Several months ago when I wrote an extended post about All The King's Men, I was reminded of how much I had enjoyed reading Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons back in college. The entire narrative style of this "tale in verse and voices" was new to me, and the content was horrible and unforgettable:
On the night of December 15, 1811 the New Madrid earthquake first struck the Mississippi Valley. That night Lilburn Lewis, son of the sister of President Thomas Jefferson, butchered a slave whose offense had been to break a pitcher prized by the dead mother, Lucy Lewis.
For this post I'll defer on my usual listing of unusual words, because Warren's vocabulary is so immense and arcane. Instead I'll just cite several memorable passages.
Re the settlement of the West in the 1790s:
"Above Paducah, east some fifteen miles,Upriver, there it is, they call it Smithland.The town, I mean. It never came to much,Sure not the vision and vainglory the manNamed Smith - whoever he may have been - hadIn mind that morning when they laid the log,Squared sill, mixed clay for chink, and split the shakes,For the first cabin, back in the seventeen-nineties.He had a right to hope, that fellow Smith,In that heyday of hope and heart's extravaganceWhen Grab was watchword and earth spread her legsWide as she could, like any jolly trollopOr bouncing girl back in the bushes afterThe preaching or the husking bee, and said,"Come git it, boy, hit's yourn, but git it deep."
Thomas Jefferson acknowledges the darkness inherent in men:
"I'm not a fool.I saw the conduct of life. I saw the thingsMen do, broadcloth and buckskin, friend and foe,And the stench of action is not always sweetenedBy the civet of motive, nor motive by good action.For late at night by the infirm flame I had satWhile wind walked over Albemarle and the oak groaned,And sleet hissed on the pane, and blood winkedLow in the heart, and I kept my eyes only byEffort of will on some disastrous page.I read the books, and know that all night longHistory drips in the dark, and if you should fumbleYour way into that farther room where noLight is, the floor would be slick to your foot."
R.P.W. on the complexity of motives:
"She loved you so much, yes, that's one way to put it.Or hated them, for that's another way.To put the reason, and there's nothing strangeIn that, for every act is but a doorBetween two rooms, on equal hinges hungTo open either way, on either room,And every act is Janus-faced and double,And every act to become an act must resolveThe essential polarity fo possibility.Thus though the act is life and without actionThere is no life, yet action is a constant witheringOf possibility, and hence of lifeSo by the act we live, and in action die."
"Well, nothing did change.Lilburn was Lilburn, and the year drove on.They buried Lucy Lewis in the yard,And the year drove on. Winter. And from the DakotasThe wind veers, gathers itself in ice-glitterAnd star-gleam of dark, and finds the long sweep of the valley.A thousand miles and the fabulous river is ice in the starlight.The ice is a foot thick, and beneath, the water slides black like a dream,And in the interior of that unpulsing blackness and thrilled zeroThe big channel-cat sleeps with eye lidless, and the brute faceIs the face of the last torturer, and the white bellyBrushes the delicious and icy blackness of mud.But there is no sensation. How can there beSensation when there is perfect adjustment? The bloodOf the creature is but the temperature of the sustaining flow:The catfish is in the Mississippi andThe Mississippi is in the catfish andUnder the ice both are at one with God.Would that we were!"
p.s. - I had to look up the source of the title phrase "brother to dragons," and found it here:
Many scholars quickly point out the derivation of the title of this book, found in the Book of Job: "I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls"(30:29). Much like Job, Thomas Jefferson perceived himself to be an upright man, a man of virtue. Both of these men were similar in one respect – they believed that their virtue and determination to do what is right and good would be enough to sustain their lives, ignoring completely the possibility that within their nature they possessed some evil, or that they were remotely close to others whose nature contained even the slightest evil. Though deluded, both men saw themselves as "freed, by means of their virtue, from common human contamination"(Strandberg 171).
Here is the reading list for the 1966 college course on "Twentieth Century Southern Writers" which introduced me to this book:
What an outstanding reading list that was. Even now, looking back over a span of 50+ years, I have pleasant memories of the many hours spent with those novels. I even kept a copy of the final exam, which had excerpts from those books to compare and contrast in terms of the treatment of the theme of love. I'll put the exam below the fold here for readers who were English majors.