October 10, 2008

THE LAG BETWEEN WORD AND FLESH:

INTERVIEW: ROBERT PENN WARREN (Interviewed by Eugene Walter, Spring-Summer 1957, Paris Review)

INTERVIEWER: In this connection, do you feel that there are certain themes which are basic to the American experience, even though a body of writing in a given period might ignore or evade them?

WARREN: First thing, without being systematic, what comes to mind
without running off a week and praying about it, would be that
America was based on a big promise--a great big one: the
Declaration of Independence. When you have to live with that in
the house, that's quite a problem--particularly when you've got to
make money and get ahead, open world markets, do all the things
you have to, raise your children, and so forth. America is stuck
with its self-definition put on paper in 1776, and that was just like
putting a burr under the metaphysical saddle of America--you see,
that saddle's going to jump now and then and it pricks. There's
another thing in the American experience that makes for a curious
kind of abstraction. We suddenly had to define ourselves and what
we stood for in one night. No other nation ever had to do that. In
fact, one man did it--one man in an upstairs room, Thomas
Jefferson. Sure, you might say that he was the amanuensis for a million or so people stranded on the edge of the continent and
backed by a wilderness, and there's some sense in that notion. But
somebody had to formulate it--in fact, just overnight, whatever
the complicated background of that formulation--and we've been
stuck with it ever since. With the very words it used. Do you know
the Polish writer Adam De Gurowski? He was of a highly placed
Polish family; he came and worked as a civil servant in
Washington, a clerk, a kind of self-appointed spy on democracy.
His book America--of 1857, I think--begins by saying that
America is unique among nations because other nations are
accidents of geography or race, but America is based on an idea.
Behind the comedy of proclaiming that idea from Fourth of July
platforms there is the solemn notion, Believe and ye shall be saved.
That abstraction sometimes does become concrete, is a part of the
American experience--and of the American problem--the lag
between idea and fact, between word and flesh.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2008 3:54 PM
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