Part IV of Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism
Over the next few days I am posting a paper I delivered at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City last week. Today, I will wrap up these posts by considering exceptionalism in Warren’s novel Flood: A Romance of our time.
Warren’s Irony of Loneliness
Flood’s deeper meaning towards the South has been described in a number of ways: “representative of an obliteration of a relatively homogeneous way of life;” “the microcosmic death of Southern Rural culture;” as a narrative in contrast to the “rootless urbanites continuing desire for a tangible history.” But Flood represents best a tale of people coming to a “new awareness of the past while accepting a personal responsibility for the present.” Two physical places mark where this activity happens in the Town of Fiddlersburg – the graveyard, where residents go about disinterring their loved ones (or not) before the flood waters rise; and the penitentiary, which remains outside the flood’s reach. In both of these places, the vision of Fiddlersburg becomes clearer by understanding certain aspects of southern exceptionalism.
The graveyard scenes in the novel are primarily premised on Brad Toliver looking for Izzie Goldburg’s grave, so he can eventually disinter his old friend’s remains. Izzie Goldburg, was remembered fondly by Toliver as
The little tailor – the only Jew in Fiddlersburg, live one I mean, when I was a boy. He taught me to play chess and never let me win He would look at a sunset or at a man or a dog in the same way, a way that made the thing seem real. He was not Fiddlersburg, but he made Fiddlersburg real.
Izzie, like Toliver, was an outsider to Fiddlersburg. But also like Brad, saw Fiddlersburg as the only place he could be.
Similarly, the Penitentiary is described by the common Warren referent as being lonesome. The Warden of the penitentiary says that the reason people end up in the Pen is lonesomeness – “some folks are born lonesome and they can’t stand the lonesomeness out there. It is lonesome in here maybe, but it ain’t as lonesome when you are with folks that knows they are as lonesome as you are.” Then the Warden describes the punishment of solitary confinement:
“Ever see a man come out of Solitary? Sometimes, it is like they wanted to lay their head in your lap and cry. They are so grateful to see you. Solitary – you can’t run a prison without it. It is the last lonesomeness. It is the kind of lonesomeness man can’t stand, for he can’t stand just being himself. (Flood 156)
Warren then brings both the graveyard and the penitentiary (and Izzie and Fiddlersburg) more together more directly in a later scene where Brad Toliver returns to look for Izzie again. Again ruminating on Izzie, Toliver remarks that Izzie was “alone but not lonesome,” he was “Fiddlersburg and at the same time he was not Fiddlersburg. He was non-Fiddlersburg and he was anti-Fiddlersburg.” Then Brad contemplates:
Hell your Philosopher friend [the Warden] was right. It is the lonesomeness. The only reason everybody in Fiddlersburg does not get himself in the Pen out of lonesomeness is because Fiddlersburg is kind of a Pen already, and everybody knows already he is with folks who are as lonesome as he is.”
It is here that Brad Toliver / Warren begin to explain the connection of Loneliness to the South and Southern Exceptionalism.
Hell, the whole south is lonesome. It is lonesome as coon hunting, which has always been a favorite sport, and it is lonesomer than anything except frog-giging on a dark night in a deep pond and your skiff leaking and some folks prefer it that way.
Hell the south is the country where a man gets drunk just so he can feel lonsesomer, and then comes to town and picks a fight for companionship. The confederate states were founded on lonesomeness. They were all so lonesome, they built a pen around themselves so they could be lonesome together. The only reason the confederate army held together as long as it did against overwhelming odds was that everybody felt it would just be too damned lonesome to go home and be lonesome by yourself.
“The South…. Folks say ‘the South’ but the word doesn’t mean a damned thing. It is a term without a referent. No – It means something, but it does not mean what people think it means. It means a profound experience, communally shared – yeah. But you know what that shared experience is that makes the word South?
“It is lonesomeness,” Brad said. “ It is angry lonesomeness. Angry lonesomeness makes southerners say the word South like an idiot Tibetan monk turning a broke down prayer wheel on which he has forgotten to hang any prayers.
“Hell no southerner believes there is any South. He just believes that if he keeps on saying the word he will lose some of the angry lonesomeness. The only folks in the South who are not lonesome are the colored folks. They may be angry but they are not lonesome.
“That is the heart of the race problem. It is not guilt. That is crap. It is simply that your southerner is deeply and ambiguously disturbed to have folks around him who are not as lonesome as he is….Especially if they are black folks. Fiddlersburg is a praying town, just like the South is a praying country. But it is not that they believe in God. They do not believe in God. What they believe in is the black hole in the sky God left when he went away. (Flood P. 165)
In Warren’s writings, the concept of lonesomeness is a symptom of a greater problem – the inability to not be lonesome – or to be comfortable with one’s own lonesomeness. This ability to hold two contradictory moments together – to be both something and not-that-something – reflects Warren’s views on history, self and responsibility. As in All the King’s Men, where Willie Stark conflates concepts of good and bad into indiscernible motivations – You only have the bad to make the good from and how Jack Burden contemplates the meaning of being alone with oneself and all the many selves that one had – it’d be quite the party he notes — Brad conflates the meaning of belonging and not belonging to an individual’s ability to be lonesome. These three characters find themselves out of place due to a striking self-awareness. Like Izzie Goldburg, they realize that they walk in tangles of contradiction – which both allows them to feel at home and at the same time out of place with those that don’t share the same sense of irony around them. The South might know its lonesome, but understanding what its lonesomeness creates is a different story.
In Warren’s world, law stands as the impartial arbiter of society. Segregation, he wrote early in his career was not the problem – it was the tendency of white southerners to treat African Americans poorly in Segregation. Eventually coming around to the view that Segregation too had to end, Warren’s solution for the South remained consistent — treat all men fairly. Warren’s work presents some rich ironies when considering places. The Prison remains the only standing structure in Fiddlersburg – the place where law and responsibility meet most directly. The Graveyard finds itself buried with the town – taking on a second death as it were for the residents that remain interred. The Schoolhouse built with dirty money (and legally) in All the King’s Men tumbles under faulty workmanship, killing three children and launching Willie Stark’s political career. Willie does legal and not-legal things and is not immune to backroom deals and public projects that favor politically powerful people. But Warren doesn’t want to confuse good and bad, right and wrong, “legal and illegal.” Perhaps its best to simply be aware of the irony.
 John T. Hiers, Burried Graveyards: Warren’s Flood and Jone’s A Burried Land, 75 Essays in Literature 97 (2007).