A usable past?: Poetry and history in Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons.
--Lewis Simpson, on Warren's Brother to Dragons
The trouble is, it is very difficult, to be both a poet and, an historian.
--Charles Olson, Mayan Letters, October 1953
IN 1807 THOMAS JEFFERSON'S SISTER, LUCY JEFFERSON LEWIS, LEFT VIRGINIA and crossed the Appalachian Mountains with her husband Charles, their children, and their slaves. One of their sons, Lilburne, had purchased 1500 acres in western Kentucky on the Ohio River, around ten miles east of present-day Paducah, on which he built a large house that he called "Rocky Hill." On the night of December 15, 1811, Lilburne and his younger brother Isham murdered one of Lilburne's slaves, a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boy named George, with an axe. During or after the murder, Lilburne may have dismembered George, whose offense was to have broken a pitcher given to Lucy Jefferson Lewis by her brother Thomas. Lilburne's other slaves had been called to witness the murder, and some of them may have been ordered to dismember and burn the body. Around 2:00 a.m., the first tremor of the New Madrid earthquake struck, collapsing the fireplace in the room in which George's corpse was being burned. Several days later, Lilburne may have ordered his slaves to conceal the bones in the rebuilt fireplace. Rumors of the crime began to circulate, and Lilburne and Isham were indicted for murder. Before the trial, and before Lilburne and Isham could execute a mutual suicide pact, Lilburne shot himself, perhaps accidentally. Isham fled, and according to some accounts was one of only two Americans killed at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
Although Jefferson almost certainly heard of this crime, nowhere among his papers is there any mention of it, and this refusal to address his nephews' action is the germ of Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons(1953, revised 1979). The poem has generated far more critical discussion than any of Warren's other poems, and much of it has been favorable. Randall Jarrell, for example, calls the original version Warren's "best book" (43). Reviewing the revised version, Harold Bloom admits to being uneasy with Warren's "ideological ferocity" and unpersuaded by the poem's "implicit theology and overt morality," but nonetheless calls Warren "our most impressive living poet" (145-47).
In his Foreword, Warren traces the poem's inception to "bits of folk tale, garbled accounts heard in my boyhood" (xii) that related the brutal murder of a slave by Lilburne and Isham Lewis. In the 1940s Warren traveled to Smithland, Kentucky, to read the courthouse records of the case, and his work at the Library of Congress afforded him access to newspaper files and Abolitionist tracts that mentioned the case. In the poem he recounts two visits to the site of the ruins of Lilburne's house. What intrigued him about the story, he says, was the irony that "The philosopher of our liberties and the architect of our country and the prophet of human perfectibility had this in the family blood" ("Way" 212).
In form the poem is close to drama; subtitled "A Tale in Verse and Voices," all of its lines are spoken by particular characters, one of whom is called "R.P.W., the writer of this poem," who engages in a dialogue located outside of history (in "no place," at "any time," Warren writes) with the characters involved in the crime, all of whom exist in a kind of extra-historical limbo.
Considerable attention has been focused on the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, of the poem. Warren admits in his Foreword to having "altered certain details," such as omitting any mention of Lilburne's first wife and their children, substituting Lilburne's mother's grave as the site of Lilburne's death, instead of his first wife's grave, "for thematic reasons," and inventing the character of the slave Aunt Cat (xi-xii). Typical of those critics who catalogue the poem's historical errors, C. Hugh Holman not only cites those that Warren admits to in the foreword but also points out that (1) Letitia (Lilburne's wife) did not leave Lilburne on the night of the murder but remained at the house until after Isham's indictment as accessory to murder; (2) George was murdered and dismembered not in the meathouse on a butcherblock, but in the kitchen cabin on the floor; (3) Lilburne did not trick Isham into shooting him, but killed himself, probably accidentally. "Indeed," he writes, "one is forced to the conclusion that the suggestions of deranged motives for Lilburne--the Oedipal struggle, Letitia's sexual frigidity, the suggestions of class hatred between her family and the Lewises, and Lilburne's dominance of Isham--all have little or no support in historical fact" (195). Richard Law is more equivocal about the historical accuracy of the account, stating that Warren "discovers (or invents) in the background of the slaying all the elements of a psychological case study: an unhappy, loveless marriage in which the mother seeks companionship in her son, the Oedipal rivalry in her two sons, the nursemaid who competes with the mother for the son's love, and the son's wife who is unwittingly a surrogate for his mother" ("Violence" 199). The extent to which Warren engages in invention, as opposed to discovery, is more than an academic question; it is central to the reader's response to the argument on American history that the poem makes.
Boynton Merrill, the author of what Warren calls "a conscientious and scholarly account of the general subject" (xii), Jefferson's Nephews. A Frontier Tragedy (1976), writes:
In regard to the historicity of Brother to Dragons, Warren states in the preface: "I am trying to write a poem and not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with the facts." Warren succeeded admirably, both in his poem and in tampering with the facts. However, it might be ventured that facts usually do stand in the way of poetic expression and artistic triumph, such as Warren has achieved. (426-27)
For his part, Warren claims that Merrill's book, "fascinating and reliable as it is, does not change the basic thematic or dramatic outline of my tale" (xii). Moreover, Warren suggests that history, and our response to it, must involve more than simply knowledge of specific facts. Near the end of the poem he notes that we know the names, ages, sex, and prices of the slaves who were present at the murder: "We know that much, but what is knowledge / Without the intrinsic mediation of the heart?" (130).
Like many of Warren's critics, Merrill stresses the distinction between history and poetry, while Warren blurs the distinction. In the revised edition of the poem, he inserts the adjective "non-essential" before the noun "facts" in the passage Merrill cites, suggesting that his tamperings are insignificant. In the case of the Lewis crime, however, both the essential and non-essential "facts" are difficult to establish. After providing a detailed narrative account of the murder, Merrill admits,
This account of George's murder may well be inaccurate. None of the available sources are, at the same time, both detailed and of unquestionable reliability. The four major sources of information about the murder contradict each other on so many points that a true and factual description of George's death will probably never be achieved. This reconstruction of the crime is a combination of what appear to be the most plausible parts of the four written statements. ("Murder" 285)
Merrill's description of the historical record exposes the naivete behind Irvin Ehrenpreis's claim that "a plain historical account [would be]... more absorbing than Warren's self-indulgent, highly reflexive work" (101). Such a "plain account" simply cannot be written, so Warren takes advantage of what he calls "the ambiguous opacities of history" (14) to fill in the blanks in the historical record by imagining, in Aristotle's terms, "what might have happened." In the Poetics Aristotle writes that the poet differs from the historian because he works with universal as opposed to particular truths; the "universal" from which Warren deduces the action of his poem is human nature. For Warren, the historical event germinates in "the blind nutriment of Lilburne's heart" and the human heart contains "the rich detritus of all History" (77).
Many of Warren's critics have been sensitive to the charge of historical inaccuracy, and in defending Warren against that charge their general strategy has been to insist that the poem is not about history at all. C. Hugh Holman, for example, argues that "the change of the victim's name [in the revised edition] from the historical George to John is a quiet but emphatic declaration to Clio, in the guise of Boynton Merrill, of 'non serviam'" (196). This might be persuasive if Warren had not, after the publication of Merrill's book, corrected the spellings of "Letitia" and "Lilburne," and altered Charles Lewis's title from the historically questionable "Dr." to the more firmly established "Colonel"; these are hardly the revisions we might expect from a writer who refuses to serve Clio. Holman goes on to argue that the poem "takes people and events from history and uses them to a most unhistorical, very mythic purpose, to state a universal truth about the nature of man and his world and not a local or temporal truth about a crime in Kentucky in 1811" (198, 199). Warren's use of history, claims Holman, is parallel to Shakespeare's in Hamlet and Julius Caesar: to revert to the language of Aristotle, both Warren and Shakespeare are concerned with universal rather than particular truths, and therefore any historical inaccuracies in the poem are inconsequential. But Holman neglects to mention that Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, advanced no argument about why Roman history unfolded as it did, whereas in Brother to Dragons Warren does make such an argument about American history.
Richard G. Law makes a point similar to Holman's in two separate essays, arguing first that the poem is "as much an inquiry into the nature of love as a reconstruction of an ax murder" ("Violence" 194) and later that Warren's "aim is not simply to show how it really was (wie es eigentlich gewesen) at Rocky Hill the night of Sunday, December 15, 1811" ("Notes" 214). Similarly, Margaret Mills Harper argues that the poem is concerned with "the permanent values and significances of history, rather than the specific events" (242) and John Butt writes that "Brother to Dragons is a poem not about its events but about how those events are to be evaluated" (201).
This repeated insistence that the poem is not about the historical event but rather about permanent or mythic meanings suggests a misleading either/or dichotomy. Each of the critics cited above is correct: Warren's poem is an inquiry into universal truths about human nature, the nature of love, the permanent values of history, and the evaluation of historical events. However, it is also about those specific events. One of the poem's central themes concerns what Warren sees as a recurrent problem in American history, or what he calls "the symbolic implication of the event for the Jeffersonian notion of the perfectibility of man and the good American notion of our inevitable righteousness in action and purity in motive" ("Foreword" 296). Clearly the event itself gives rise to the implication, and any serious distortion of the event would also distort its implication.
Unlike some of his readers, Warren refuses to draw a sharp distinction between the truths of history and those of poetry. In his Foreword, he writes:
I know that any discussion of the relation of this poem to its historical materials is, in one perspective, irrelevant to its value; and it could be totally accurate as history and still not worth a dime as a poem. I am trying to write a poem, not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts. But poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something, however obliquely, about the human condition. Therefore, a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what he takes to be the nature of the human heart. What he takes those things to be is, of course, his ultimate gamble. This is another way of saying that I have tried in my poem to make, in a thematic way, historical sense along with whatever kind of sense it may otherwise be happy enough to make. Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake. (xiii)
That last sentence is often quoted by critics with finality, as if it clarifies once and for all the question of the poem's historicity. It is an elegantly phrased sentence, certainly, but its truth is open to question, for the little myths we make, such as poems, regularly contradict the big myths we live, such as history. Indeed, one of the burdens of Brother to Dragons is to argue that Jefferson's little myth, the Declaration of Independence, is fundamentally and repeatedly contradicted by the big myth of the nation's history as it has been lived out by its people.
Nor is it entirely clear why, in order to say something "about the human condition," a poem must "therefore" not violate the "spirit" of whatever historical material the poem touches upon. In the first place, it is difficult to imagine why any writer would purposely violate what he takes to be the "spirit" of his history. In the second place, apart from the evidence of the text, it is difficult to imagine how a reader can know what an author takes to be the spirit of his history, and whether or not he violates that spirit. Finally, it is difficult to imagine why, if "the issues that the characters here discuss are, in my view at least, a human constant" (xv), as Warren writes in explaining the "unspecified place and unspecified time" in which the poem's characters meet, the author or reader need be concerned with the poem's making historical sense. A human constant--the "universal" truths that Aristotle describes, or the "mythic" truths that Holman claims are depicted by Warren and Shakespeare--holds true across all periods of history, so in literature focusing on universal themes, errors of "historical sense" such as the anachronisms in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Keats's mistaking Cortes for Balboa in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" become insignificant. But Warren wants to make "historical sense" as well as "poetic sense," i.e., in Aristotle's terms, he wants to tell the truth about both universal issues, such as the nature of the human heart, as well as particular historical issues such as the impact of Jeffersonian idealism on American history.
The question of the poem's treatment of history is focused most clearly in Warren's depiction of Thomas Jefferson. Early in the poem Jefferson's spirit, haunted by his nephews' brutal crime, is so disgusted with the "human" that he cannot force himself to drink from Lethe because each time he bends to do so, he confronts his own reflection. Everything he believed and stood for, he claims, is wrong. He was wrong to believe that evil could be resolved in time, and wrong in his "towering / Definition" of man as "angelic, arrogant, abstract, / Greaved in glory, thewed with light, the bright / Brow tall as dawn" (8). He was wrong to imagine the American West as "great Canaan's grander counterfeit" (10). He was wrong to believe "That man must redeem nature" (27), wrong to believe that "If we might take man's hand, strike shackle, lead him forth / From his own nightmare--then his natural innocence / Would dance like sunlight over the delighted landscape" (29), wrong to believe "the old charade where man dreams man can put down / The objectified bad and then feel good" (30). His "old definition of man" is only defensible now, says Jefferson, "in senility/And moments of indulgent fiction" (5), and his famous epitaph is only "One more lie in the tissue of lies we live by" (85). All kinds of human love, he claims, are "but a mask / To hide ... / the un-uprootable ferocity of self" (33). In Brother to Dragons, then, Jefferson's vision of man is as dark and unforgiving and sin-besmirched as the most intense Puritan's, but his lacks the Puritan's promise of a divine redeemer. "There's no forgiveness for our being human," he tells his sister Lucy. "It is the inexpungable error" (19).
This depiction of Jefferson, crucial to one of the poem's major themes, does not reflect Warren's thinking about American history so much as it reflects his thinking about the human condition. The poem's "traumatic subject," writes Jarrell, is "sin, Original Sin, without any Savior," and that sin is rooted in the "ignoble truth of man's depravity." Reviewing the poem shortly after its publication, in the wake of the Second World War, Jarrell continues, "Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps" (44).
Later critics have followed Jarrell's lead. James Justus, for example, finds Jefferson representing "the philosophical failure of the Enlightenment" (65), and many critics have remarked on the similarities between Warren's critique of Jefferson and his critiques of John Brown and Ralph Waldo Emerson (see Clark, "Canaan's" 147; Justus 64-65; Law, "Violence" 195; Burr 202). All three engage in a self-righteous, absolutist idealism that, in its denial of the merely human, borders on fanaticism. Driven by what Justus calls "the pride to err massively" (64) or "ideological vanity" (65), Warren's Jefferson blinds himself to human nature's violent, irrational aspect and thereby makes himself vulnerable to its irruption.
If Warren were simply using Jefferson as a mouthpiece to present a particular brand of ideological rigidity the question of historical accuracy would be of minimal importance. But Warren uses Jefferson's intellectual flaws to emblematize those of the nation throughout its history. Hugh Ruppersburg develops this point most fully, arguing that "romantic humanism blinded Jefferson to certain inevitable aspects of human character and reality. So too ... has America been blinded by belief in its own exalted cause to the possibility of its own error, corruption, and even malicious intent" (45). Thus for Ruppersburg, Jefferson's enormous intellectual influence lies behind America's inability to confront, or even to recognize, the moral corruption evident in such issues as slavery or the removal of the Native Americans.
Still, many of Warren's critics, even those who praise the poem enthusiastically, are nevertheless uneasy with the poem's depiction of Jefferson. Harold Bloom, for instance, complains of the "massive drubbing" that Jefferson receives "for being an Enlightened rationalist" (145) and concludes that Warren is "dreadfully unjust to Jefferson" (147). The only critics to come close to defending Warren's Jefferson as historically accurate are Lesa Carnes Corrigan, who claims that "The Thomas Jefferson that Warren introduces in the poem is in many ways the historical personage revered in the annals of American greatness" (73) and that "the Jefferson of history provides the contextual referent of the poem" (74), and William Bedford Clark, who writes, "From Jefferson's own writings, both public and private, we can see that these sentiments attributed to him by Warren have at least a psychological validity" ("Canaan's" 145). But Clark quickly slips into arguing that the historical verisimilitude of Warren's Jefferson is less important than the character's symbolic function: "the Jefferson of Brother to Dragons, however convincing and well-drawn he may be, is less important as an individual reconstructed from the past than as a symbol embodying Warren's critique of America's history and his hopes for America's future" ("Canaan's" 146).
Most critics, however, do not find Jefferson to be at all "convincing and well-drawn." Holman, for example, labels Warren's Jefferson "totally unhistorical," but he agrees with Clark that the historical accuracy of Warren's depiction is unimportant: "Warren's intention is clearly not to describe an historical Jefferson but to criticize the view of man and human possibility which Jefferson is generally considered to embody, and which the Lewis atrocity teaches him ... to call a 'lie'" (198). We find the same argument in William Van O'Connor's review: "He is dealing with the spiritual consequences of Jefferson's idealism, not with the man Jefferson.... he is Jefferson's shade, a fictional character, a projection of a view of human conduct. It may be closest to the truth to say that Jefferson is the sort of idealist-gone-sour that one finds in Conrad.... He is hardly the sage of Monticello" (O'Connor 179-80).
The problem with such analysis is that, in conceding the historical inaccuracy of Warren's depiction of Jefferson, these critics seriously undermine their claims that Warren's Jefferson embodies a critique of American history. Warren wants to have it both ways and most of his critics are willing to let him: he wants to write a poem that makes a serious argument that Jeffersonian idealism restricts the nation's ability to comprehend its capacity for corruption, malice, and error, but instead of adhering to the rigorous standards of historical evidence, he asserts the poet's prerogative to "tamper with the evidence." In the light of Warren's foreword, it is difficult to believe that his depiction of Jefferson constitutes "non-essential evidence." John Burr makes a point complementary to mine: Warren
creates his Jefferson by adopting apparently reasonable surmises about how he might have reacted to the Lewis tragedy had he allowed himself to comprehend it fully. Those surmises, however, cause him to produce a Jefferson who not only is different from his historical counterpart but is also absolutely and systematically counterfactual, opposite to the historical Jefferson in every respect. In the figure of Jefferson, that is, the concept of historical plausibility runs in circles, for in him Warren has plausibly imagined a historically implausible character, a character whom, did he not identify himself by name, we would not recognize. By means of the figure of Jefferson, the imagination that moves the poem calls attention to its liberty, even as it denies taking liberties and accounts for its deviations from historical expectation. (200)
The most fully developed, interesting, and believable character in the poem is Lilburne Lewis, perhaps because the paucity of historical evidence regarding Lilburne gives Warren's imagination free reign. Lilburne is a monster, but every monstrous thing he does is a result of a sadly twisted love for his mother, whose love for her son, perhaps displaced from the husband who fails her repeatedly, is not quite what he needs. Lucy says, "the human curse is simply to love and sometimes to love well, / But never well enough" (18)--language that twists Othello's "one that loved not wisely, but too well." Lilburne lacks Othello's heroic stature but he shares his capacity to twist love into brutal violence. And he needs no Iago to poison his perception of the world and the people in it. He sets sweet-gum leaves in Letitia's hair, telling her they are golden stars and she is an angel. And then his face darkens and he tells her, "Go back to Heaven if you can, / And if you can't, then try the Other Place, / For ... / I tell you, even Hell would be better than this sty" (47). He comes home drunk, forces Letitia to perform a sex act that horrifies her, then the next day forces her to describe the act, to say that she enjoyed it, and to say that she enjoyed describing it, and then he concludes, "now I see when angels / Come down to earth, they step in dung, like us. / And like it" (52). When his mother sends the slave John to bring Lilburne home from a three-day drunk, Lilburne beats the boy's face bloody. When Aunt Cat tries to comfort Lilburne after his mother's death, reminding him that she nursed him, he replies, "All right, I sucked your milk, but now-- ... I'd puke the last black drop, / I'd puke it out..." (58).
In his desolate and hysterical love for his dead mother, he berates or humiliates everyone alive who loves him: Letitia, Aunt Cat, his brother Isham. After the murder and the indictment, Isham tries to convince Lilburne to run off, but Lilburne refuses: "Where'er you go the world all stinks the same" (105). Lilburne's disgust with the world, with the people in it, and with himself is projected and focused on the black boy John, who is clumsy and slow, who runs away for days at a time, who breaks his dead mother's china. In dismembering John, in full view of Isham and of the other slaves, Lilburne strikes at all that he believes is wrong with the world, all that is degraded and foul and dark, all that he has recognized within himself. His mother tells Jefferson that Lilburne, in attacking John, was trying to defend "himself against the darkness that was his. / He felt the dark creep in from all the woods. / He felt the dark fear hiding in his heart.... He saw poor John as but his darkest self/ And all the possibility of dark he feared" (116).
In his foreword Warren calls Lilburne a "light-carrier" (xiii); like Conrad's Kurtz, he carries the light of civilization into the savage wilderness. And like Kurtz, he discovers the savage wilderness within himself. For Warren, Lilburne's kinsman Meriwether Lewis was also a "light-carrier," and both were among the nation's "founding fathers" (Nakadate 213). Lilburne's story--moving west to the frontier, building Rocky Hill, carrying the refined values and beliefs of Virginia's best families, and then sinking into a cynical disgust with himself and the world that ends in murder and, perhaps, suicide--parallels Meriwether's. In Warren's poem, Meriwether Lewis is the son Jefferson never had, and he believes what he calls Jefferson's "lie." But after his journey to the Pacific and his appointment as Governor of the Louisiana Territory, he is accused of fraud. The poem assumes that he was unjustly accused, and that his acceptance of Jefferson's idealized notion of human nature and the new republic left him totally unprepared to face his attackers. He turns as bitter and cynical as Lilburne and the Jefferson of the poem, and finally commits suicide:
For suddenly I knew there was no Justice. For the human heart will hate Justice for its humanness. Had I not dreamed that Man at last is Man's friend And they will long travel together And rejoice in steadfastness. Had I not loved, and lived, your lie, then I Had not been sent unbuckled and unbraced-- Oh, the wilderness was easy!--But to find, in the end, the tracklessness Of the human heart. (114)
Warren uses the almost wholly fictional character of Lilburne as his pattern for re-imagining the historical characters Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson. In a poem that makes an argument about American history, however, the wisdom of patterning historical characters after a fictional character is questionable. Ehrenpreis quotes the historical Meriwether Lewis to point out his extreme difference from Warren's character: "I hold it an axiom incontrovertible that it is more easy to introduce vice in all states of society than it is to eradicate it, and this is more strictly true when applied to man in his savage than in his civilized state" (103-04)--hardly the kind of thinking Warren's romantic idealist would engage in.
In his notes on the poem, Warren writes that Jefferson's "crime" parallels Lilburne's (Strandberg, "Craft" 202). By "crime" he means Jefferson's denial of humanity, expressed in his repudiation of his relationship to Lilburne and his wish, in the poem, that "They should have thrown / It [the infant Lilburne] out where the hogs come to the holier, out with the swill" (42). Lucy accusingly tells her brother that "what poor Lilburne did in madness and exaltation, / You do it in vanity" (116), and that "in virtue and sick vanity / You'd strike poor Lilburne down" (117). Although Jefferson's "Crime" is never enacted physically, as Lilburne's is, the parallel holds on the ethical or spiritual plane: each denies the humanity of another; each denies the essential brotherhood of human being.
Warren and some of his readers, however, want to push the parallel from the spiritual plane onto the plane of history, and on that plane the parallel breaks down. Early in the poem Jefferson suggests that all human beings carry deep within their labyrinthine psyches a monster, a minotaur; John Burr asserts that "Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, no less than Lilburne's murder, is a destructive attempt to achieve transcendence, an attempt to strike down the minotaur which transforms the self into one" (216). Burt's equating of a brutal axe-murder with the writing of the Declaration of Independence may sound extreme but the poem invites the equation. Richard Law draws a similar conclusion, claiming that the murder is "an image of the tragic core of American history" ("Violence" 194), and Ruppersburg sees the murder as emblematic of the
American capacity for inhumanity and violence. Such a capacity is innately human, but American democracy, predicated on Jeffersonian humanism and its belief in original virtue, was defenseless against its existence.... The murder represents not merely the invalidation of Jeffersonian humanism but the American republic's failure to honor the ideals its founders meant it to embody and their repeated violation throughout its history. (62, 63)
Such interpretations make Lilburne's crime bear too great a burden.
Perhaps because he recognizes that burden, Warren blurs the crime's implications for American history with its implications for human nature. The poem's climax has virtually nothing to do with history. Lucy and Meriwether Lewis help Jefferson to acknowledge Lilburne's act, as Richard Law puts it, "as a fulfillment of qualities latent in himself" ("Violence" 197). Over the course of the poem Jefferson comes to recognize that man is not merely the monster, or minotaur, that he believes him to be early in the poem, just as he is not the angel that he believed him to be while writing the Declaration of Independence. Once he recognizes his relationship to Lilburne, his comphcity in what Lucy calls "the shade of the human condition" (118), Jefferson is able to take his nephew's hand in a gesture of reconciliation and acceptance, and to agree with Meriwether that "All is redeemed, / In knowledge" (120).
At the moment of climax, just before Jefferson takes Lilburne's hand, Lucy and Meriwether claim not only that Jefferson's "dream" remains, but that a "nobler" dream is now possible, "nobler because more difficult / And cold, in the face of the old cost / Of our complicities. And--/--knowledge of that cost is, / In itself, a kind of redemption" (118). Jefferson replies by recalling a letter he wrote late in his life to John Adams, in which he said "That the dream of the future is better than / The dream of the past. / How could I hope to find courage to say / That without the fact of the past, no matter/How terrible, we cannot dream the future?" (118). Hugh Ruppersburg, trying mightily to apply the poem's theme to American history, argues that the climax calls for a pragmatic idealism, a fusion of Jeffersonian ideals with an acceptance of the limitations of human nature. Such a pragmatic idealism would imply the continued pursuit of the ideals of the country's founding, tempered by the knowledge that those ideals are unattainable (66). The poem "seeks from the past a glory which will restore meaning to a diminished present" (75).
Ruppersburg's is a hopeful vision, but the poem does not support it. Far from providing "glory" with which to restore meaning to the present, the past can at best afford us what Jefferson calls the "bitter bread" (120) of a knowledge which is often terrible. Delmore Schwartz is more persuasive when he argues that the poem's characters never finally answer the question of how it is possible to believe in any human ideal or aspiration after facing the actuality of evil; the only answer is "the courage to live with the consciousness that we are all guilty" (45). Echoing Schwartz, Burt concludes that the poem "provides no solution to its motivating difficulty. At best, it provides a way of facing the fact that there will never be one" (217).
The climax of Brother to Dragons, in which Jefferson recognizes his complicity in sin, forgives Lilburne, and begins his moral regeneration, is part of a story about ethics, not about American history. Yet Warren understands history as an essentially ethical enterprise. At the Fugitives' Reunion in 1956, he says,
The past is always a rebuke to the present.... It's a better rebuke than any dream of the future. It's a better rebuke because you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men. And it's there, and you can see it, and see what it cost them, and how they had to go at it.... And that is a much better rebuke than any dream of a golden age to come, because historians will correct, and imagination will correct, any notion of a simplistic and, well, childish notion of a golden age. The drama of the past that corrects us is the drama of our struggles to be human, of our struggles to define the values of our forebears in the face of their difficulties. (Purdy 210)
In other words, the past is a "rebuke" to the kind of arrogance Warren depicts in Jefferson's idealistic, naive vision of human nature. Such language--"rebuke," "virtues," "values," "corrects us"--suggests that history performs an educative function. However, in his essay "The Use of the Past," Warren is quite clear that history cannot give us the answers to current problems or "a formula for making right decisions" (40); nor can it help us avoid the kinds of errors committed in the past or reveal the laws that govern human events. Instead its value is similar to the ineffable value of literature: history can give its students "insight" or a feeling for "the medium in which action can be undertaken.... That feeling for the medium--it is the indefinable, untranslatable thing" (40).
Twenty years after the Fugitives' Reunion, Warren told Bill Moyers:
I don't know how you can have a future without a sense of the past. A real future. And we have a book like [John Harold] Plumb's book, The Death of the Past, which is a very impressive and disturbing book.... He says only history keeps alive the human sense, history in the broadest sense of the word. It might be literary history or political history or any other kind of history. It's man's long effort to be human. And if a student understands this or tries to penetrate this problem, he becomes human. (Ruppersburg 4)
In other words history, like poetry, teaches us what it means to be human. "The deepest value of history keeps alive the sense that men have striven, suffered, achieved, and have been base or generous--have, in short, been men" ("Use" 37).
In our reading of both literature and history, writes Warren,
The truth we want to come to is the truth of ourselves, of our common humanity, available in the projected self of art. We discover a numinous consciousness and for the first time may see both ourselves in the world and the world in us. This drama of the discovery of the self is timeless. Costume and decor do not matter. In it, the past becomes our present--no, it becomes our future. So far as we understand ourselves, that is, we may move freely into a future and need not be merely the victims of the next event in time that happens to come along. ("Use" 48)
In Brother to Dragons both Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis suffer from the lack of self-knowledge Warren describes, and precisely because they do not understand themselves or other men, they become "mere victims" of events: "and I come back to the study of the past," writes Warren, "as a way of discovering the self" ("Use" 49).
Yet for Warren the discovery of the self in history involves also the creation of the self, for he admits that an "absolute, positive past" does not exist; the past is always "an inference, a creation" ("Use" 51). Self-discovery and self-creation are at once antithetical and complementary phenomena. We might also say that historians must inevitably both discover and create the men and women they write about and that Warren does this in his poem with Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and Lilburne Lewis. But a historian's "creation" can be tested in a way that a poet's or novelist's cannot, as, for example, when Irvin Ehrenpreis quotes the historical Meriwether Lewis in a way that strongly suggests the fictional quality of Warren's Meriwether.
As a fictional character, Jefferson is a highly effective embodiment of the theme of complicity in evil, but as a historical character he is much less effective. Ruppersburg argues that the poem's theme is "the corruption of the American Dream in the nineteenth century as the nation moved inexorably away from the ideals of the Declaration and the Revolution" and that the root causes of the Dream's corruption are "centered in the emblematic figure of Jefferson, who recognized the nation's potential for greatness and was most fatally blind to its potential for blunder" (44). Jefferson "embodies the forces which left the nation vulnerable to its own corrupt nature" (45). Such an argument grants Jefferson far more influence and responsibility than is fair. In fact, the ideals of Jefferson's Declaration were regularly criticized in the early days of the Republic. To cite but one example, John C. Calhoun writes,
it is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike;--a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving--and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it. (455)
Ruppersburg's argument is also unpersuasive because the poem suggests very clearly that Jefferson's vision, as embodied in the Declaration, was deeply flawed from its inception; that is, the poem argues, the nation did not "move away" from those ideals, it never embodied them in the first place. In other words, the "American Dream" was not gradually corrupted over the course of the nineteenth century; human beings have always behaved like Lilburne Lewis and human history has always been made up of that "rich detritus" composing the "blind nutriment of Lilburne's heart" (77). When Ruppersburg argues that, for Warren, Jefferson's "idealism, disillusionment, and readjustment ... is the archetypal pattern of American history" (46), he offers us on the one hand a pattern so abstract as to be applicable to the history of almost any individual or nation and on the other hand so narrow as to be grossly reductive of the very complicated thing American history is. It makes more sense to read the poem in the context of its composition shortly after World War II and in the early years of the Cold War and America's emergence as a world superpower. In The Burden of Southern History C. Vann Woodward suggests that the South's historical experience of failure, defeat, and human fallibility can offer a corrective to a nation convinced of its exceptionalism and its triumphalist role as leader of the free world (a nation soon to become caught up in what another Southerner, J. William Fulbright, would call "the arrogance of power"). Read alongside the pronouncements of John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon, Brother to Dragons becomes an example of a poet's speaking truth to power.
Lewis Simpson offers a reading of the poem's implications regarding American history somewhat subtler than Ruppersburg's, suggesting that Brother to Dragons shows that "the underlying motive of American history is ... the assertion of the connection between intellect and self-will" (139-49) and that Jefferson and Lilburne embody "the willful self as a central, and at times destructive, force in American history" (140-41). But Simpson concedes that the theme of intellectual willfulness applies not only to "the specific conditions of American history" but also to "the character of the self in modern history generally" (153); he cites Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, Francis Bacon, and Joseph Conrad--none of whom dealt with "the specific conditions of American history"--as other writers whose work develops that theme in important ways. Intellectual willfulness may be evident "in modern history generally," but whether it is "the underlying motive of American history" (my italics) is open to question.
Finally, the effectiveness of the poem's argument on American history pivots on whether the historical Jefferson was nearly as blind to the nation's "potential for blunder" as is Warren's Jefferson. In the poem Jefferson says, "And as history divulged itself, / I saw how the episode in the meat-house / Would bloom in Time" (85), and then cites a slave child's crying as its mother is sold, a Christian Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, several horrific Civil War battles, the Haymarket Riot (1886), and violence between labor organizers and "Henry's goons" at the Ford Motor Company, as "ample documentation" in support of his cynical vision of human history. The problem here is that Warren implies that Jefferson, while he was alive, was ignorant of history. The only evidence that Warren's Jefferson cites, apart from the crying child, is drawn from history after Lilburne's murder. But it would have been just as easy for Jefferson, or for anyone with a reasonable knowledge of history, to come up with an equally horrifying catalogue of events from before 1811.
Warren is enough of a scholar to know that Jefferson was widely read in history; in fact, in "Query XIV" of Notes on the State of Virginia (written well before Lilburne's act of murder) Jefferson mentions a Roman slavemaster, "a certain Vedius Pollio, who, in the presence of Augustus, would have given a slave as food to his fish, for having broken a glass" (268)--an incident not so very different from Lilburne's murder of a slave for having broken a pitcher. Indeed, if we take seriously Warren's "The Use of the Past," we might wonder why Jefferson's understanding of the human condition, despite his wide reading in history, is so deeply flawed. The historical Jefferson may sometimes seem to ignore "man's capacity for evil" or the tragic dimension of history, as Gordon Wood argues in "The Trials and Tribulations of Thomas Jefferson" (in his Revolutionary Characters), especially if we contrast Jefferson with a hard-headed realist like John Adams. But Jefferson is not simply a foil to Adams and his thinking is not reducible to mere "Jeffersonian idealism." He concludes "Query XVII" of his Notes with a prediction that is at once prescient and remote from the facile optimism of Warren's Jefferson:
But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance?... the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war [i.e., the American Revolution] we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire with convulsion. (287)
Ruppersburg tries to explain Jefferson's traumatic shock over the fact that a slave-owner might murder one of his slaves by arguing that "the historical reality which John as slave represents ... was too grim and dark for Jefferson or his contemporaries to acknowledge" (59), and that "slavery and the mistreatment of the American Indian were two manifestations of brutality whose moral implications the nation was unprepared to confront" (63), both of which claims are simply false. Jefferson and his contemporaries may not have confronted the moral implications of slavery and the treatment of American Indians in the same way that Ruppersburg and his contemporaries do, but to suggest that these issues were simply unacknowledged or not confronted is inaccurate. In "Query XVIII" of the Notes Jefferson argues, despite his own slaveholding, that "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other" and concludes that "The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances" (288). Despite his racism, Jefferson concedes that blacks as well as whites are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right of liberty, and reflecting on the history of slavery in America, he concludes, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just" (289).
In short, Warren's Jefferson is far more ignorant of history and of the moral shortcomings of his fellow citizens than is the historical Jefferson; whether such ignorance is a "non-essential fact" that the poet may justifiably "tamper" with depends upon whether we read the poem as an inquiry into questions of ethics and the human psyche or as an argument on the role of Jeffersonian idealism in American history.
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Lebanon Valley College
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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