Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Francis Steegmuller, May 14, 1981

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:01 - Meeting Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark

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

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller describes his first encounter with Warren's future wife, Eleanor. Their meeting in New York is recalled in detail. A dinner with Warren and Clark is also mentioned. An anecdote about music and its relation to poetry is discussed.

Keywords: 1950s; Eleanor Clark; Music; New York (N.Y.); Polio; Rhythm; Robert Penn Warren; Rome (Italy)

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

00:05:20 - Warren and Steegmuller's wife / opinion on music

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Partial Transcript: And I'll tell you, uh, something else about, uh, about Red.

Segment Synopsis: Warren's treatment of Steegmuller's first wife, Beatrice is recalled. Instances of Warren's kindness to her are mentioned, and a unique similarity between them is revealed. The common interests of the two friends are also discussed. Warren's distaste for music and his upcoming opera are briefly touched on.

Keywords: Ballads; Beatrice Stein; Connections; Impairments; Polio; Robert Penn Warren; Songs; Spirituals; Sympathy

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

00:11:03 - Socializing with Warren

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Partial Transcript: Can you recall any, um, particular--this one social event you mentioned when you met him...

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller talks of his somewhat frequent socialization with the Warrens in locales both abroad and in the United States. Warren's affinity for Italy is briefly mentioned. Visits of the Warrens to Steegmuller's home in Manhattan are also remembered.

Keywords: Christmas; Eleanor Clark; Italian; Italy; New York (N.Y.); Robert Penn Warren; Vermont; Visits; Wives

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Travel; Writers abroad

00:15:06 - Warren's second wife and children

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Partial Transcript: How about Eleanor Clark?

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller chronicles his friendship with Warren's second wife, and their common interest in the French language. Steegmuller also gives an account of Warren's children and their mannerisms. An instance of the couple's parenting style is also briefly mentioned.

Keywords: Choate Rosemary Hall; Eleanor Clark; Family; French; Gabriel Penn Warren; Greenwich (Conn.); National Book Awards; Robert Penn Warren; Rosanna Warren

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Parents; Writers abroad

00:19:34 - The Warrens on Communism / accents

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Partial Transcript: Red is of course very, um--as I told you before, his courtesy is remarkable.

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller tells of Warren's personality and his occasional passionate nature. The couple's opinions on Communism are explored. The background of Warren's wife is also mentioned. An instance with the couple and a leftist friend is elaborated upon. The accent and Southern personality of Warren is talked about. Eleanor Clark (Warren's wife) is revealed to have had a close relationship with Trotsky during his exile in Mexico.

Keywords: Communism; Eleanor Clark; John MacDonald; Leon Trotsky; Lillian Hellman; Mexico; Robert Penn Warren; Stalinism; The Yale Review; Trotskyists

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

00:29:43 - On Catherine Anne Porter / Warren's passions

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Partial Transcript: They were great friends, of course, with Catherine Anne Porter.

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller briefly mentions the connection that the Warrens share with friend Catherine Anne Porter. Robert Penn Warren's passions and interests are revealed. Between the couple, it is found that Warren's wife is the most anti-communist of the two.

Keywords: Catherine Anne Porter; Children; Eleanor Clark; Joseph Stalin; Literature; Partisan Review; Poetry; Robert Penn Warren; Southern Review; Thomas Hardy; Vituperation; Wives

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

00:33:52 - Warren as an academic / Thomas Hardy

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Partial Transcript: Have you any idea--any thought on, um, the role of academic life in Warren's life and work?

Segment Synopsis: The professorial side of Warren is explored, along with Steegmuller's own brief experience as a teacher following graduate school. Steegmuller also mentions the opinions of Yale professors who were colleagues of Warren. The teaching style of Warren is also mentioned. Comparisons between Warren and poet Thomas Hardy are made as well.

Keywords: Henry James; Literature; Robert Penn Warren; Teaching; The University of Wisconsin; Thomas Hardy; Yale University

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

00:39:35 - The Warrens as literary figures

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Partial Transcript: How about Warren as a, just as a literary, um, figure?

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller is asked about the Warrens as literary figures, and he defers to the opinions of fellow critics with praise. This is because of his relative self-proclaimed lack of knowledge in American literature, as he is said to specialize in French literature. Recent public appearances of Warren's wife are explored.

Keywords: Biographies; Eleanor Clark; Friends; Readings; Robert Penn Warren

Subjects: American literature--20th century; French Literature; Friendship

00:42:18 - Writing biographies

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Partial Transcript: Have you ever discussed biography with, uh, Warren?

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller, a biographer, recounts the feedback of the Warrens to his works. Steegmuller also expresses his opinions on the feasibility of writing a biography about the Warrens. It is found that he does not feel comfortable writing about them, and only a certain kind of biographer would have the ability to write on the couple accurately. The conventional subjects and personalities that Steegmuller typically chooses to write about are explored.

Keywords: Biographers; Biographies; Childhood; Connecticut; Conventional people; Eleanor Clark; Interesting people; Robert Penn Warren

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

00:47:51 - Final thoughts

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Partial Transcript: Is there anything else that might occur?

Segment Synopsis: Steegmuller informs the interviewer of possible subjects to be interviewed in the future. Suggestions include personal friends of Warren and former colleagues at Yale University.

Keywords: Acquaintances; John Cheever; John Hollander; John MacDonald; People; Richard D. Lewis; Robert Penn Warren; Yale University

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