Warren, Lella

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Born 22 March 1899, Clayton, Alabama; died March 1982

Daughter of Benjamin S. and Lee Ella Underwood Warren; married John Spanogla, 1921; Buel W. Patch, 1941

Lella Warren's father's duties as a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service took his family to many marine hospitals and quarantine stations before they settled in Washington, D.C., when she was twelve. Dr. Warren, however, returned his family to Clayton, Alabama, for frequent visits so they would retain ties with the state where Warren ancestors had been pioneers. Warren graduated from Western High School in Washington and attended Goucher College (1918-19) and George Washington University, where she received a B.A. (1921) and did graduate work. Warren and her first husband had one daughter.

Warren published short stories and features in Washington newspapers and national magazines. "Before the Flight," an in-depth feature on the preparations for Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, with details checked by Lindbergh himself, appeared in Collier's (18 July 1931). She also worked in government, publicity, advertising, and education—meanwhile devoting years to extensive background research for her novels. In 1941, Warren was chosen one of the "women of the year" by the National Women's Press Club.

Warren describes her first novel, A Touch of Earth, (1926) as semiautobiographical. It follows Jick, the daughter of an Army doctor, from her childhood through her development as a woman and a writer. The novel's style becomes more mature and sensitive as Warren's heroine grows up.

Warren's father wanted a "true-to-life book about Southern planters," so she spent nearly 12 years researching Foundation Stone (1940) and a similar period on Whetstone Walls (1952). She used diaries, correspondence, court records, research at the Library of Congress, as well as interviews in Alabama with friends and relatives. Foundation Stone opens on a South Carolina plantation in the 1820s. Yarbrough Whetstone moves his family and possessions from the depleted South Carolina land to the Alabama wilderness, leaving behind luxury of the plantation life for the hardships of the frontier planter. Warren follows the family through the settlement years and the ravages of the Civil War. At the end of the book—the title, drawn from a passage in Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body, refers to Whetstone's wife, Gerda—the war is over and the remnants of the Whetstone family are collecting their resources to rebuild.

The sequel, Whetstone Walls, is a self-contained novel, set in the 1880s and 1890s. The focus is on the children and grandchildren of Gerda and Yarbrough.

The extent of Warren's research is reflected in her meticulous attention to details, such as pioneers' building methods, food preparation, and schooling, and her detailed attention to broader concerns, such as Indian affairs (Yarbrough attended the Alabama legislature to hear the farewell speech of Chief Yufala); difficul-ties of travel and the coming of the railroad; and the course and effects of the Civil War. The historical background, however, never overshadows the characters and plot. The events are important only as they touch the lives of the Whetstones and their friends.

Warren excels at characterization as she creates a range of characters comparable to that in Dickens's novels. The variety increases as the family grows in the third and fourth generations and the circle of friends widens. Warren believes "the family is a way of life … and will ultimately survive." However confused the casual reader may become by the multiplicity of characters, each individual is carefully delineated in relationship to the Whetstone family. Episodes that might be attacked as too coincidental are justified by the importance of family ties, even as members move to New Orleans and Washington. The family is the unifying force of the novels.

There are to be two more works in the Whetstone saga: an "interlude" novel about some minor characters, already in manuscript, and a novel in progress following Rob, one of the Whet-stone grandchildren, through his medical career.

Even without future works, Warren fulfilled a prediction of William Rose Benét, who wrote one of her teachers about an early Warren short story: "The girl who wrote 'Red Brick' will inevitably be a writer."


Atkins, L. R., The Romantic Ideal: Alabama's Plantation Eden (1978). Ross, J. C., A Sense of Place: Fiction in the Agrarian Tradition (1978).

Other references:

Alabama Librarian (Jan. 1953). NYTBR (15 Sept. 1940, 8 Dec. 1940). Perspectives: The Alabama Heritage (ETV broadcast, 10 Jan. 1979).