22 March 2021

Revisiting "Brother To Dragons"

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 man
Named Smith - whoever he may have been - had
In 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 extravagance
When Grab was watchword and earth spread her legs
Wide as she could, like any jolly trollop
Or bouncing girl back in the bushes after
The 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 things
Men do, broadcloth and buckskin, friend and foe,
And the stench of action is not always sweetened
By the civet of motive, nor motive by good action.
For late at night by the infirm flame I had sat
While wind walked over Albemarle and the oak groaned,
And sleet hissed on the pane, and blood winked
Low in the heart, and I kept my eyes only by
Effort of will on some disastrous page.
I read the books, and know that all night long
History drips in the dark, and if you should fumble
Your way into that farther room where no
Light 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 strange
In that, for every act is but a door
Between two rooms, on equal hinges hung
To open either way, on either room,
And every act is Janus-faced and double,
And every act to become an act must resolve
The essential polarity fo possibility.
Thus though the act is life and without action
There is no life, yet action is a constant withering
Of possibility, and hence of life
So by the act we live, and in action die."
R.P.W. muses:
"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 Dakotas
The wind veers, gathers itself in ice-glitter
And 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 zero
The big channel-cat sleeps with eye lidless, and the brute face
Is the face of the last torturer, and the white belly
Brushes the delicious and icy blackness of mud.
But there is no sensation.  How can there be
Sensation when there is perfect adjustment?  The blood
Of the creature is but the temperature of the sustaining flow:
The catfish is in the Mississippi and
The Mississippi is in the catfish and
Under 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.  


  1. Looks like the test was made on a ditto (mimeograph) machine? If so, the professor did a nice job on it. I remember using those when I started my teaching career. They were a pain compared to some modern duplicating machines, but they were reliable, as were the Gestetners.

    Also, I showed that reading list to my wife, she was an English major. She said that would be an ambitious list for a 200 level class in many colleges today. I wonder if other English majors are of the same opinion? And not much diversity in the list of authors, may not pass muster in 2021?

    Did you respond to the test in a "Blue Book?" If so, do you still have that book?

    Interesting tidbit about the Blue Book: Butler University in Indianapolis was the first to introduce exam blue books, which first appeared in the late 1920s. They were given a blue color because Butler's school colors are blue and white; therefore they were named "blue books."

    from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_book_exam

    1. I still have a couple yellow books from high school, but none of the blue books from college. I presume the latter were retained to prevent clubs and houses from archiving material for subsequent years. Or maybe the TAs kept the essays to later revise and publish under their own names...

  2. I could not find an email on the blogspot, so I resorted to this.

    The RSS 2020 quiz answers are available:


    (PDF version): https://rss.org.uk/RSS/media/File-library/News/2021/CHRISTMAS-QUIZ-2020-SOLUTIONS-FINAL3.pdf

    I partially solved number 6. I noted that the number closely matched Euler's number, but did not know what to do with that.


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