What Robert Penn Warren Might Say about Go Set a Watchman Reply


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Earlier this month, I joined several other posters at the Faculty Lounge providing thoughts on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  I commend the whole series to you but in case you are interested in what RPW might have said, I have reposted that entry here.  Enjoy!

I’ve always thought Harper Lee’s themes and styles in To Kill a Mockingbirdclosely resembled some of Robert Penn Warren’s themes relating to the South. Namely, as I have written in other places, in early to mid-20th century Southern Literature, black people are often passive persons where things happen to them (notably horribly bad things), and that the response to those things is what makes us believe the characters to be either progressive or non-progressive.   Likewise, in both Warren and Lee’s narratives, the place becomes a character itself.  Both the South and the specific places in the South are alive in both writers’ prose.

That place-centric identity can be characterized as what I have called in other places a form of Southern Exceptionalism. If the American experience is explained by exceptional qualities, then the Southern Experience may be described by a different reference to the past: “defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems.”  The south eagerly adopted the idea of American exceptionalism for itself, believing the society to be set apart, unique, and validated by moral superiority.  But as eminent southern historian C. Vann  Woodward’s The Search for Southern Identity argues, time proved that the real southern experience was characterized by “grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt.”  Sheldon Hackney has argued that Southerners have had to define themselves in opposition to a presumed American norm.  Similarly, Orville Burton contends that the Southerner remains an “other” or “stranger” in the American narrative. For our purposes, Robert Penn Warren embraced the idea that Southerners found themselves looking backward more than forward so to speak – consistently defining themselves, their environment, and their identity against the backdrop of how the exceptional failed in its promise, and the fact that the war was not won.  This is revealed in Warren’s life experience and works. We see similar themes in Lee’s Mockingbird and now Watchman.  

In To Kill a Mockingbird, we tend to resonate towards Atticus because he appears progressive against the backdrop of a non-progressive place and non-progressive people.   The questioning of Bob and Mayella Ewell along with the epic scene where Atticus stands guard over Tom Robinson as a gang of citizens seek to take justice out of the hands of the law gives Atticus the distinctive impression as one of the forward thinking citizens of Maycomb. The reality is that Atticus only appears heroic because the setting and people in it seem to be the opposite. Like Atticus in Mockingbird, Robert Penn Warren’s views of Southern racial politics might appear progressive when compared to other Southern writers at the time.

Warren’s earliest work on the race problem in the South was an essay titled the Briar Patch, which appeared in a collection of essays by 12 Southern Writers titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.  Amongst the essays, Warren appears to be more progressive along side his contemporaries because he can envision a world where segregation does not exist, but rather where Black and White persons might exist in a mutually beneficial society.  He describes the race problem as one stemming from unnatural animosity between black persons and poor whites and engages various thoughts whether the problem was one of market access or political equivalency.   Notably, many of the other writers specifically chided Warren’s views in their essays, believing Warren’s approach to be contrary to the aim of the book’s overall purpose.

Still early Warren may have only appeared progressive.  His views in Briar Patch may be quaintly described as hopefully dismissive – suggesting that the race problem in the South was primarily one of common respect, which would not be resolved by a plan of forced desegregation.   This view seems very similar to Atticus’s views in To Set a Watchman where the natural course of events will take care of themselves.  Like Warren, it seems easy to call Atticus comparatively progressive, especially when set against the backdrop of Maycomb.   And yet, To Set a Watchman leaves us unsatisfied because the former hero of Mockingbirdturns out to be not nearly as progressive as we previously thought him to be.

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I think that Warren would greatly relate to both Atticus Finches — the one that appears heroic in Mockingbird and the one that appears less-than-heroic in Watchman.  Warren observed that his view of race was primarily informed by his image of south.  He said “The image of the south I carried in my head was one of massive immobility in all ways, in both its virtues and vices – it was an image of the unchangeable human condition, beautiful, sad, tragic.” Despite changing his views on segregation, one aspect of Warren’s perception of the race problem did not change – its source.  Warren still believed that much of the angst against African Americans stemmed from poor whites that were afraid that Black Mobility meant diminished economic opportunity for white folks.  Warren saw this challenge as one that led to increased violence by poorer white persons who felt isolated by their wealthy white counterparts and black workers looking to obtain a foothold.  Thus Warren wrote in the Briar Patch, “What the white workman must learn… is that he may respect himself as a white man, but if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.” 

     These views of respect as a foundation for the race problem in the South did not change.   In his book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, Warren interviews black and white people around the South in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Warren describes this mutual respect not as a market problem (as he did in Briar Patch), but as a moral problem. In a other work titled Who Speaks for the Negro, Warren most directly states his regret for his earlier work Briar Patch, stating he did not realize its racist and seperationist overtones.

If we are comparing the nature of Watchman, we have to point out that Warren’s hypothesis seems a bit myopic.  One of the most interesting tensions in the book is Calpurnia’s supposed transition from loyal worker to disaffiliated and individualized person.  If the Finch’s were the non-white trash as Hank explains to Jean Louise, then labor and race relations were equally at their doorstep even though they may have been caught unawares.  Still, the narrative told through the eyes of Southern Whiteness tells of Calpurnia’s leaving as response rather than individual choice.

 In Warren’s South – there is always a conflict that is prevalent in how choices are made.  This conflict is prevalent in a number of similarities that unfold in the writing of both Lee and Warren.  In both writers’ works, the South and specific places in the South are characters with views that influence how individuals respond.  What Warren might say about Watchman is that Watchman’s Atticus represents one whose views were shaped only by that unique place Maycomb.  I believe Warren would accept the Atticus of Watchman as most believable while wondering how the Atticus of Mockingbird comes about

 

When King’s Die Reply


Legal fictions abound with contradictions that we all too often overlook.  As law is engaged in a project of narrative-making. Fictions fill gaps between otherwise irreconcilable doctrine and reality.  The best of those fictions will operate subconsciously, as if the law gives effect to the falsehood and animates its life.  But when the fiction is vulnerable to reality — when the law fails to prop up the fictional undertone — then the law becomes vulnerable to attack.  Justice Stevens wrote in a 2014 Law Review that historical myths play a greater role in Supreme Court adjudication than we sometimes recognize, and that sometimes, the court itself is responsible for those myths. (See his excellent essay Glittering Generalities and Historical Myths in the Louisville Law Review).

In Retelling English Sovereignty, I venture to consider how the fiction of Sovereign Immunity  came to the United States — its underlying narratives that animate its life.  From bad kings to incompetent kings, Retelling English Soveregnty traces the doctrine through the concept of the KIng’s two bodies, a mystical understanding of the monarchy’s dualism.  This legal fiction was propped up by other fictions, such as the Corporation Sole, where a collective enterprise was represented by one person as representative of other persons across ages.  See e.g., The Monarchy, Parsons, and the Chamberlain of London.  The article traces legal, political and theological thought across early british writers, including Lord Coke, William Shakespeare, F.W. Maitland, John Locke, Blackstone, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Hobbes, Adrian Fortescue, and many more.  It also contextualizes the theology of kingship and the political harmony of revolt, particularly in the narratives of the seventeenth century that gave rise to the regicide of Charles I and the Glorious Revolution.

In this space, I would point to some of the literary moments of the article.  Two I think are of relevance — the contrast of how Shakespeare sees the myth of king-making in good kings, such as Henry V and the irony of the double king, with that of bad kinds, such as Richard II.  Shakespeare’s work on Henry the V provides not only the prose recognition of the duality of the kingship, but the literal physical duality as the king walks about his men in disguise.  During dialogue with his men about whether the king will ransom himself or not, while in disguise, the king suggests that he would challenge the men to a duel to show that the king will be faithful to his word to not be ransomed should he be captured.   In this scene, we see that the king has the luxury of living outside of time that his men don’t have.   While his men may certainly die, and never know the outcome of whether the king indeed ransomed himself, the king himself has the luxury of being twin burned to greatness — subject to the vulnerabilities of an imbecile, while subject to it across time.

Likewise, Shakespeares discussion of Richard II poses a monarch that is not only subject to the imbecility, but who finds himself at odds with the character of a king.   Yet, as Shakespeare’s prose suggests, the blemish’d crown may be redeemed from pawn.  Its time that serves the redemption for the monarchy.   And time that distinguishes the monarchy from other men — its ability to live on without consequence of the actions of one man who holds the crown, while preserving the dignity of the ages.

What Role Law and Literature Should Play in a Law School Reply


The following is cross-posted at Concurring Opinions.

Some may ask what role should liberal arts style courses play in law school where we are increasingly focused on bar exams and practice ready skills. But it may take me a while to unravel that answer with the gusto and the framing it deserves. I think anyone that regularly teaches Law and Literature has been asked some variant of this question. The course doesn’t have the safe luxury of “well its on the bar exam,” or even the more sardonic return of “well, but of course it underlies much of legal thought and practice.” See, e.g., Law and Econ, Law and Social Theory, and Legal History.

Let me make a bold proclamation. The law and literature course, perhaps more than any other, asks students to wrestle with their subjective views of the law. It’s interesting, in a course that deals with Constitutional Law, for example, there is the finality of how the court approached the problem (whether we agree with the outcome or not). In Law and Literature on the other hand, the course encompasses the views of the professor, the authors, and their fellow students as they encounter these views. Sometimes worlds are created in which those concrete legal frameworks are disembodied (See, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Sometimes, the fictional worlds embrace the world as we know it, and offer stunning critique to its foundation (See, e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). That’s not to say that other courses, (take a UCC course), is not rife with highly charged emotional queries (notwithstanding my critique, my explanation for whether the disposition of collateral equates to proceeds is a highly charged event!). It is saying that in a time where the ABA is prompting law schools to create standards that push the law school experience towards so-called objective standards of evaluation (see revision of section 302 in the ABA standards), the role of encountering, critiquing, explaining, and understanding different subjective understandings of the law is critical. We should not be afraid to encounter nor express our subjective views in the context of critical dialogue.

My view is that Law and Literature is a course that offers students not only the opportunity to understand themselves better but to learn to dialogue about the subjective views of law. A few years ago, Yale Law School offered a course titled “The Book of Job and Suffering.” Unfortunately, at many law schools such a class would never be taught for fear that the subject strayed too far from what law schools are suppose to do — at least not under that title. However such a course is precisely the kind of law and literature course we should be teaching. Isolating the critical component that suffering may play in the narrative for law students, I imagine, was a powerful experience for those students and the professor. Powerful because they all have suffered something, I’m sure, though undoubtedly it was uneven. Students learn to dialogue about themselves and the text in a group where each other’s respective experiences help frame and isolate the way the text moved within the group. At one and the same time, students in a law and literature class learn about themselves, as members of a group, a class and as an individual. This is the idea of Law and Literature that James Boyd White framed so well — the engagement of the reader with the text forcing the reader to accept or not accept the writer’s framed world. [Perhaps Boyd’s best framing of this encounter is his book This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, in which Boyd wrestles with the text as reader primarily].

This role of teaching students about themselves is critical if not necessary to shaping who they are as counselors and advocates for their clients. Of course they are things we should care about as shaping lawyers. But should we have to isolate them into an ABA objective or standard. In a way, it cheapens the process to do so.

I fear that courses like Law and Literature, in which students engage in thoughtful discourse, may find themselves replaced with others that fail to live up to the promise of helping students understand themselves in a legal environment and instead only focus on the particulars of interacting in the legal environment. There is nothing wrong with a movement in legal education that attempts to focus institutional resources to critically examine whether the law school is best preparing students for the modern legal environment. But, that doesn’t mean that our students [or our faculty] are better off without having the dialogues and communities that law and literature help promote and shape in the law school environment.

Why We Should Still Read Ender’s Game in Spite of Orson Scott Card — Part II 1


Special Appearance by Zach Powers


SEER SUCKER PERFORMANCE

This is the second post the Literary Table presents by Zach Powers from SeerSucker Live discussing Orson Scott Card and his work Ender’s Game as a reflection of and distinctive from his identity. You can find his first post here  Like their Facebook page to stay up to date on performances here in Savannah and abroad.  (Because everything outside of Savannah is just abroad!). 

Zach is a writer that lives in Savannah, and his work has appeared in South Magazine, the Savannah Morning News, and other publications.   Welcome back Zach!

’m not so naïve to believe that a creative work is completely separate from its creator, but the disheartening fact is that even a jerk can create something full of humanity and compassion. The problem becomes more tangible when an author is still living, when it seems that to purchase a book is to put money directly into the pocket of a person with whom you strongly disagree.

But here’s the thing with Ender’s Game. There is absolutely none of Card’s hate within it. In fact, one of the main themes is empathy.

“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the same way they love themselves.”

So speaks our hero, Ender. I’ve carried that sentence with me for twenty years. It might be the very sentence that allows me now to stand in opposition to the opinions Card espouses.

The novel’s other themes include isolation, ostracization, and innocence, and all are handled with admirable compassion. Ender must learn, at once, to make friends and also fend for himself. He must face down personal demons while learning to accept them. He must battle against those who seek to define his existence. He must, above all else, prevail.

Ender is a creature of almost pure empathy, of crystalline understanding. Through this character, Ender’s Game explores and teaches a philosophy directly opposed to the arguments Card makes against LGBT rights. The young author argues against his older, commentator self.

My argument is this: The potential benefits from reading this book, especially for a teenaged audience, greatly outweigh the negative effects of indirectly supporting Card in his reactionary mission. For a young adult dealing with an emerging LGBT identity or any similar struggle, this would be one of the first novels I’d recommend. It shows how to face hatred, not just from the outside, but self-hatred as well. It teaches that being different is a source of strength.

What’s the broader benefit of depriving Card of a few more dollars? His rants reach only the choir, and nobody outside of that choir is giving his arguments weight. Buying a copy of the novel will not increase his stature. Renting the movie of the book will not elevate Card to the level of Ender’s would-be emperor brother, Peter. I picture Card shouting down one of the long, curving corridors of the Battle School, his voice echoing back only to his own ears. Eventually, he’ll shout himself out.

The book, however, will endure for people like me. Twenty years, thirty readings later. How many times have I invoked that one phrase, “love them the same way they love themselves,” instead of rushing to judge someone? So I won’t judge Card now. There are enough people doing that already, rightfully so.

I refuse to boycott a book that can mean something real to someone in need of that reality. Card’s book is better than he is, and it would be a shame to silence a great work in a futile attempt to shut him up as well. There is more good to be found in the book than any evil Card can actually enact, even if he pleads for such evil with all his strength.

If my approach still doesn’t sit well with you, let me offer a final compromise. After I saw the Ender’s Game movie, I donated twice the ticket price to the It Gets Better Project. That will provide significantly more for a good cause than any pennies Card might receive to indirectly fund his fringe ramblings. I prefer positive action to acts of negation.

The movie opens with a quote from the novel, a line that Ender speaks just before the one I quoted above:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that moment I also love him.”

When it comes to the issue of love, Orson Scott Card is my enemy. I have a hard time understanding him, though. I suspect that’s OK. He probably wouldn’t react well to a profession of love coming from another man, anyway.

If you want to hit Card where it hurts, share his book, and let it teach a new generation to accept and love all people in a way that Card himself can’t.

 

Zach can be contacted via his website http://www.zachpowers.com.  For the latest news and writings, follow his twitter feed @z_powers. 

 

 

Minutes from the last faculty meeting at Hogwarts — Online Classes edition Reply


 

 

Headmaster McGonagall called the meeting to order

Old Business:
Appointments

Headmaster McGonagall noted that Despite the report from prior headmaster Snape that forced buyouts were on the horizon, the recent events as a result of the battle of Hogwarts means that we will be able to retain all remaining faculty. Faculty expressed satisfaction at this news.  She also reported that there is a possibility that we gained a few faculty lines though that is still to be determined. Despite great efforts to identify the fifty other unidentified deaths we have been unable to uncover news of professor deaths.

Professor Trelawney, chair of the appointments committee reported that it appears that school may be able to hire a tenure line for the Dark Arts position rather than using podium visitors since the death of Voldemort.

There was discussion whether Hogwarts should consider Harry Potter as a professor.  Despite favorable reviews from remaining professors and his acclaim for having saved the school and the world, it was suggested that the discussion be tabled until he at least completed his seventh year.

Capital Campaign.

Headmaster McGonagall indicated that the school may need to undertake a capital campaign due to massive damage done to the school. Professor Slughorn asked whether we really needed to raise money for building repairs and pointed out that he has not received a salary increase in the two years since he has returned to Hogwarts. Professor Sprout suggested that perhaps their wizarding prowess could be used to rebuild the school instead of raising funds. Professor Flitwick indicated that maintenance and building projects were not apart of his faculty contract and that he already sacrificed much to be a faculty member at Hogwarts.

New Business
Professor Pomfrey asked about a recent report appearing in Slate and CNet that Hogwarts would begin to offer courses online. Much discussion was had. Professor McGonagall indicated that the capital campaign from the last meeting had not gone as efficiently as planned due to the prevailing question why they could not rebuild with magic. She also said lots of great universities had begun offering online courses, particularly in America  and that this was just the way education was moving.At this point there was much angst at the American way.

Professor Slughorn said that Hogwarts would be a laughing stock for the counterparts at Durmstrang Institute — which already looks down on Hogwarts as accepting what they call inferior students.

Professor Slughorn asked about faculty stipends for the summer. Headmaster McGonagall pointed out that Slughorn hasn’t produced any real scholarship for the last fifteen years and that if he would like a research grant he should begin showing an interest in scholarship. Professor McGonagall did indicate that professors may be able to earn extra money through teaching an online class. Faculty agreed to consider this measure at the next faculty meeting.

The meeting was adjoined.

Why We Should Still Read Ender’s Game in Spite of Orson Scott Card — Part I Reply


Special Appearance by Zach Powers


SEER SUCKER PERFORMANCE

The Literary Table is proud to present Zach Powers from SeerSucker Live discussing Orson Scott Card and his work Ender’s Game as a reflection of and distinctive from his identity.  Like their Facebook page and twitter feed to stay up to date on performances here in Savannah and abroad.  (Because everything outside of Savannah is just abroad!). 

Zach is a writer that lives in Savannah, and his work has appeared in South Magazine, the Savannah Morning News, and other publications.  Welcome Zach! 

In the original version of Orson Scott Card’s award-winning novel Ender’s Game, the insect-like alien enemy was called the Buggers. I remember being a little offended with the release of the “author’s definitive edition,” in which this term was replaced by the supposedly-scientific Formics. What I perceived to be Card’s oversensitivity—his PG-ifying and PC-ifying of the text—annoyed me. So what if the word was connected to the British term buggery? Isn’t Bugger exactly what the collective we would call an enemy who looked like an anthropomorphic ant? I never once thought the term was representative of Card’s actual stance on sexuality. Sometimes art contains ugliness. The contents of his book remained unconnected with the values of the man.

It turns out that the contents of the book are disconnected from the man, but in the other direction. Card’s opposition to LGBT rights in recent years has been well-documented. Even more, I sense a simmering hate underneath any of Card’s writing on the subject, but this tone is so completely absent in his early fictions that I have a hard time believing they were produced by the same hand.

I need to disclaim my personal biases. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books, and probably the most important book I ever read in terms of shaping who I am. I purchased my first copy—sitting beside me right now—at a 7th grade book fair. It was the first book I ever bought with money out of my own pocket. It was the first book I ever stayed up all night to finish. I read it about thirty times between 7th grade and the end of college. I used to play an online computer game set in the book’s Battle School space station. I still daydream of one day writing the Ender’s Game prequel that has been simmering in the back of my brain for years. Because of my love for the book, Orson Scott Card was, for a long time, someone I admired.

ZACH’S POST CONTINUES ON TUESDAY APRIL 22!

Zach can be contacted via his website http://www.zachpowers.com.  For the latest news and writings, follow his twitter feed @z_powers.

Louisiana’s Bible Reply


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Louisiana legislators are attempting to revive the old times – back to 1611.  House Bill 503 proposed to declare that “Louisiana should have a state book,” and the state book shall be the “Holy Bible.” 

Such a curious choice!  Louisiana traces its roots back to French and Spanish settlers, particularly french missionaries that established mission posts along the Louisiana delta plains.  More likely to make the journey into the early Louisiana territory was the French Catholic Bible published at Leuven in 1550.  Certainly, at least early on, the various French translations of Catholic Bibles had more influence than the King James Bible.  

So what should the state book of Louisiana be.  I will offer my top five choices of books:

1.  The Louisiana Civil Code. This book has had the most influence on individuals, society, and the state in general.  It springs from the positivist tradition of a civil society, while blending spanish and french influences on the legal regime. It has been updated and revised as the years have passed. Indeed there is no more “Louisiana” book than the Louisiana Civil Code. 

2.  All the King’s Men.  This is an obvious choice given the influence of Louisiana politics and setting on Robert Penn Warren’s best known book.  It is, without a doubt, Louisiana’s book. 

3. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.  Solomon Northup spent twelve years enslaved in the Cane River area of Louisiana’s plantations.  His enduring memoir continues to shape historical dialogues on slavery, society, and memoir.  

4. Laussat’s Memoirs of My Life.  Pierre Clement de Laussat was a french bureaucrat assigned to the Louisiana post. He held posts in Martinet and Guiana, but was the last French provincial governor of the territory before the Louisiana Purchase.  HIs memoirs contain interesting reflections on the purchase from the french perspective.   Additionally, much of his memoir is concerned with life in the Louisiana Territory.  

5. A Confederacy of Dunces. John Kennedy Toole’s only published novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the novel is set in Louisiana’s cultural capital New Orleans, and depicts life from the perspective of a modern Don Quixote of the French Quarter.  

What other books should be considered?  

Image from Albert Pike and the Louisiana Civil Code: An Unfinished Epic…

Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism Reply


RPW ImageOver the next few days, I want to deliver a paper I presented at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City, Utah last weekend. The theme of the Conference was Land and the Novel.  I had the pleasure of joining friends that delivered wonderful papers on the Picaresque form in Spanish and American Literature, and the role of Native American and western discourses on Sovereignty and Conquest. Today I will introduce the paper I presented titled Robert Penn Warren’s Southern Exceptionalism in Place. Over the next few days I will add sections.  Comments are always welcome.

Robert Penn Warren’s preeminent subject was the American South.[1] Born in Kentucky and living in various southern states, including Louisiana, and Tennessee Warren once reflected, “The South never crossed my mind except as an imaginative construct before I left it.”[2]  Later, Warren claimed “he became a Southerner by not being there.” [3] His novels reflect the tension felt by the author whose characters, like him, are at once out of place in their environment, while at the same time in the only place that seems best suited for their identity.

Through these characters, Warren performs the tension of southern identity – wrestling with the problem of not belonging, while also being in the only place where one belongs.[4]   Warren’s reflections of feeling isolated in a place he calls home has led to some scholars describing Warren’s view of southern identity as hallmarked by a perception of loneliness. [5] While loneliness is a theme that Warren’s work captures, another more prevalent theme emerges from Warren’s characters and places – that of Southern Exceptionalism.

In the next few posts I will describe what I mean by Southern Exceptionalism and then describe how that theme emerges in Warren’s novels All the King’s Men and Flood.  All the King’s Men follows the workings of Jack Burden and Willie Stark through the political machinery that reveals identities as against place and time.  Jack Burden, thought to be the character that Warren most closely aligns with[6] finds himself torn between the Jack Burden that existed in the past at Burdens landing, and the Jack Burden of the present – a journalist lackey of Governor Stark — who seems to have a knack for “making things stick” and “uncovering the past.[7]  Both Burden and Willie Stark find themselves at one in the same time in and out of contradictions.[8]

Likewise, Warren’s novel Flood : A Romance of our Time, tells the story of Bradwell Toliver a novelist and screenwriter returning to his home town Fiddlersburg to tell its final story. Fiddlersburg is set to be flooded by the Army Corp of Engineers TVA Project in Middle Tennessee leaving as the preeminent question for everyone in the town – can Fiddlersburg residents be themselves without Fiddlersburg.  Like Burden and Stark, Tolliver and other characters find themselves living out contradictions, whether its Toliver’s inability to write about Fiddlersburg while in Fiddlersburg.[9]

I argue in this seriesthat loneliness itself cannot answer that question of Southern identity, but rather is one piece of a broader identity question in the south.   For Warren, the collective action of being “lonely together” helps explain certain aspects of the south.  It may also explain why characters like Burden, Toliver, and Stark move through the south the way they do -able to  both associate and disassociate themselves from their actions and physical surroundings, while others do not.  But it does not necessarily explain the south, despite the claim by Warren’s characters and scholars alike. Loneliness is a description for a people that invoke a state of mind about their surroundings – the choices to embrace or not embrace their surroundings. Exceptionalism, on the other hand is defined by the irony of living with the contradiction.  For the characters, it’s the various contradictions of moral purpose, outcomes and identities that present contradictory moments.  For the region, Warren describes the ability to balance the surroundings with its narrative of superiority.   The constructs of place and time provide boundaries by which characters in Warren’s work navigate the central notion of those ironies.

[1] Warren’s works in both fiction and Non-Fiction detail a fascination with the American South.  His nonfiction works,  John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929) Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the American South (1956); Who Speaks for the Negro ?(1960); The Legacy of the Civil War (1961); and Jefferson Davis Get’s his Citizenship Back (1980); and his fictional works All the King’s Men, Flood, Time and World Enough, Night Riders, Meet me at the Green Glen, At Heaven’s Gate, … all are set in the American South.

[2] Watkins, Floyd C., et al., Talking with Robert Penn Warren 383 (U. Ga. Press 1990).

[3] Id. at 374.

[4] Warren himself described this tension personally reflecting about a farm he considered buying in Tennessee later in life.  Though the Middle Tennessee area where the farm was located was the place he claimed to know best, he also said he felt if he bought the farm he’d be isolated. “ A lot of friends are dead and gone, but I also felt a real change in the whole nature of the world. And I felt it would be an idle dream for me to go back there. It would be ridiculous.” Id.

[5] Randy Hendricks, Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (2000) (suggesting that Warren more than any other writer has dealt with the southerner as exile); Lewis Simpson, Robert Penn Warren The Loneliness Artist, 99 Sewanee Review 25 (1991) (“describing the autobiographical connections of personal exile in Warren’s various works).

[6] Simpson, supra note 5, at ___ (suggesting that Warren can no more disclaim Jack Burden than Shakespeare can Hamlet).

[7] See Martin Lumpkin, Jack’s Unconscious Burden: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of All the King’s Men, in Dennis L. Weeks, “To Love thee So Well the World: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Penn Warren, 197 (1992) at 197 (describing Jack Burden’s tensions as between “denying his past and living with his cynical present without alms”).

[8] See Lumpkin, supra note 7, at 207 (rejecting Burden’s tale as mere tragedy, for its failure to account for “ambiguities, conflicts, complexities of the human personality); Robert Feldman, Responsibility in Crisis: Jack Burden’s Struggle in All the King’s Men, in Weeks, supra note 7, at 105 (arguing that Burden’s contradiction is the temptation to avoid versus confront the burden of guilt and responsibility); Steven D. Ealy, Corruption and Innocence in Robert Penn Warren’s Fiction, Modern Age (Spring 2005) (describing Willie Stark as an Idealist turn pragmatist with an idealist bent).

[9] Bradwell Toliver can’t seem to understand himself in the town of Fiddlersburg.  This emerges in two ways through out the novel.  First, Toliver’s best selling novel is based on Fiddlersburg but is written when Toliver is away from the town.  The second is the movie script that he writes while in the town, but which, according to Yasha Jones, does not capture the essence of Brad in Fiddlersburg.

De-Politicizing the Terrorist Through an Apology Reply


NPR this morning posted the story of a Syrian terrorist issuing an apology for a man who was wrongfully beheaded:  

“Militant Islamist rebels in Syria … have asked for ‘understanding and forgiveness’ for cutting off and putting on display the wrong man’s head.” NPR quoting the Guardian.  

This is not conventional, but there is something deeply meta going on here.  Apologies require a form of remorse — some sense that the order of the world has been offended and for which one must account.   Thus, the very idea of an apology emanating from someone labeled a “terrorist” should give us pause to reconsider what being a terrorist means.   We conventionally think of those acting outside of any political or moral order.  We think about the zealots who have so twisted their own belief system that they now justify the destruction of others for the better good.  Individuals (even innocent persons) are often swept up into the chaos of horrible acts that are justified for the greater good.   

That someone would apologize for actions that cause injury to “an innocent” should force us to reconsider how we label political groups waging war — particularly when we presume that the groups we’ve labeled as terrorist has not conception of “an innocent.”   It should force us to reconcile that the way we use the term terrorism and terrorist are more often conclusions than they are meaningful identities.   

Interpretive Imagination: seeking the power of illustration rather than the dogma of instruction Reply


Lets be clear, interpretation of difficult texts requires imagination.

When I teach Law and Literature, it seems every class turns to the same topic:  whose lens do we understand the text through, author or reader?  That question becomes particularly charged when God is the purported author.  Sacred texts have the unusual benefit of being endorsed as having a special relationship to the reader — a relationship that implies an authority to be heard – to say something that is meaningful – or to extol some virtue that the reader should pay attention to.

This problem of the sacred text and the reader’s dilemma increases as the text becomes more murky.   That is, a sacred text which is clear and consistent often requires fewer heuristics to justify its authority.   But those texts which lack clarity or which send contradicting messages often require an interpretive mechanism for the text to maintain its sacred authority.

In the Christian tradition, two mechanisms have been employed in this interpretive effort —  either the traditions of the church or the fiction of the inerrant Word. (I would argue that the law uses similar mechanisms to justify the stasis that the law maintains or the sudden change that the law undertakes — Justice Cardozo’s penchant for claiming the law has always approached problems in certain ways calls on a tradition (albeit one that does not exist) to support the new legal regime he created).

Those interpretive mechanisms (whether by tradition or inerrancy) tend to lead readers of the Christian sacred text on a search for its instruction, rather than its illustration.  For example tradition often binds the reader to only understand the text by the processes and order that was pre-established.   Inerrancy seeks to validate problematic texts by a mysterious unknown factor.  But interestingly, neither of these interpretive mechanisms limit individuals from claiming an instruction: that God wants you to do something; or that God is disappointed in some behavior.  For the inerrant, the biblical text is filled with land mines of inconsistency. For every command to not do something, there is an example of one exonerated who did that very thing.   In fact, I argue (indeed, I challenge anyone to prove me wrong) that the only norm that is not contradicted in the biblical text is the norm of fidelity to God and to to other human beings as being the highest order norm.  Problematically, the other norms of behavior have often been seen as supporting this fidelity to God — a point again refuted regularly throughout both the Old and New Testament as the narrative only sometimes attributes behavior with Fidelity to God.

So then what are we to do with an interpretation like Jay Michaelson proposed at the Huffington Post last week, titled “When Jesus Healed a Same Sex Partner.”  (To be clear, Michaelson is not the only or the first to proffer this argument).  Michaelson describes (convincingly) that Jesus’s healing of the Centurion’s servant was likely the healing of a same-sex partner (at least same-sex partner as the First Century would have understood the interaction).  Michaelson goes on to say:

If I and dozens of other scholars (some of whom are listed below) are correct, this is a radical act. Jesus is extending his hand not only to the centurion but to his partner, as well. In addition to Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in general (he never mentions same-sex intimacy, not once, despite its prevalence in his social context), it speaks volumes that he did not hesitate to heal a Roman’s likely same-sex lover. Like his willingness to include former prostitutes in his close circle, Jesus’ engagement with those whose conduct might offend sexual mores even today is a statement of radical inclusion, and of his own priorities for the spiritual life.
It also sets up a useful distinction for those who may be struggling with same-sex marriage as a religious act, but who nonetheless want their gay and lesbian family members, friends, and community members not to be discriminated against. Jesus is not conducting a same-sex marriage here. Yet he is recognizing a socially accepted same-sex relationship. Likewise, Christians and Jews today who may not be ready to celebrate same-sex weddings in their own churches and synagogues can and should endorse civil marriage equality in the public sphere. In a very different context, this is exactly what Jesus did 2,000 years ago.

Frankly, this type of interpretation creates some problems for both the tradition ladened interpreter and the inerrant interpreter.  For the traditionalist, its poses the possibility that the church misunderstood Jesus.  For the inerrant, it posses the possibility that the cannon is flawed.  But Michaelson’s interpretation need not be so limited:

What both tradition and inerrancy require is a third more powerful heuristic — imagination.   The ability to see beyond the text to the illustration, rather than stopping at the supposed instruction, allows one to treat the sacred text with authority, while acknowledging that difficult passages require more than just fictions or traditions to resolve.  It also allows the reader to imagine how the text might shift in light of its new surroundings (a limitation for both the inerrant and the traditionalist).

Thus, one might view the passage in the minimalist way as Michaels has suggested — that Jesus’s act of kindness is one that at the very least should be extended to similar folk.  Or, one can let the imagination take us where the normative message of the sacred text might — that whatever relationship one is in, be it heterosexual or homosexual, the virtues that Jesus affirms are loyalty and fidelity.