Yale’s Southern Comfort

The shared legacy of the New Critics at Yale and Louisiana State University

When I packed away my cowboy boots and sundresses and left Shreveport, La., to come to Yale, I had no idea I was following in the footsteps of two of the most prominent Southern literary critics of the 20th century. Kentuckians Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks also left the South to come to Yale, bidding farewell to Louisiana State University’s English Department and heading north to Yale’s ivory towers, where they introduced a new type of literary criticism and affection for Southern literature that remains a part of the Yale English Department to this day. In turn, Warren and Brooks established a long line of Southern writers who, after studying at Yale, decided to take their knowledge back to LSU.

In 1935, as English professors at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Warren and Brooks founded The Southern Review — a critically acclaimed literary journal that put LSU on the map. The Review reflected a new type of literary criticism called “New Criticism,” a method that focused on close reading and attention to formal structure, with a reduced emphasis on historical analysis. More than a decade later, when Warren and Brooks were reunited as faculty members at Yale, they brought New Criticism to the university.

They also brought an appreciation for Southern literature, says Yale English professor Caleb Smith, an Arkansas native who teaches a senior seminar on William Faulkner. Smith says he was pleasantly surprised to discover Yale students’ excitement upon hearing “a Southerner read Southern literature out loud.” It’s hard not to be charmed by the young professor’s smooth drawl, but Smith attributes Yale’s affection for Southern literature to the lasting influence of Warren and Brooks, “two displaced Southerners” who, according to Smith, “helped create Faulkner’s legend.”

A similar feeling of indebtedness to Warren and Brooks is felt at LSU, says recently retired LSU English and Religious Studies professor Rodger Kamenetz ’70. Warren and Brooks served as inspiration for improving higher education in the South, Kamenetz says, and “LSU created a home for them” by supporting their innovation. According to Kamenetz, Brooks’ legacy as a poet and novelist paved the way for LSU’s graduate MFA program in creative writing, which was founded by Kamenetz in 1984.

Kamenetz’s former colleague and fellow Yale alumnus James Wilcox ’71 is the current director of creative writing at LSU. Wilcox has fond memories of being a student in one of Warren’s creative writing seminars at Yale.

“It was one of the most thrilling classes I’ve taken,” he says, and it inspired him to work for Warren’s editor at Random House in New York after graduating. Eventually, however, Wilcox returned to the South, accepting a permanent position at LSU, where he modeled one of his creative writing classes after Warren’s seminar.

Wilcox’s move back down south has much to do with his nine novels. “I really think the South has been the locus of my writing,” he says. “I don’t think I could have been a writer without having experienced living in the South.”

Glenda Gilmore, the director of undergraduate studies of Yale’s Department of African American Studies and a Southerner herself, thinks the South’s unique character stems from its tragic history, “a history of white supremacy for over 200 years,” Gilmore says.  According to Caleb Smith, Southern literature is largely informed by this history.

“People associate Southern literature with a certain mellow, charming, storytelling style,” Smith explains. “There’s some truth to that, but that beautiful voice that tends to speak in Southern literature seems to be haunted by histories of violence and intimacies between black and white,” he continues.

It’s somewhat ironic that despite Warren and Brooks’ attempt to move literary criticism away from historical analysis, Southern literature — as seen by Yale English professor Caleb Smith — is deeply entwined with its history. Smith acknowledges, however, that the literature of the South is a product of a culture often stereotyped, but seldom understood. Despite the lasting influence of Warren and Brooks, Smith says, to some Northerners, the literature of the South is still “a fantasy.”

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