Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories by Robert Penn Warren

I was trying to take this photo when Hercaloo ran down my arm to pose for the camera.  She has turned into a little camera hog.

Since this review is about a Southern writer and his contribution to Southern literature I thought it appropriate to listen to some Hillbilly Blue Grass.  The song is Oh Death performed by Ralph Stanley.

The Circus in the Attic and Other StoriesThe Circus in the Attic and Other Stories by Robert Penn Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Robert Penn Warren. Warren is mostly known for his novel All The King's Men, which won him the Pullitzer Prize.

All of the stories in this book present a colorful picture of Southern Culture from the Post Civil War era to the Depression, both time periods that afflicted the South with profound poverty. Many of his stories focus on individual people inside that climate of poverty and reconstruction, which was occurring in the south. The stories are valuable for that attribute alone.

They are also stories that paint a portrait of a man's dreams and how they are shaped and impacted by his relationship with his family inside his community at specific epochs of time.

All the stories are from the viewpoint of a man who has aspirations that are usually defeated by a domineering mother or wife, often a faithless wife. Because this premise is built into the majority of the stories in this collection one gathers that perhaps they are based on the author's life.

The first story is Circus in the Attic. The protagonist expresses his dreams by secretly creating a tiny model circus in his attic while carrying on his mediocre life as a teacher, movie ticket taker, while writing his "great novel" that is never finished...and also caring for his sickly mother who takes decades to finally pass away.

When she does die, he marries a widow, and when her son goes off to war the man gains some notoriety in giving speeches supporting the war effort. In the end, the son is killed in the war, his wife is killed in a car with another man and our protagonist is left alone. He no longer even has his circus to comfort him because he sold the pieces off at auction for the war effort.

This story is the longest in the book, starting at the Civil War and ending with WWII. Through the years, we see, as the man ages, the Southern landscape changing dramatically as reconstruction and wars make their mark.

The other stories have similar themes, although some deal with poor white people living in the hills, others with towns folk, all from a Southern perspective, allowing the reader to gain insight into how the South survived the devastating effects of a lost war, years of poverty and grew out of the stump, so to speak.

The last story, Prime Leaf is the most frightening because of the evil it exposes in small town politics where not even family members are safe from lynch mobs or each other.

If you are interested in the history of the South, plus the good writing of a man expressing his own struggles and heartbreak against personal demons, then you will enjoy reading this book.

View all my reviews

For more information on Robert Penn Warren click on the following links.


  1. Hi Sharon - The story, The Circus in the Attic sounds particularly good. I tend to like stories that cover big swaths of a people's lives. This one sounds very poignant.

    Hercaloo really looks like he is posing for the camera :)

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hi Brian. I think this is a poignant collection and if you like Southern writing, very colorful.

      It's hard to photograph Hercaloo in action because she immediately stops and poses. I have seen other birds do that. I wonder how they know what a maera is for?

      Enjoy your weekend!

  2. remarkable character, H... Warren sounds like an interesting fellow; i've never read him; wait, did he write poetry? i may have read some of that, once...
    anyway, i dreamed this morning i was back in Oberlin Chapel, hearing Bach's Mass in B Minor, the Sanctus toward the end where the basses have descending octaves and the sopranos gliding triplets interspersed. one of the most powerful and moving pieces of music i've ever heard; later, i bought a record of it and wore it out in a couple of years...
    I hope you and H have a nice weekend; it's hot here, comparatively, anyway, in the high seventies...

    1. Yes, she's my widdle Hercywoo. Yes I talk to her like she's a baby. It probably gets on everyone else's nerves.

      Penn did write poetry; I've seen collections in bookstores but I have not read any of it. I don't know why but I have a hard time getting into poetry. Probably because I read too fast and poetry needs to be read aloud and savored.

      I do love Bach's Mass. We had a portion of if played in our wedding as the Bridesmaids processed down the aisle. It's so beautiful.

      I think a church with great acoustics would be the best sound board for hearing Bach's choral music.

      Hot? Ho, ho, ho. I laugh at your hot. Seventies is a cool winter breeze here. It's 96 degrees currently.

      Have a comfortable weekend. Hope the house is done?

    2. tx for asking, but no; after assorted permutations, the plan now is to get it finished by next February.... don't ask.... grrrr.....

    3. I entered my reply in the wrong place Mudpuddle. See the comment beneath R.T. The one that starts with "sorry."

  3. Such a well baited hook you've dangled out there, Sharon. As I am a fan of Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and other southern writers, how can I possibly resist the bait. I'm off now to my library site to see if there is a copy available. Thanks!

    1. R.T. I hope after you read Warren you will write your thoughts on your blog. I would love to read your take on his writing.

  4. Sorry to bring up a sore subject. Crossing fingers for you! Oh wait, you said February. I though it read Friday. Wow. Really sorry about that!

  5. I'm with RT...your comments kept putting me in mind of Flannery O'Connor. I've not read RPW, but I have All the King's Men coming up very soon. I was pretty neutral, but after your review I'm definitely looking forward to ti.

    1. HI Joseph. I liked it because I like Southern genre literature. It gives one a feel of a bygone era. Hope you enjoy it.
      You'll have to review AtKM so I can see your take on it. I tried it but couldn't get into it.

  6. I read some John Steinbeck many years ago - I can't remember which books, so I could be wrong in thinking that Warren sounds like he writes in a similar sort of way?? Anyone, I thought of him when I read your review.

    1. I don't think they write too similarly, but that's just my opinion.

      Steinbeck, reminds me a little more of Hemingway but that may be because they are both from the North and Midwest. They both attempt to convey the bluntness and, I guess I would call it, coarseness, of the culture of that region.

      Warren's South has more of the remnant of a once refined, aristocratic culture that got ravaged by war and the ensuing poverty.

      That may not make sense if you're not from America. It has a lot to do with the European people who settled in different parts of the country. (German peasants-midwest; French, Spanish, English South)

  7. I can't remember reading anything by Hemingway so I can't compare the two :)

    1. Hemingway is hit or miss with me. Snows of Kilmanjero was very good. His stories are definitely dark. He reflects a nihilistic philosophy.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.