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Robert Penn Warren and Wife Eleanor Clark Battle a Writer's Nightmare: Her Loss of Sight

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Their faces reveal so much. His is freckled, deeply furrowed, with more creases and seams than a Kentucky county road. Hers is harder, smoother, finely etched granite worn smooth by New England streams.

He is the only winner of Pulitzers in both fiction (for All the King’s Men in 1947) and poetry (Promises in 1958). Her Oysters of Locmariaquer in 1965 made them the only husband and wife who have separately won National Book Awards. Yet even though Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark are publishing three new books between them in this, their 25th married year, the celebration is bittersweet.

Eleanor is going blind. “One eye went bad about three years ago,” she states unflinchingly. “About a year ago the other went. I can’t read. I can’t recognize people. There was a time when I almost went crazy, nearly suicidal.” (A reviewer once described her meticulously written travel books as “above all gloriously visual.”)

But instead of yielding in self-pity to her affliction—a massive hemorrhaging considered irreversible—Clark, a flinty Connecticut Yankee of 63, has made it the subject of a tough and tartly humorous new book. Titled Eyes, Etc…, it will come out this fall. She painstakingly hand-lettered her manuscript with black Magic Markers on drawing pads “as a way to keep going.”

“She’s absolutely stoic about it,” marvels Warren, 73. “The only real effect on us is that we are together more. I read to her aloud at night. She said, ‘Let’s start with Homer and work our way down.’ ”

His nightly readings are in some sense the return of a literary gift that Eleanor gave “Red” (as he is known for his flaming, now graying, hair) in the first years of their marriage. She had just published her classic memoir Rome and a Villa, but he was cemented into a writer’s block. “For 10 years I couldn’t finish a single short poem,” he recalls. “They’d just stack up waist-high and get yellow.” What miraculously freed him was the birth of their daughter, Rosanna. “Suddenly the writing came as easily as breathing,” Warren explains. “The funny thing is that the block has stayed unblocked.”

Warren’s remarkable 50-year career has established him as America’s foremost man of all letters. In addition to All the King’s Men (made into a 1949 Oscar-winning movie that he says “was good but had nothing to do with the book”), Warren has written nine other novels, 10 collections of poetry, short stories and essays and seminal literary criticism. This year the paperback rights to his lusty new novel, A Place to Come To, were sold for $400,000. Last January his Collected Poems, 1923-1975 led the New York Times to pronounce him “one of our greatest living poets.”

Now, with both of their children grown (Rosanna, 23, graduated from Yale last year, and Gabriel, 21, is at the Rhode Island School of Design) and four years after he retired from teaching at Yale, Red and Eleanor seem as vigorous as ever. Last winter she skied for the first time since she started losing her sight. (“You’re crazy,” her husband protested.) In May they sailed the Aegean with four friends on a chartered sailboat. This month they’re off to their summer hideaway in West Wardsboro, Vt. “Both of us grew up in small towns with a strong sense of community,” says Clark. “One does miss it.”

For Red it was Guthrie, Ky., in tobacco country, where he was born the son of a businessman-poet. Though inspired by his history-loving grandfather, a Confederate cavalryman, and by the humanities teaching at his country high school (“better than anything they have now”), Warren nonetheless enrolled in Vanderbilt to study engineering. Instead, he soon became a founding member of the “Fugitives”—an influential band of Southern poets and critics led by Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. Next came a master’s at Berkeley and an Oxford degree as a Rhodes scholar. In his second teaching job, at LSU, Warren co-founded the Southern Review, co-authored with Cleanth Brooks two standard texts, Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction, and pioneered one of this century’s major literary schools, the New Criticism. It disregards the influence of an author’s life and times in favor of close scrutiny of the text alone.

Born in Los Angeles, Eleanor was taken to Roxbury, Conn. after one month by her mining engineer father and school administrator mother (who later separated). “I went to a small country school for two years. After that I was in school in France, later Italy. I went to Rosemary Hall and then came back to Vassar. I always wrote.”

Determined to do “whatever I had to do to stay out of an office,” Clark “starved in cold-water garrets” while translating and writing book reviews. In Washington during World War II as a writer with the OSS, she bumped into Warren, then poet-in-residence at the Library of Congress. “My recollection is that we met at Katherine Anne Porter’s,” says Red, who steadfastly denies Eleanor’s version of a more prosaic lunch meeting at the Willard Hotel. They married two years after Warren was divorced from Emma Brescia, his first wife of 20 years.

These days Warren and Clark rise early and write at separate ends—”as far apart as possible,” he jokes—of a cedar-beamed barn they remodeled in Fairfield, Conn. 20 years ago. (He did the stonework and carpentry himself.) “We’ve spent some money on the house,” he observes, “but a lot of blood.”

At 2:30 they rendezvous for “a scrappy lunch.” “I always accuse him of not understanding women,” she needles, and he argues, “But I have a Southern streak that women are made of finer clay than we are.” Such gallantry draws a “Sexist! Sexist!” retort from Eleanor. Yet “women’s lib bores me,” she scoffs. “It’s a cover for women who only have themselves to blame for their lives. You don’t go blaming others for what you don’t do.” That, it seems clear, will never happen to Eleanor and Red. “In the future,” she announces firmly, “we will write more books.”