Warren’s Wilderness

Robert Penn Warren’s Wilderness was a pretty big disappointment. Of course, following on the heels of Faulkner’s Unvanquished probably didn’t help it much, but still, I was incredibly disappointed. Warren, of course, is known for authoring All the King’s Men, a book with won him the Pulitzer Prize and had a movie made from it.

Funny, I didn’t even realize that Warren had written a Civil War tale until just before Christmas. My wife BJ, having recently earned her PhD, was in a frame shop in Piggott trying to choose a frame for her new degree. I dutifully went along as the proud husband. However, while standing there, I spotted several shelves of books. It surprised me because I didn’t even realize the place had books—I’d never been in there before. (I think the name of the place is Olga’s, but don’t hold me to the name)

Anyway, as I scanned the shelves from a distance, I spotted “Civil War.”

I was there in seconds. I spotted Wilderness, flipped to the copyright date and noticed 1961—one of the many books that were part of the centennial celebration of the war. I recognized Warren’s name and knew about the battle, so thought it be worth the price of admission (it was $4—just the way I like to buy old hardbacks!).

It’s not that Warren’s writing is bad—it isn’t. But, out of a 310 page book, it takes the main character—a clubfooted German Jew who has traveled to these United States for the sole purpose of joining the Union army and fighting for freedom (of course, it’s easy to see WHY Warren would make that sort of false assumption, him being a northerner writing 100 years after “his” side won)—290 pages to even GET to the Wilderness. We don’t even get to see any of the rest of the war; the character is not allowed to join the army because of his clubfoot, and so joins up with a suttler following the Union army.

I’m glad to have read it—it does, after all, fall into the “Civil War Fiction” category that I so enjoy. But I wish it would have been about 275 pages shorter.

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