about, um, her house, your--then their house in Baton Rouge? Can you give a description of that?

Segment Synopsis: Davison gives a description of the Warren home in Baton Rouge. The physical appearance of his first wife is also described.

Keywords: Baton Rouge (La.); Dogs; Emma Brescia; Louisiana; Robert Penn Warren; Rural; Style

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Early life; Friendship

00:54:39 - On Emma Brescia

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Partial Transcript: What are some of the things you hear about--I mean, that people say about her that you...

Segment Synopsis: Davison asks the interviewer what others have said about Warren's first wife. The interviewer gives details about this, and these accounts are compared to what Davison observed as a child.

Keywords: Childhood; Cleanth Brooks; Dysfunction; Emma Brescia; Outlandish; Robert Penn Warren; Unbalanced; Unstable

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Early life; Friendship; Parents

00:58:38 - Warren and Robert Lowell / Elizabeth Hardwick

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Partial Transcript: Do you know, uh, anything about Warren's, uh, relationship with Lowell?

Segment Synopsis: A recent conversation between Lowell and Davison is recalled. A writing conference in the 1930s which Lowell and Warren attended is also remembered. Elizabeth Hardwick, wife of Lowell, is briefly mentioned as well. An instance of Lowell accusing someone of Communism is also discussed.

Keywords: Colorado; Critics; Elizabeth Hardwick; Fred Seidel; George Orwell; Harvard University; Jean Stafford; Maddox Ford; Robert Lowell; Robert Penn Warren; T. S. Eliot

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Early life; Friendship; Poetry

01:06:08 - Women in Warren's literature

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Partial Transcript: Is there anything else we should talk about?

Segment Synopsis: Davison expresses his opinions on Warren's subjects in literature. The character types in Warren's work are also mentioned. A prominent feminist named Brenda Ueland gives her impression of Warren in this regard as well.

Keywords: Affairs; Brenda Ueland; Robert Penn Warren; Sexuality; William Faulkner; Women

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Fiction; Friendship; Poetry