The text that follows comes from an interview with Helen Ransom Forman, the daughter of John Crowe Ransom. Mrs. Forman is an amazing woman whose witty and insightful commentary helped shape this project. She represents the literary tradition of times past, and offers the world a renwed hope of literary possibility. Her memories include anecdotes pertaining to Robert Penn Warren, however, the scope of this dialogue is much more comprehensive.
Interview with Helen Ransom Forman -- November 3, 1998 -- Gambier, Ohio
Helen Ransom Forman: HRF
Bruce D. Wallace: BW
Nathaniel N. Salter: NS
HRF: I can remember...Red was here a lot when we moved here, in the summers, at that time, you must know, when he was married to Cinnina. Who, boy, I guess she was really a hell-cat, of a serious nature. Yeah, ‘cause I can remember, I must have been about twelve or thirteen, and I remember a bunch of them, the Tates and the Warrens and so forth, were in our living room, and I guess they were having a meeting or something, but I was there. But I remember their saying, oh, I had read in a short story, some assignment in high school, and the thing was, had the sentence in it ‘For a woman of twenty nine, she was still beautiful,' you know. And they were chuckling about that, and I remember laughing too, you know, but I secretly remember thinking in my heart, ‘Twenty nine is old!' Now, with being seventy six, be that as it may.....
On the infamous croquet matches....
HRF: Yeah, and the lawn in back of the Craft Center made a great croquet course. And they used to play croquet back there by the hours. In fact, at night, when it got dark, they would go and they would turn the car lights, you know, on the field, keep right on doing, right on playing. And Red was quite a croquet player. But, my father, who just fanatically loved it, so did my mother, and my mother, who was an excellent golfer, she was a golf champion in Nashville, Tennessee, and here when she moved up. She's probably the best shooter, the best player in the game. But my father loved [croquet]. See they would divide you into teams, I think there are six balls to a croquet set, and then they got another set of a different texture ball, some balls you could get with a little stripe. And so, maybe they would just use one set, but you would have teams, and, which you could get into a lot of strategy, you know, you can't hit a ball, if you're dead of it, before going to another wicket, but you could send balls for your partner to play off of ‘em, all kinds of stuff. They argued and all this high-falutin', you know, just lots and lots of fun. And my father especially, loved playin' around the double wickets, you know, give you harder shots, and he would mess around with that. But he always thought that Red, he would say: ‘Red, I didn't hear it click,' and Red would say ‘John, it's not billiards!" Because he thought Red sort of...scooped the ball, you know, shoved it a bit, rather tha that the sharp click. They never resolved that argument. And, I think my father, they took it seriously but was too polite to carry it any further.
BW: What were some of the motivations, because I mean we read a lot of reasons in books about why John Crowe
Ransom decided to leave Vanderbilt and come here. Did any of that play into it? Kind of wanting to move away
HRF: Well, I think, you've heard of Edward Mims, Edmund, head of the English department, there. And kind of a, sort of the old guard, I think he was supposed to be quite a Shakespearian or something, I'm not really up on that. But in a way, I guess salary boost was one thing, because you know, pay and all. But also there was a, my father, he had gotten interested in New Criticism, you know, the new, and that kind of thing. And he got this offer from Chalmers, Chalmers was just a lifesaver. And then, when he got here, and Roberta Chalmers wanted him to start the Review, so, it just...You know, I don't think my father had particularly ever a strong regional feeling. I don't know. I mean, he was a Tennessean, and he always retained his Southern accent, but sort of overlayed, somebody told me that he may have picked up a little accent went he went to Oxford. Anyway, he had very precise speech, kind of in a way. Anyway, he was very happy, he didn't leave with any hard feelings, I mean, for, you know, yeah, the people have said different things, but I don't think, I think finances were one of the main things. It was a big boost, and, I guess I'm not, we were children then, you know, so we never particularly heard. I guess all the dialogue, and I guess, I remember my father saying much, he said ‘You know you have, it's not that your ideals change, but that the things, like Agrarianism, they learned, I mean, it wasn't practical, it was practical, but only so far, and things change, the tenor of the times change, and gosh knows, things change now adays, don't they? You guys got some wild times ahead of you.
More on Red, growing up and perceptions of literary figures...
The way I mostly knew him was, you know how when you are a teenager growing up, and you're starting to date..I
mean you're so absorbed, self-absorbed with your own affairs and your own little..you know, you're not paying attention
to these adults that don't know that 29 is over the hill.
BW: That's funny, because we..they've always been revered literary figures for us...
HRF: Yeah, and they were just, you know, old people. And I can remember the croquet games, avidly, because I was a pretty good player. My mother and I, when the leaves would get like they are now, unraked, heavy on the lawn, we'd go down and play, my father, he'd come home at lunch, and have one of his...He loved his garden, and he had beautiful tomatoes, and he would fix himself a plate of sliced [tomatoes]. He would kind of stand on the back porch, and we would say, "OK, now don't look at him, and don't pay any attention." And pretty soon, you know, he would kind of timidly come strolling down to say, "Now, what's your strategy?" Because my mother and I would divide all the balls up and we each had our own team, and we would be playing with this strategy. We'd have a great time. Housework would be damned, you know! My mother, when my father would go out of town, I mean he taught at University of..somewhere in Albuquerque, whatever that University would be, on summers, just to make a little extra bread. He'd be gone on lectures here and there, and my mother had just discovered Canaster. You don't know what Canaster is, do you? It's a card game. Yeah, and it got hugely popular one time, and its perfect nonsense. You're supposed to play it with four people, because you try to pass you partner things and prevent your opponents from getting things across. There's a discard pile and everybody goes through it in each turn. But, mother and I got into to two handed Canaster, and you get endless number of decks, and you have things that freeze the deck, and we'd just pile up..and it was just absurd because you could have a hand, like you could have sixty-five cards in your hand and you're trying to make....but we couldn't resist. One time she was canning all of my father's tomatoes in a pressure cooker, and so we were playing away and we hear this great "WHOMP!" and the pressure cooker blew. And tomatoes...the whole kitchen ceiling was covered in tomatoes. And she says, "Your Daddy's not home for a couple more days. We'll let it dry off." And we went right back to playing. He calls us, you know, telling us when his plane would get in. And it was really smart because it kind of dried off and we could brush it down frantically.
BW: Were these tomatoes from his garden?
HRF: From his garden, yeah, he may miss a few. I don't think he ever knew it happened. Anyway, that stuff has nothing to do with Red, but I can just remember pleasant summers, you know on the croquet court. And the grown-ups, as I thought of them, would be having their literary discussions and if you were sitting around you felt privileged to sit around and listen to it. Oh, I remember one thing! I remember being so pleased with myself. The family used to listen to baseball, both baseball fanatics...big Indians supporters, but they used to have radios on the..you know they lived in that Craft House, and their used to be a porch across the back, screened porch. They'd have blackboards up and their radios going. And they'd keep all of these little statistics, for hours. And had a great time...so was Red. But I remember we were out there listening to it, and somehow somebody got to talking about Othello or something, and Iago, I don't know how it came in. And Red was a great one for making witty remarks, but anyway, something about Iago, and I remember saying, I always thought it was Iago, I'd never read Othello but I knew about Iago and Desdemona and that sort of stuff. And I always thought about Iago as a bull in a china closet, and I remember Red saying "Oh, can I use that in my class, Helen?" Of course, I thought, ‘Wow, I've struck a homer!"
BW: Maybe I'll use that in the next paper I write on Othello...
HRF: Sure, help yourself, don't give credit. That doesn't tell the whole story at all. Yeah, later on I wrote a poem about Desdemona, and probably, if I'd ever read...well, no I didn't, I wrote it about Ophelia. Forget that, stupid thing, but I was thinking that, probably, never having read the thing, you know you just get a notion, you know, keep your mind clear.
Having been brought up before T.V. and so I'm just brough up as an omnivorous reader, you know, just reading.
And if you like to read, you like to read.
BW: That is fortunately how I was brought up.
HRF: Good, yeah. Did your Mom read to you?
NS and BW: Oh yeah, certainly.
HRF: That was always a lot of fun, stuff like that. I remember trying to read to Elizabeth once about the Velveteen Rabbit, have you all read that?
BW: One of our favorites.
HRF: Anyway, it said in one place, or maybe it was another rabbit, there are several good ones.
BW: Yeah, there's Peter Rabbit!
HRF: "His eye dropped to the ground." There is that sentence in there, and I just went smoothly on. "Quickly he leaned down and picked it up," and I remember Elizabeth -- "Mother! I don't think that's in there!" And she'd really been listening. Very hard to fool kids, they can fool you a lot better. Be that as it may...but I've just worn out my anecdotes.
NS: One of the things we have come across a lot in our research is kind of like the parallel..a lot of people say that Red was kind of...the father son aspect of you father's...
HRF: Oh yeah, well I don't really know. I never thought if them. I just thought of them as friends. Or in their croquet games, the used to, my mother was such a superior player, and she could take one hand and go from one end...once she staked herself and won a game in which she was a rover. Well anyway, there are complications of croquet. They elected her, and also they threw darts, and even did little target practice with a pistol, which is a lot of fun. Not considering..it really gives you quite a thrill, be that as it may...but my mother was considered the major..they all had Southern...I guess if you were in the Confederate Army or something...see I can't remember the term, but I remember her's was quite a...you know...but she wasn't from the South, she was from the West. They were little jocular affairs like that, and I forget what Red was, but would all...
BW: This was names they would have for croquet?
HRF: Yeah, whatever. Just good, placid times. And when you think about it, games are a great thing in this world. I've gotten to be quite a sports..but you know, it's play games not war, or whatever. Its just a lot of...and you can have some animosity and you can get really...care about some of your games, I play bridge and that kind of stuff, too. So, anyway, my family would play games and the drop of a hat. A lot of word games. You've probably played a variation -- fictionary or whatever. It doesn't hurt anybody, its just a lot of fun. And its kind of engrossing, I find.
More on games and life...
BW: Actually, Adele was telling me, that Liz, I guess Liz was telling Adele this, though your father was quite
a gentleman, the kindest person anybody could wish to meet, but when he got out on the croquet court he was quite
HRF: Absolutely! Oh he loved games, any kind of game. Word games, just anything. And if you ever get into puzzles, we used to work the puzzle in the back of the Nation magazine. I'd take it now jsut a...the first one I worked was just five days before Liz was born, and Liz is somewhere..I think she was born in ‘51, so however old that makes her. Yeah, about forty-five or six, or something like that. Anyway, my father got quite interested in it too, and I remember my mother, I came up there and had Elizabeth in Martha's Vineyard, and I was just about a week from having here, in fact, and the first thing my mother said "We've discovered this great puzzle." Mr. Frank Lewis, in the Nation, it's the back page of the Nation magazine, I always got it around somewhere. They're great puzzles. Come out looking like that. They're puns...But I remember my father, this was always something very strange, he never quite got the hang of it, I mean he did after a while. But he would come up, and I guess this was as he was getting pretty elderly, I guess this was after he'd retired, he would....his essays..have you ever read any of his essays? Or you may have...beautifully written. He cold be very witty and all that kind of stuff. But somehow he would miss the wit or whatever was required in Mr. .....but I think that was as he got a little..toward the senile. My mother would say...you know, one time he got a letter in the mail..some kind of society for writers, some kind of honorary thing...I know you'd know it if I came up with the name..he got a card asked him to the yearly meeting..and my mother and I were sitting in the house and my father came upstairs with his little backpack, and she's always get real tickled looking at...said "John, where you goin'?" Said, "Why, I'm going to new York to that meeting." Well, we would dissuade him. We'd say "Well, I think that's..you don't have to go.." And we'd put a hook on the door going down to his study and he got kind of pear shaped, you know. We were afraid he just go rolling down the...like Tweedily Dum or Tweedily Dee..... My Parents were just always great, very courteous to each other. And you know, and yet my mother couldn't resist getting tickled sometimes. One time, my father would get a little unsteady on his feet, and I was working at the bookstore, and he fell down in the yard, my mother couldn't get him up either, cause she was a slight woman, about my height and slimmer. And it was our day to play duplicate bridge on Thursday, and she came down to the bookstore about eleven or eleven thirty, and anyway, she said, "Helen," and she spoke a little louder when she had her earphone, you know her voice, and it was pretty penetrating, and she said, "Your father has fallen down. Can we get somebody to pick him up? We can't just leave him there when we go play bridge." And I can remember when he died, all of a sudden my mother appears in the door and she said, "Helen! I think you father is dead!" [laughter] "Really.....OK, you want me to..?" So I rushed back and said "Roberta, I think my father is dead." But anyway, I said you could have called up or sent someone, but she said I just wanted soemthing to do. He died very peacefully in his sleep. A cleaning woman was here and she discovered him, about ten or eleven. Knocking you know. She went in to see why he wasn't up, and...and my mother just got in the car and came down to get me. Which was kind of..kind of nice in a way.
BW: So were you still living at home when your father came here to...
HRF: No, I was married and in Baton Rouge. I lived there for quite a while. And then I had gotten divorced and we were really on our uppers, just about a year or two before Liz was due to go to college. So we though, maybe we can get her into Kenyon. It never occured to me that there would be any problem about her going to Kenyon. I mean, you know with my father. And I guess he paid the first..she got a scholarship. Fisrt class of women. But he footed the bill for the first time. And I jsut sort fo took care of my parents as they got...and got room and board. And Liz went to school. And so it all worked out fine.