Robert Penn Warren, The Circus in the Attic (Dell, 1947)
[originally posted 7Mar2002]
The back jacket of the book says, “These stories come from the pen of one of America’s half-dozen great writers.” Given the time period of the book’s release, that was really saying something. Something accurate, but something nonetheless. Penn Warren (who won the Pulitzer two year’s before for All the King’s Men) wrote the stories in this book over the course of fifteen years. Most were previously published.
The book is framed with two novellas, the title story and “Prime Leaf,” with a number of shorter works in between. As with most of Penn Warren’s work, the tales are about depression-era and WW2-era life in the American south, people going on about their day-to-day business. A number of the stories deal with the same town, and the same characters pass in and out of them, so the reader gets the feeling of getting to know different aspects of the town as he goes from story to story.
Part of the magic of Penn Warren’s work is the ability to simultaneously expose to the reader the quiet dignity of the proletariat and the basic stupidity of human nature. Not an easy thing to make the reader respect the people he’s laughing at. But that’s exactly what happens time and again in this book. The characters do dumb things for various reasons, but we always understand what those reasons are, and most of the time we can see how the character gets from the reason to the justification to the act without a problem. And while there’s always a moral to be had, Robert Penn Warren is certainly not Aesop. The moral is there, waiting to be found, but the reader who’s not interested in the morality of the tales is allowed to go off on his merry way and not contemplate the deeper meaning of what’s here. That, too, is part of Robert Penn Warren’s gift. *** ½