Date of Award

5-2013

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

English

Major Professor

Thomas F. Haddox

Committee Members

Bill Hardwig, Anthony Welch

Abstract

Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Berry share more than a home state. Both have produced prodigious and varied literary oeuvres that include accomplished fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and both have written extensively on literature’s indispensable function within a healthy culture. This latter shared vision is not unanimously held in academic literary scholarship. In fact, many contemporary critics, who often see literature as a mere material participant in potentially oppressive power structures, oppose the idea that literature serves a valid and definable social function, or at least regard it with skepticism. For this reason, Warren’s and Berry’s views of literature’s proper function provide a productive counterpoint to much contemporary literary criticism.

Indeed, Warren’s and Berry’s visions of the function of literature make their respective approaches to literary criticism both highly coherent and eminently practical not only to scholars but also to unspecialized readers of literature. Their work achieves such usefulness because each writer forthrightly deals with the teleological and, ultimately, metaphysical questions that necessarily follow from the question of literature’s cultural function. That both of them connect metaphysics, which is to say a rigorous and convincing account of truth, to literary criticism is what ultimately sets them off from many contemporary strands of literary theory and makes their work so useful. Furthermore, that Warren, an agnostic, and Berry, a Christian, can produce metaphysically-informed philosophies of literature that agree to a large extent demonstrates the possibility and desirability of productive conversations that do not shy away from metaphysical questions, even in a time when there is no unanimous view as to the truth. An examination of each writer’s work, then, demonstrates the value of metaphysics in writing on literature, both for the critic and for the reader.

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