Men of Parts

A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren; Edited by Walter B. Edgar; Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge, LA. Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom; Edited by Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle; Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge, LA.

That most aristocratic of literary roles, the career as man of letters, has proved especially congenial to the Southern intellectual in the 20th century. The title of one of these two volumes—A Southern Renascence Man—describes the role: the writer as a Renaissance man, a man of parts, a complete personality grounded in and developed out of the many facets of the literary life. The man of letters transcends the specialized focuses of the novelist, the poet, the critic. Instead the term implies almost a gentlemanly and ''amateurish"—in that word's pure sense of a labor of love—devotion to the broader craft of writing, but in modern times raised to a professional level. If it seems an outmoded ideal in an age in which everything from football to politics, from academic sub-disciplines to television, seems reduced to specialized role-playing, it may be perhaps revealing that the man of letters should have flourished so noticeably in our most conservative region. Two recent collections of essays by or about John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren suggest that the phenomenon may not be accidental.

The very notion of our man of letters as a cultural spokesman is essentially European, of course; and it is striking to look back to Ransom's 1930 essay contribution to the Southern Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand, in which he defiantly notes the...

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