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


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.


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


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.

Random Thoughts from around the blogosphere and what’s on my table…. Reply

More elephants…Regarding rankings, I think Al Brophy’s insight is exactly spot on.  We care about rankings when there is nothing else to care about.  Sort of like the saying in politics — the reason the rhetoric is so high is because the stakes are so low.

Over at Legal Lacuna, Mai Linh has posted a followup to a paper she presented at a recent conference (Get your Ass-Phalt off my Ancestors) on Richmond’s historic Burial Ground for Negros controversy with Virginia Commonwealth University . Of course, coming to the decision to remove the asphalt from the burial ground and funding it appear to be two separate problems.

From the Volokh Conspiracy, Publication does not constitute Detrimental Reliance?  Amongst plaintiff’s complaints were:

• Published articles and engaged in scholarly activities at a voracious pace, id. at 65;

• Increased his scholarly production, writing a steady stream of top-flight articles, id. at 66;

• Intensified, concentrated his entire life on generating high-powered research in top-tier journals, id.;

• Did extraordinarily more work than he had ever done or will ever do, id. at 66-67;

• Worked extraordinary long overtime with no immediate remuneration, id. at 69;

• Lost precious time with his family, id.;

• Impaired his health, id.;

• Went with very little sleep for long periods of time, id. at 76;

• Suffered constant stress which resulted in increased medication and hypertension, id.;

• Refrained from applying for other chaired professorships at other universities, id. at 68;

• Did not encourage inquiries as to whether he was interested in changing positions or looking for other employment, id.; and

• Sent a resume to Temple University but did not pursue it, id.


On my table…Last but not least, my table has been somewhat of a strange accumulation of materials lately.  There is Democracy and Poetry by Robert Penn Warren (which I need to post on soon); and Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dotoesvsky; there is a gardening book on raised gardens since now is my yearly attempt to have a green thumb, but likely there will be no progress; there is my now completely defunct NCAA bracket (really, Xavier in the Elite 8 — what in the world was I thinking); and a recipe for Spaghetti Tacos, which we made last night while watching iCarly — my six year old daughter’s favorite show.



Treasures in the Attic: Robert Penn Warren and the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews Reply

I was cleaning up my office last week when I stumbled upon a set of letters that Robert Penn Warren helped draft for the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews.  I had sought these letters out back in the Fall because of an obscure reference in the Collected Writings of Robert Penn Warren to his participation on this group.  Fortunately, Randy Hendricks of the University of West Georgia had copies.   The Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews was the first American Conference to consider the status of Soviet Jews and included amongst its congregants: Robert Penn Warren, Martin Luther King, and Justice William O. Douglas to name a few.  The conference met in New York’s Carnegie Center in October 1963.   The conference was largely the result of work by Moshe Dechter (pictured on the right), who earlier that year highlighted the plight of Soviet Jews in a Journal of Journal of Foreign Affairs Article titled The Status of Jews in the Soviet Union. There Dechter described the Jewish plight as: 

Soviet policy places Jews in an inextricable vise. They are allowed neither to assimilate, or live a full Jewish life, nor to emigrate (as many would wish) to Israel or any other place where they might live freely as Jews…Soviet policy as a whole, then, amounts to spiritual strangulation—the deprivation of Soviet Jewry’s natural right to know the Jewish past and to participate in the Jewish present. And without a past and present, the future is precarious indeed.

The main piece of the Warren letters is a plenary letter addressed to the Fourth All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers by various American writers.  Amongst the signatories include: Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, Irving Howe, Norman Mailer, Author Miller and John Updike to name a few.  Warren begins the letter by calling the Soviet writers to remember distinctive role that Russian authors have played as social critics as a call to action on behalf of an impressed people:

As you can perhaps sense, we are aware that, however honorable the craft of the writer may be, yours is a mission beyond that of writers.  For in your country, probably more than in any other country’s literary tradition, the role of the writer has always transcended art.   The writer has been uniquely, social critic, intellectual goad, moral guide, tribune of the people’s conscience.

You, Soviet writers, are the heirs of Pushkin and Belinsky, of Tolstoy and Herzen, of Dostoevsky and Chekhov of Gorky and Mayakovsky.  But in a sense, all of us, all writers everywhere, stand in that tradition and are its children.  And it is indeed in its spirit and as bearers of a moral burden, that we turn to you now and ask you to consider the painful situation of Jewish literature and culture in the Soviet Union today.

Warren’s letter, signed by other writers, and approved of by the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews calls on the Soviet writers to stand with Jewish persons to preserve their culture through schools, research, theaters and the like.

Warren’s interest in the conference likely stems from his fascination with the idea of exile, and the role that exiles play in defining the society they are exiled against.  For Warren, the exile (particularly the American Southern Exile) presented the ideal being to confront the self against the past, the self as defined by the past, and the self as trying to be free from the past.  No matter who you were as an American southerner, the past was unhappy.  As a segregationist, the past reminded you that those days were passing. As an integrationist, the past was an exemplar of inescapable human violations.  As Jonathan Cullick writes in Making History: The Biographical Narratives of Robert Penn Warren (LSU 2000): “Warren’s protaganists and narrators struggle between a desire to liberate themselves from the past and a need to shape their identities in the context of the past.”  In doing so, Cullick writes, Warren “demonstrates the knowledge gained through return and reconciliation redeems us from the concept of the past as a burden, permitting one to be connected to the past rather than haunted by it.”  Warren’s work on the Jewish Exile committee seems well placed for his desire to create space for humans to confront their past as a precursor to understand both their present and the future.

There is more to say here. I am planning to post the letters as soon as I have permission from the Literary Executor.  I will update the post in full with links to pdf’s at that time.  For now, I still have more treasures to unlock.   For example I just found my lost volume by George Marsden The Soul of the American University.  Some day soon I’ll talk about that, particularly with all of the U.S. news discussion lately.

Image of Moshe Dechter taken from New York Times Obituary.

Law Culture and Humanities Day Two 1

On today’s agenda were some really fabulous panels.  There are so many interesting people that I met and want to spend more time talking to.I am going to break this post up into several posts because of the richness at this conference.

The first panel of the day was one titled Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement with really fabulous presentations including Reconstructing Hate Crime Law: Racism, Abolition and the Thirteenth Amendment by Jacob Kang-Brown; Strategic Affirmative Action, by Bret Asbury of Dexel Law School; Southern Exceptionalism or New South? “White Trash” and the Politics of Southern Modernization, 1944-1969 by Kristine Taylor; and The Community and the Zone: Competing Conceptions of Neighborhood Identity in Land Use law by my friend Kenneth Stahl of Chapman’s law school.

Of course, Kirstine’s talk was of particular interest given our interest in southern literature, race, and the law.  I kept wondering how Robert Penn Warren would conceptualize the question of southern exceptionalism versus the new south.  Perhaps I will post a discussion of Warren’s ethnography titled Segregation in the next few weeks.

I also want to say that Kenneth Stahl’s The Community and the Zone was a compelling treatment of the Chicago School.  Robert Park’s narratives of the city remain a compelling narrative that, as Kenneth points out, form a distinctive basis for the legal rules that limit neighborhood autonomy.

More from Vegas tomorrow.



Don’t take that Name off the Building 4

This week, the University of Texas began to wonder whether to remove the name of William S. Simkins from one of its dormitories. Simkins was a confederate soldier, a professor in UT’s School of Law (from 1899-1929, and most problematic for UT today, a member of the Klu Klux Klan. The building was named for Simkins in 1955 in recognition of his work for the University — and perhaps symbolically to identify Texas’s desire not to integrate.

The controversy came to light when Professor Tom Russell, formerly as faculty member at UT published on SSRN the paper Keep the Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls’: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999 . In the abstract, Russell writes: “During the 1950s, the memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university’s resistance to integration. As the university faced pressure to admit African-American students, the university’s faculty council voted to name a dormitory after the Klansman and law professor.” Later, in an interview with Texas Lawyer, Russell says: “I think it’s inappropriate for the University of Texas administration to continue to honor Professor Simkins by keeping his name on the dormitory.”

I am quite sympathetic to Professor Russell’s feeling that Simkins name is inappropriate on a building dedicated to equality and enlightened education. I am afraid, though, that through efforts like these, we will look back on our history and wonder why we felt the need to purge it so. History is made up of the good and the bad, of good people making bad decisions, of bad people making thoughtfully astute and beneficial decisions, and everyone else caught in the milieu of time and happenstance. On the one hand, we cannot and must not belittle the real offense that African Americans must suffer by the presence of a name connected with a vile racist past. But on the other hand, does removing the name really bring us comfort that the University has disassociated itself with its racist past. For as long as there have been people that have crossed the University of Texas campus since 1955, the building will forever be called Simkins Hall; I imagine that for some generations that will continue. Indeed, short of imploding the building from the grounds and eradicating its memory from the space it occupies, Simkins will forever be known as a part of the UT campus, both the prejudicial Simkins and the University contributor.

But perhaps more problematic than the persistence of memory, is the loss of memory. Maybe we don’t feel comfortable talking openly about a person’s indiscretions, particularly once they have died. I imagine that there might be some hesitancy in leaving Simkins name on the building in order to have a frank honest discussion of race and our past. We choose to remove rather than discuss, and in doing so, deprive our children of the mistakes we have made. Robert Penn Warren wrote beautifully on this point in talking of the role of purge tendencies in the anti-slavery context. Warren writes:

“Man [can be described] as a total abstraction, in the pure blinding light of total isolation, alone with the Alone, narcissism raised to the infinite power….But social problems are rarely to be solved by men totally outside of society — certainly not by men not merely outside of a particular society but outside of the very concept of society. For if all institutions are “dirty” why really bother to amend them? Destruction is simpler, purer, more logical, and certainly more exciting. Conscience without responsibility — this is truly the last infirmity of the noble mind.”

Yes. Destruction feels cleaner. But if it feels cleaner its because we have grown uncomfortable with the dirt we can see. There is more dirt around — we have not yet had time to notice (or maybe never will notice) its impact, or to yet be uncomfortable with its role in our own development.

So instead of renaming the building or taking Simkin’s name down, do something enlightened. Build a prominent display in the building that speaks openly and honestly about the struggles the UT campus has had with race; maybe add a name to the building of a person that fought for civil rights in the State of Texas to pair along side Simkins – perhaps Marshall and Simkins Hall. Take the opportunity to recognize our vile past, and talk openly about it. Our future generations will be better for it. In each of these things, the University will be responsible with its past, which includes honoring for a time a person whom the University is not proud of in every respect and recognizing that the University can mature beyond the narrow ideas of a few.

Update:  There is a nice write up on the controversy at the faculty lounge here, along with a set of links to the controversy. Tom Russell in comments provides more information on the controversy as well as a call for responses to the Texas Board of Regents planning to meet on the issue soon.

Update 2: Al Brophy at the Faculty Lounge talks about the role of historical memory in decisions to take down emblems from our racist past here.  In the comments, Tom Russell provides some thoughtful responses, to which i will respond soon.  This is a great discussion!

Quote from Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War

Can Law and Literature Function without Historical Narrative? 3

When I took law and literature in law school, it was frankly the best class experience of my education (sorry unnamed property prof — the rule against perpetuities still haunts).

But one thing that was missing when I took law and literature was the connection of the literature to any emerging cultural narrative or norm. We read lots of great books, many of which I have incorporated into my own law and literature course. But they were all disconnected from one another, except for the shared discussions of authorship, irony, the task of writing, etc… The course essentially became a course in the Great books of the world… with legal narratives behind them. Don’t get me wrong. That’s is a wonderful course, and I suspect for most law and literature profs it functions as an ethics alternative to the universe of professionalism that has engrafted legal education for the last hundred years — retrenching liberal education in the law school halls if you will.

In my own law and literature course (this is the third time that I have taught the class) I have attempted to incorporate a greater sense of historical connection between literature and the law. Perhaps my view of literature and the law is best summed up by Robert Penn Warren reflecting on Cass Mastern in All the King’s Men:

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide.
Each time that I have taught the course, it has been a reflection of the culture of American law — so only literature by Americans or about America (my students read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which is set in Gideon or Evangelically reformed America). So out are Antigone, or even Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone (set against a German occupied France in World War II). We don’t read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, or Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Brother’s Karamozov. And we don’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remain’s of the Day, one of my favorites. And of course, no Shakespeare.

Looking back over the list of works that my students miss out on, started me thinking about what other ways I could incorporate the historical narrative against the backdrop of literature and the law. Perhaps a study of 19th century literature would reveal a growing consciousness between wealth and poverty. That would be fun — Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Doystoveski’s Poor Folk anyone? Perhaps an obvious catalyst would be a course “Literature in the Age of Revolution.” William Wirt’s Letters of the British Spy , Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, and Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities would be great. Perhaps even some twentieth century memoirs/ biographies around revolutions –, maybe Reading Lolita in Tehran for the Iranian Revolution and Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life for the South American/ Cuban Revolution? (At the very least, we could educate our students about who the guy on their t-shirt is).

What other historical narratives could you see using in Law and Literature. Also, then, how is law and literature different from Legal History?

Weekend Poet Reply

Prairie Harvest
by Robert Penn Warren

Look westward over forever miles of wheat stubble
The road of the red machines is gone, they are gone.
Their roar has left the heartbeat of silence. The bubble,
Enormous, red, molten, of sun, above the horizon.

Apparently motionless, hangs. Meanwhile, blue mist
For uncountable miles of the shaven earth’s rondure arises,
And in last high light, the bullbats gyre and twist,
Though in the world’s emptiness the sound of their cries is

Nothing. Your heart is the only sound. The sun,
It is gone. Can it be that you, for an instant, forget
And blink your eyes as it goes? Another day done,
And the star the Kiowa once stared at will requite

Man’s effort by lust, and lust by the lead-weighted eyes.
So you stand in the infinite circle, star after star,
And standing alone in starlight, can you devise
An adequate definition of self, whatever you are?

Published in the Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (Ed. John Burt).

The City 2

Robert park wrote in the 1920’s:
the city and the urban environment represent man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more to his heart’s desire. But if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. The City as Social Laboratory.

Cities force humanity into conversation with one another. Forced conversation. Unintentional conversation. Rubbing elbows on the subway conversation, brushing shoulders walking down the stairway conversation. Which is why cities define humanity’s greatest attempt to remake itself as a non-intentional social creature.

It seems that early twentieth century authors understood this. Paul West, writing a short pamphlet on Robert Penn Warren noted that Warren’s “overview is of the incalculable, unpredictable repercussions our least endeavors provoke. Identity, in particular, is not a fixity, but a studiously maintained transaction with other people. The means of self-establishment is also the prime agency of confusion, especially for those who want perfection and utter consistency.” Pamphlet printed by University of Minnesota Press.

Its the story of Jay Gatz and Tom Buchanan and George Wilson. Thrusted unintentionally, almost haplessly into a narrative of ambition, jealousy and manipulation. Fitzgerald ends his great work on Jay Gatsby (or Gatz if you prefer his true identity) with these words: “[Gatsby] has come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning….”

Perhaps man’s city is doomed by the lack of intentioned interaction, a collection of vacant defunct houses, like the prostitute in Whitman’s The City Dead-House.

By the city dead-house by the gate,
As idly sauntering wending my way from the clangor,
I curious pause, for lo, an outcast form, a poor dead prostitute brought,
Her corpse they deposit unclaim’d, it lies on the damp brick pavement,
The divine woman, her body, I see the body, I look on it alone,
That house once full of passion and beauty, all else I notice not,
Nor stillness so cold, nor running water from faucet, nor odors morbific impress me,
But the house alone – that wondrous house – that delicate fair house – that ruin!
That immortal house more than all the rows of dwellings ever built!
Or white-domed capital with majestic figure surmounted or all the old high-spired cathedrals,
That little house alone more than them all – poor, desperate house!
Fair, fearful wreck – tenement of a soul – itself a soul,
Unclaim’d, avoided house – take one breath from my tremulous lips,
Take one tear dropt aside as I go for thought of you,
Dead house of love — house of madness and sin, crumbled and crush’d,
House of life, erewhile talking and laughing – but ah, poor house, dead even then,
Months, years, an echoing, garnish’d house – but dead,dead, dead.

Perhaps. But perhaps, the city is just the place where man exemplifies his greatest humanity. Where mankind constantly remakes himself in the image of god — intentionally caring for the poor, intentionally nursing the sick, and intentionally fighting for the oppressed.

The City Dead-house, published in Leaves of Grass (the Death Bed Edition).

An Earth Day Poem Reply

Tomorrow Morning
By Robert Penn Warren

In the morning, the rivers will blaze up blue like sulphur.
Even the maps will shrivel back in their own heat,
And metaphors will scream in the shared glory of their referents.
Truth will embrace you with tentacles like an octopus. It
Will suck your blood through a thousand suction-cups, and
The sun utter the intolerable trill of a flame-martyred canary.

Does this suggest the beginning of a new life for us all?

Or is it only, as I have heard an eminent physician remark,
A characteristic phase at the threshold of the final narcosis?

Published in The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (ed. John Burt).