Why Critics Wait

As protests over the death of Freddie Gray intensified, Sydette Harry tweeted about yet another dimension of widespread institutional anti-black racism in the United States. She wrote, “It’s funny ...

As protests over the death of Freddie Gray intensified, Sydette Harry tweeted about yet another dimension of widespread institutional anti-black racism in the United States. She wrote, “It’s funny how much folks watched The Wire and felt all the emotions but are confused the people who live it feel anything at all.” Harry’s tweet captures the irony of how a largely white American audience can empathize with and understand “authentic” television, but become angry, surprised, or stunned into passivity by protests and dissent in the streets.

This irony recalls an anecdote in the opening chapter of Robert Penn Warren’s 1965 Who Speaks for the Negro?, re-issued last year by Yale University Press after having long been out of print. Warren describes witnessing a white man beating a black teenager with a belt outside of a Baton Rouge movie theater. Warren stayed in his car and considered intervening, but never did. His hesitation wasn’t from fear, “it was something worse, a sudden, appalling sense of aloneness. I had never had that feeling before,” he recalled, “that paralyzing sense of being totally outside my own community.” Eventually, a white LSU football player intervened. Warren calls him a “hero,” but not because he helped the black teenager. He is a hero because he saved Warren the trouble of having to “get ‘involved.’”

Warren, like those who may have felt more for characters on The Wire than they did for Freddie Gray, can only bear to look at the scene from a distance. Rather than taking action, Warren interprets the beating of a black teenager as an event that sheds light primarily on his own psychological and emotional complex. Even 50 years after it was published, Warren’s volume offers an important, but ultimately flawed case for how white Americans come to feel about and act on representations of black life: When confronted by the realities of aggressions—micro and macro—against people of color in the United States, much of white America becomes paralyzed, and expects a similar passivity even from those afflicted.

What I’ve just described is not, of course, the book that Warren set out to write. For him, Who Speaks is a chronicle of his attempt to understand the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Warren hopes to impart to his reader the direct experience of his interviews with nearly 50 leaders of what he sometimes calls the “Negro Revolt,” including Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X. He writes in the foreword that his book is “primarily a transcript of conversations, with settings and commentaries. That is, I want to make my reader see, hear, and feel as immediately as possible what I saw, heard, and felt.” Who Speaks for the Negro? can certainly be read this way. Though if the book really is about direct access to history, a reader today would be better off listening to the audio recordings of Warren’s interviews. (And, thanks to an online archive of digitized recordings, ephemera, and interview transcripts hosted by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, a reader who wants to can do just that.)


In his introduction, David Blight elegantly positions Who Speaks within Warren’s long and accomplished career as a novelist, poet, and critic, in addition to providing a fine account of Warren’s approach to interviewing the male-dominated cast of black Civil Rights leaders featured in the book. Blight is quick to point out a number of areas where Warren “may seem awkwardly out of date,” such as his heavy reliance on psychology and sociology for occasionally rationalizing stereotypes. But Blight also highlights some of the book’s more laudable insights that even today’s readers will find trenchant. One of these is Warren’s takedown of the passive satisfaction that comes with the redemption of white guilt: “It is not doing the Negro population much of a favor for a white man to indulge himself in a nice warm bubble bath of emotion, no matter how sweet he feels while in the suds.” As satisfying as Warren’s takedown of white sentimentality may seem, especially given his Southern background, the text of Who Speaks frequently undercuts those laudable conclusions, presenting a heavy dose of the irony that, according to Blight, Warren “breathed … in and out as though it were air itself.”

Because of this irony, Warren’s book has questionable value as a work of history. But, as an artifact of history, it remains incredibly instructive. Indeed, Who Speaks for the Negro? has much to teach us now about the ways that the white American educated public has been taught to understand the events in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and wherever the fire may be next time. In his attempt to write a direct history, Warren reduces racial inequality of the 1960s to a narrative of the rise, fall, and circulation of a number of metonyms—symbols that substitute for the actual thing. In doing so, he reads the world as if it were the object of literary criticism. Practicing the criticism he preached, Warren searches for the coherent voice that unifies the ironies and paradoxes of the Civil Rights Movement.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s titular theme: to identify a particular “who” speaking for the entirety of black America. Of course, Warren is more interested in finding a voice at the center of the movement than he is in finding a person, an approach that resonates with his emphasis on identifying and accounting for a poem’s “speaker” in his literary criticism. In 1960, he and Cleanth Brooks added a paragraph to their important Understanding Poetry textbook in order to clarify the relation between a poem’s tone and its speaker:

There are, however, many shadings off from this kind of literal identification to a merely fictitious “I,” and for present purposes the degree of autobiographical identification is not necessarily important. We are concerned with the fact that the speaker of the poem, whether historical or fictional, is expressing an attitude through his particular use of language.

 Warren and Brooks point to the separation of the voice of the poet from the voice of the poem’s speaker. This separation, which when violated by a reader results in what fellow literary critics W. K. Wimsatt & Monroe Beardsley called an intentional fallacy, may make sense for reading poetry, but its efficacy and rationale are questionable in the context of capturing the Civil Rights Movement.

The result of Warren’s attention is the alienation of Civil Rights leaders’ bodies, the privileging of the voice above all else. For example, Warren seems to compliment James Baldwin after describing The Fire Next Time: “He has become a voice.” Similarly, when introducing his interview with Martin Luther King Jr., Warren positions King as capable of giving the movement what it needs most, “a voice to explain it to itself.” The disembodiment and simultaneous fetishization of the black voice has long been a privileged site of white appropriation and exploitation of black aesthetics and performance.1 Further, to take Baldwin’s and King’s voices as representative of “the Negro” is to deny the plurality within black America by asserting that any dissent within the whole eventually resolves into a representative voice. Warren somehow makes being singular plural, and plural singular. Such a move obscures the living conditions of black people and limits the purview of any action that could be taken to disassemble those conditions, because Warren interprets the struggle as symbolic rather than social or material.

Who Speaks for the Negro? is a work of literary criticism disguised as a work of history. Because of this, the book falls prey to a category error, scrutinizing life as literature. Yet mistaking life for literature—or literature for life—becomes possible only when literature is understood to be separate from the world. It is no coincidence that Warren was among the “New Critics” who made this distinction a pivotal part of literary studies in the US academy. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the New Critics extensively promoted the idea that the work of art is ontologically distinct and separate from the world, even though they didn’t come up with this idea themselves. Aside from Warren, fellow New Critics Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom brought the enclosed literary object (and the “close reading” method necessary to decipher it) to the center of literary studies in predominantly white colleges and universities in the United States.

Even though the professors have been turning their attention to distant, surface, or “close but not deep” reading for the last decade or so, many students in college classrooms today, as their parents did, encounter a modified version of the New Criticism. Though many have challenged and expanded the narrow canon of white male writers espoused by the New Critics, it has been much more difficult to unseat the New Criticism’s methodological assumptions. In fact, even fields that are very much ideologically opposed to the conservative politics of the New Critics are built on a similar methodological technique. Edward Said famously called poststructuralism “new New Criticism” and numerous critics have suggested that New Criticism’s methodological tendencies actually opened the doors to more heterodox cultural studies approaches.2 The various challenges to close reading merely confirm its dominance up to now. But the fact that a supposedly open method has to be challenged in the first place makes it clear that close reading is not, and has never been, politically neutral.

One of the worst kept secrets in literary studies is that the New Critics were also the Southern Agrarians, a group that called for the American South to return to its antebellum economic roots based in agriculture. The Agrarians somehow managed to manufacture nostalgia for the culture of the plantation economy, which was held up by slave labor, without considering race. They outlined their program in a collection of essays published in 1930 called I’ll Take My Stand. Given that Warren’s contribution to that collection defended segregation—in Who Speaks, he claims never to have read that essay after it was published—it is clear that the otherwise total absence of attention to racial inequality in I’ll Take My Stand is no accident. The collection makes plain a form of blatant anti-black racism through a historical elision. If the object of the Agrarians was to invent a memory of the South, then the means to do so was through the erasure of its most brutal institution and its victims. In order to rescue the tradition of literature, the New Critics perform a similar erasure, this time by making irrelevant any historical activity outside of the literary work. Not only was antebellum Southern fiction made “safe” for modern readers, but so too was any literary tradition that bracketed exploitative and oppressive colonial histories.

Scholars often call the New Criticism ahistorical, but that designation goes too far. In Understanding Poetry, in fact, Brooks and Warren suggest that literature can be part of history, but with one important caveat:

Though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.

In New Critic-speak, “document” is code for something historical. Literature, though, is not historical, but traditional. That is, literature has a universal relevance and its own temporality, while documents are relevant only to a particular here and now. What the passage above denotes, however, is that understanding the here and now requires an approach otherwise reserved for the universal. For example, a New Critic reviewing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man wrote that the invisibility faced by Ellison’s protagonist is “in our time the fate of all men.”3 That may be right if invisibility is abstracted to some general phenomenon, but Ellison’s novel attends to the invisibility within black political movements and of the political concern of black people within an anti-black society. Indeed, literary criticism has had a tendency to interpret works that assert “black lives matter” as positing that “all lives matter” instead.

More broadly, however, Warren and Brooks opened up the possibility for literary critical methods to be used on “documents.” With this subtle expansion, literary criticism becomes much more capacious and, as I mentioned earlier, allowed for the expansion of the canon. When the entire world becomes a literary text, any empathy, comprehension, or political change must circuit through interpretation.

Rather than taking action, Warren interprets the beating of a black teenager as an event that sheds light on his own psychological and emotional complex.

Reading documents through the lens of literary criticism may not seem like a big deal, but this idea is foundational to Who Speaks for the Negro? and Warren’s approach to reading the Civil Rights Movement in it. To do so enforces a demarcated distance between the critic and the “objects” being observed, even if the critic is not, in fact, separate from the events. Warren’s anecdote about the beating in Baton Rouge stages a separation between the event itself and the passive observer. Warren plays the latter role, which leads him to the conclusion that the LSU student who intervenes is saving Warren instead of the black teenager being whipped. What the student saves Warren from is the possibility that Warren would have to become part of the world. From his protected position as “event critic,” Warren concludes that this event is really about his own psyche instead of the conditions of black life. A beating is abstracted into an internal and seemingly universal existential wound, the unavoidable condition for the intellectual, the poet, or the writer.

Who Speaks for the Negro? doesn’t stop there. At the book’s close, Warren takes his interviews as evidence of a transhistorical truth: “the white man must grant, of course, that Western civilization, white culture, has ‘failed.’” For the Warren of Who Speaks, the failure of white culture isn’t rooted in industrialization and advanced forms of capitalism as it was for the younger Warren. Instead, white culture fails because the principles it preaches—“to respect the worth of the individual soul and person, to respect the rights of man, to achieve a common liberty, to realize justice, to practice Christian charity”—persist only in the realm of ideas, not in practice. Yet Warren’s four hundred-plus pages of sustained engagement with the conditions of black life seemingly repeat that failure: the book concludes with a universal abstraction about whiteness and its civilization at the expense of the here and now of the Civil Rights movement and black social life. Who Speaks for the Negro? shows what happens when a book insists that the directly lived is not, in fact, a representation. Warren’s insistence that his book is a direct account misleads its reader into understanding anti-black racism in the US as a struggle of abstracted symbols.

Because the New Criticism and “close reading” have for so long been dominant in English Departments, including writing courses required of nearly all college students, most college educated Americans have been taught to think of the world this way. I don’t mean to suggest that there are millions of doctrinaire New Critics roaming the country, and that their adherence to literary critical dogma lends itself to perpetuating anti-black racism. New Criticism’s impacts have been more subtle and atmospheric, and Who Speaks for the Negro? illustrates this perfectly well. Warren never claims to be doing a literary critical analysis of his interviews. In fact, he hopes to do exactly the opposite. A loose and modified form of Warren’s critical approach, however, bears on his “settings and commentaries” throughout the book. The conspiracy theorist would likely read this as a deliberate trick, but Warren doesn’t seem to be that sneaky. Instead, his tendency to read life through literary criticism anticipates and prefigures the ways that criticism circulates and unfolds outside—and often inside—the classroom today: partially, idiosyncratically, unsystematically.

Racism certainly has systematic manifestations, but it is typified by idiosyncratic manifestations, too. A book like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen draws attention to that seemingly more ephemeral, but still forceful, second type. Who Speaks for the Negro? suggests that even attempts to understand one’s own anti-black racism may, unfortunately, yield more instances of anti-black racism. It is tempting to take Who Speaks as a redemptive book for Warren in that it shows he was able to put his Agrarian days and Southern upbringing behind him. Such a reading focuses, as Warren’s book does, not on the struggle of black people living in an anti-black society, but on the white struggle to be a good, moral, anti-racist person. That struggle is important, at least to white people. But so is the fact that black people are both incarcerated and killed by police at an alarming rate. To claim feeling and understanding for The Wire, and not for the black residents of Baltimore, is to privilege the white moral struggle, a struggle that has always been privileged. Warren attempted to show how those struggles are intertwined, but the way he read the world as if it were akin to The Wire, unfortunately, didn’t get him all the way there. Fifty years later, as Sydette Harry observes, not much has changed. icon

  1. For two essential works on blackface minstrelsy and its important role in making whiteness, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford University Press, 1993); and David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1991).
  2. Catherine Gallagher writes, “English departments were theoretically open and eclectic in the sixties and seventies, not despite the New Criticism but because of it.” Gallagher, “The History of Literary Criticism,” Daedalus, vol. 126, no. 1 (1997), p. 142.
  3. Richard Chase, “A Novel Is a Novel,” The Kenyon Review, vol. 14, no. 4 (1952), p. 682.