The making of a historian: Robert Penn Warren's biography of John Brown.
To topple an idol from its pedestal was not enough; the idol must be hacked in pieces and the pieces trampled in the mud of innuendo and scorn. (2)
To BE FAIR TO THE CRITICS, WE MUST ACKNOWLEDGE that Robert Penn Warren was years away from writing his most mature and reflective statements on history when he researched and wrote John Brown: The Making of a Martyr. Nevertheless, in the John Brown biography, we can see the earliest step toward history taken by a man of letters who would spend a lifetime striving to create an understanding of the past. As many have noted, the biography anticipates the major themes of later works: the conflict between individual idealism and social complexities, the problem of identity and self-knowledge, the seductions of power. (3) Similarly, many critics have identified John Brown as the "prototype," "progenitor," and "ancestor" of Warren's later fictional protagonists. (4) Though these appraisals are essential to an understanding of Warren's historical fictions, a full appreciation of the work after John Brown requires attention not only to the development of the protagonists and their related themes, but to the development of the historian as well. In his introduction to the 1993 reprint of John Brown, C. Vann Woodward observes that "the biography reveals much about the biographer as well as about his subject" (p. xvii). The historian-narrator of John Brown is also a prototype for the narrator of the later histories. This early experiment in biography was not only about "the making of a martyr." It was also about the making of a historian.
In John Brown as in all of Warren's work, the most significant protagonist is the historian-narrator, and the most essential theme--upon which all the other themes are based and to which they all return--is how the historian-narrator constructs the historical figure. Whereas critics have focused on Warren's biases and his political and moral themes, the essential issue in John Brown is that Brown existed for Warren as an embedded myth whose layers Warren had to peel back. Brown was a text that Warren had to "demythify" in order to reconcile heroic versions of the past with the needs of a cynical modern age.
Warren began the biography with the intention of researching Brown, but instead he discovered the ontological and epistemological problem of constructing the biography. He discovered that he had to audit the records of John Brown's biographers to create a version of Brown that would be more accessible to modern readers. The result was a biography that Warren proposed as authentic and definitive, one that replaced the heroic conventions of previous biographies with its own conventions of verisimilitude.
To understand Warren's objectives, and his failures, in John Brown, some background is necessary. In 1929 Warren was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student whose association with Allen Tate at Vanderbilt University earned him an introduction to literary agent Mavis McIntosh, who obtained for him a commission from publisher Payson & Clarke to write a biography of Brown. Intent on historical accuracy, Warren thoroughly familiarized himself with all of the definitive biographies of his subject, even taking a trip to Harper's Ferry, where he interviewed the last surviving witness of the infamous raid (Bohner, p. 29). While a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he completed the biography in his spare time, and though it was probably "the most readable account and the most penetrating appraisal of the gaunt fanatic yet to appear" (Stewart, Burden, p. 141), the book sold poorly due to the effects of the Great Depression on the publishing industry. Adding to the dismal sales were the negative reviews directed against what one reviewer labelled Warren's "deheroizing process" (Kelly, p. 7) and what another reviewer called "an indictment, not an unbiased biography." (5) The book was not received well. The longer excerpts quoted above typify the severity of reviewers exasperated by Warren's adolescent attempt at the fashionable ironic, witty Strachean style. Reviews that did praise the book noted its thorough research and penetrating analysis, but nevertheless charged it with failing to appreciate the complexity of its subject. (6)
Even sympathetic Warren scholars have cited the "young writer's recklessness," an intention "to burn John Brown in effigy" (Casper, p. 91), and a failure "to present the past in all its complexity and ambiguity" (Moore, p. 27). Such assessments are generally accurate and deserved; yet, with the advantage of historical hindsight, these same critics have noted the book's flaws with much more patience than its earliest reviewers. Recognizing the superior work that followed John Brown, Warren scholars have appropriately treated the book as apprentice work. Beyond the cynicism and inexperience of a novice historian, critics see John Brown as important despite its flaws because it laid a foundation for Warren's career. Marshall Walker notes that with the publication of this biography, the young writer "demonstrated the readiness to 'enter history, not to flinch from history' that has typified his career" (Walker, p. 237). If Warren's first historical work is a failure, it is a fortunate failure because it is a significant gateway into Warren's later work. (7) Warren himself has said in an interview with Marshall Walker, "Brown, I guess, was an approach to fiction because it presented a psychological problem to deal with and the question of narrative" (Walker, p. 137).
John Brown establishes the intention that characterizes Warren's entire career: to reconcile the past with the present--to reconstruct events from the conventional historical record by exposing the plots by which those events have been historicized, so as to create (to borrow Van Wyck Brooks's term) a more usable past. Warren managed to "discover the real Brown amidst all the legends and folksay, and the distortions or calculated omissions of earlier partisan biographies." (8) The cynical misrepresentation of Brown was ironically the consequence of a sometimes too ambitious attempt to expose what the writer saw as previous misrepresentations.
To inaugurate his own text as the authoritative version, Warren utilizes paratextual markers that he never again uses in his biographical narratives, specifically, the map of Harper's Ferry on the flyleaf, the photograph of John Brown, the illustrations of various historical scenes, the bibliography, the index, and even the author's personal footnotes that unintentionally appeared in the first edition. (9) Without these paratextual elements, this book could easily be classified as a less successful meditation on history rather than an attempt to write a conventional nonfiction history. Thus, the book's status as "nonfiction biography" is unstable.
The most significant paratextual element is the subtitle, "The Making of a Martyr," an indication that Warren's objective is to record not only the history of how Brown lived, but the history of how Brown has been historicized. This text is not simply about John Brown. It is concerned with how Brown has been constructed--how he has been "made"--as an historical figure. Warren set out to write a history about the "making" of history. While Warren's book has been criticized for its own unreliability, throughout John Brown Warren addresses the problem of creating an accurate biography of a mythologized figure. The result is a biographical narrative that is as much about the problems of the biographer as about his subject.
Warren focuses upon two subjects: Brown as individual and Brown as historical creation. The first Brown was (to borrow Warren's words from Audubon) "only himself," but the second "Brown" was the hero of American myth. Brown died in 1859, but "Brown" has lived on because he was plotted into history. Warren examines how this heroic "Brown" has been "made," in two ways: First, he examines the biographies that have recreated John Brown. Second and more significant, he examines how Brown manipulated the historical record so as to create himself. Warren explicitly interrogates these previous texts of Brown's life and discovers their unreliability for his own research. Throughout the biography, Warren recognizes the difficulty of writing an accurate life--a text upon layers of untrustworthy texts. Because he cannot access his subject directly, Warren calls attention to the texts--those created by biographers and those created by Brown himself--that stand not as windows to the past but as screens that obstruct the past.
Warren audited previous biographies of Brown to locate biases and inaccuracies within constructions of Brown's life. His bibliography exposes the unreliability of these other accounts. The essay section, "Bibliographical Note: A Matter of Opinions," critiques the unreliability of--and the presence of personal agendas within--previous historical accounts. Warren notes, for example, that James Redpath, the writer of the 1860 biography, was an abolitionist who omitted Brown's complicity in the Pottawatomie Massacre so as to ensure Brown's status as a martyr to promote the Union cause. Warren particularly critiques the definitive biography, written in 1910 by Oswald Garrison Villard, for relying upon Brown's family as an authoritative source, dismissing Brown's minor crimes as errors, and ignoring the more serious crimes altogether. (10)
By censuring Hill, Peebles, Wilson, and Villard for neglecting Brown's "elaborate psychological mechanism for justification" (JB, p. 446), Warren justifies his own authorial intrusions into Brown's mind. Censuring the earlier biographers for lack of accuracy is itself an instrument for authenticating his own narrative and justifying his own cynical tone. The treatment of Brown's biographers in the "Bibliographical Note" may in part account for the sarcastic tone that Warren has been criticized for. (11) Throughout the biography Warren's intrusive tone reacts against the historical constructions of Brown. As Ruppersburg notes, Warren "rarely stands in awe of [historical figures]," because to him the "Great Men of History" are really "spokesmen, commentators, symbols, even, like Brown, exploitive opportunists, relatively isolated from the elements of which history is made" (p. 26). The "Bibliographical Note" demonstrates that Warren also does not stand in awe of the biographers of historical figures. His tone in the biography reflects his skeptical stance toward John Brown and the processes by which he has been "made." Moreover, with his tone and critiques of other biographers, he seeks to legitimate his own narrative. Paradoxically, though, in exposing the biases of other biographers, he neglects to acknowledge his own agenda--to bring John Brown down from the pedestal.
Warren enacts this agenda not only by examining how biographers have constructed Brown, but particularly by investigating how Brown constructed himself. The biography proceeds chronologically, according to convention, but as noted, with emphasis upon the construction of events and not just events themselves. Warren begins with Brown's genealogy and formative years, but focuses on Brown's later reconstructions of these events. The narrative considers his earliest abolitionist readings and writings, coupled with his religious fervor, ambition, and restlessness. Warren concentrates on the decade leading up to the Harper's Ferry raid, tracing Brown's legal and illegal political activities during the conflicts over "Bleeding Kansas," with particular emphasis on the Pottawatomie Massacre, a violent raid on Brown's political opposition. Warren investigates Brown's charisma, his creation of a band of supporters, his fund raising efforts, his formation of a sort of paramilitary school, his plans for a provisional government, and his use of the news media. The biography culminates in the Harper's Ferry raid, assessing reasons for its failure. The book closes with the aftermath of the raid---trial and execution.
The narrator persistently reminds us that Brown was always conscious of his place in national and cosmic events, and for this reason he was meticulous about textualizing himself for political purposes. A major theme of the biography is how Brown imposed himself upon history through letters, speeches, and a sophisticated style of public relations and media manipulation. As Warren presents him, Brown was trying to write his own political and spiritual success into being. With such self-textualizations, Brown was his own first biographer, a kind of American "serf-made" man.
The first self-textualization Warren investigates is Brown's name. Chapter One, "But Not in a Rented House," recounts an episode from Foxe's Acts and Monuments, the execution of a heretic named "John Brown" who was martyred in the early sixteenth century. Warren speculates that if John Brown ever read this account, "he may have wondered if that fellow who bore his name had any connection with himself" (JB, p. 11). The speculation continues; when the nineteenth-century John Brown was made a martyr, "some of his friends half-mystically reflected on the similarity of name and fate" (p. 11). Warren emphasizes that these two Browns had no actual family connection, nor was there any connection with the Peter Brown who sailed on the Mayflower, though "John Brown firmly believed this man to be the father of his line" (p. 11). This opening revises not only traditional conceptions of who Brown might have been; it also revises the very conventions of biography. Usually a biography begins with some tracing of the subject's genealogy so as to define the subject, but Warren challenges Brown's misconceptions about his own genealogy. (12) Warren is defining Brown, but defining him in terms of who he was not. The identity of Warren's "Brown" is more a product of self-composition than genealogy.
The chapter investigates Brown's childhood, which was spent reading history books, and Warren concludes that "from them it seems he took the habit of dramatizing himself a little; he learned the meaning of ambition" (JB, p. 20). As a boy of twelve, he had his first glimpses of slavery, which "led him 'to declare or swear eternal war with slavery'" (p. 19). With undercutting irony, Warren comments and questions:
In any case these are the details that John Brown related after he had become the relentless Kansas Captain John Brown.... [H]ad he come across the story of Hannibal's infant oath on the altar of Baal? Or in the book he knew best the story of the voice calling at night to the child Samuel? (p. 19)
From examining the name and earliest formidable experiences, Warren explicitly seeks not just the foundation of Brown's later views, but the origin of Brown's own script for his life.
Warren recounts how young Brown decided to enter the ministry (an ambition cut short due to ill health) and later hid a runaway slave. After a search party left the cabin, Brown went out to locate the slave, who had run outside to hide. Brown found him and later recalled, "'I heard his heart thumping before I reached him'" (p. 21). Warren sardonically marvels at the amazing acoustics of the region, and quips, "Incidentally, he seized on the opportunity to again swear eternal enmity against slavery" (p. 21). Warren narrates these incidents ironically to emphasize that such legendary moments in Brown's life have been constructed by Brown himself. Brown told of such events years later, plotting them in such a way as to fit into the plot of his public life. A moment from his childhood becomes an epiphany reminiscent of biblical archetypes. An incident from his youth, hearing the heartbeat of a slave, prefigures Brown's later ability to hear the sufferings of all slaves. Warren has commented that Brown "lives in terms of grand gestures and heroic stances ... Brown lives in the dramatic stance of his life ... he lives in noble stances and noble utterances" (Walker, Interview, p. 155). To Warren, what is important about such events is that they have been created in hindsight rather than in actuality, and they have been created or revised to agree with the heroic plot into which they are placed.
Warren's assessment of previous biographies in the bibliographical note, and his examination of Brown's genealogy and childhood in the first chapter, interrogate the legend that Brown's life has become. By exposing the truth of Brown's genealogy, and by encouraging a skeptical view of early events that Brown plotted as epiphanies in his life script, Warren questions the historical authenticity of Brown's legend.
In discussing the topics of plot and theme in their textbook Understanding Fiction, Warren and Brooks wrote that there is a "human craving to have things put in order." (13) This anticipates what Hayden White would say much later: that storytelling emerges from an "impulse to moralize reality," (14) and the story then becomes an apparatus for the production of meaning. Like fictional events, historical events are constructed as certain types of stories, and when readers recognize the type of plot (e.g. epic, romance, tragedy, comedy), then the meaning of the event is believed to be comprehended (White, p. 44). There are two plots into which Brown structured his life; we might call these the savior plot and the martyr plot.
The notion of creating himself as a martyr would not occur to him until years later, at his trial. In Warren's narrative, the principal role that Brown constructed for himself was that of Savior: Brown would be a kind of Moses or Christ, freeing slaves from their physical bondage and the American South from its spiritual bondage. In Chapter Nine, "The Birth of a Nation," Warren describes speeches Brown made to those who joined his band: "John Brown told them that God had created him to be the deliverer of the slaves, just as Moses was of the children of Israel" (JB, p. 261). In Chapter Two, "The Merchant Prince," Warren writes:
He had faith in the will of God, and that faith was so great, perhaps, that he began to know what thing God willed. And to foreknow was to will also; at last his own will and the divine will were one. (p. 63)
In "The Use of the Past" (1977), Warren would label such thinking "moral narcissism": "[Americans] felt themselves to be a Chosen People, who ... came to feel that God's will and their own were miraculously identical." (15) Warren identifies this notion as America's tragic flaw, for it leads to the belief that whoever is against us is also against God and History ("Use of the Past," p. 33). Warren distrusts this providential view of history because nations and individuals can use it to justify any policy or action. Or, as Ruppersburg puts it, "Warren apparently suspects that Brown consciously exploited High Law absolutism to justify his actions" (p. 25). Though Warren would not write "The Use of the Past" until almost fifty years after John Brown, the ideas are already apparent as he calls into question Brown's method of plotting his life according to biblical typology.
In Warren's depiction, during and after his trial, Brown recast the savior myth into the martyr myth. (16) He could not sustain the savior myth because he had to defend himself, a position that prevented him from becoming a leader. However, he could take advantage of his new position by transforming himself into a passive leader, a martyr. This transformation began as the Harper's Ferry raid concluded. Awaiting the inevitable attack by the Marines, Brown began to justify himself to both his followers and his captives inside the armory. In this passage, worth quoting at length, the narrator transgresses his license as an objective historian and performs the fictional act of becoming omniscient so as to enter Brown's consciousness:
He cast back for something more personal, more intimate, more powerfully his own to justify him in the extremity. "Gentlemen," he said to the prisoners, "if you knew my past history, you would not blame me for being here." ... His words were almost like the reveries of age--the reveries in which old men try vaguely to piece out some chain of cause and effect, of reason and deed, to account for themselves and their place.... It was as if, for the first time, John Brown was thinking of himself as a mere victim, and not as an active agent who willed the deed.... (JB, p. 376)
The passage continues with Brown thinking that perhaps the project failed due to a defect in his own faith, that perhaps if his will had been stronger he would have succeeded. Thus, the rationalization that Brown offered to his band, his captives, and to himself is one that never questioned whether the moral righteousness of his mission really justified his means. Brown maintained faith in the absolute righteousness of violence in the cause of an absolute moral position, and thereby cast himself as a martyr rather than a criminal. He refused to consider a plea of insanity, for "it would have meant a repudiation of himself ... it would have meant that he himself was nothing" (p. 401). Brown realized that an insane man would not make a satisfactory martyr.
Warren reminds the reader of what he states back in the first chapter, that in his youth Brown "had learned to dramatize himself" (p. 428). Warren charges Brown with dramatizing himself as a martyr by lying in court (p. 412), and by selectively reading and quoting from the Bible in his cell to find justification:
He found his vindication there as he had always found vindication, and again it clearly pointed out his way to him. "I am just as content to die for God's eternal truth and for suffering humanity on the scaffold as in any other way" he wrote to his younger children. (p. 429)
The section on Brown's efforts at martyrdom concludes as it begins: with Brown being controlled by events beyond his power. After his execution, the Civil War begins; according to Warren, the War and the Emancipation Proclamation "defined John Brown," for "John Brown was a cipher, a symbol, in this argument, which had so little concern one way or the other with what sort of a fellow he really was" (p. 432). Just as later characters like Willie Stark find themselves defined by historical accidents (e.g. the fame that the fire-escape accident at the school gives Willie), John Brown's transformation into a myth is validated by chance rather than by design.
As we have seen, Warren challenges the myths by exposing the processes by which they were created. Throughout the biography, he also challenges the myths by interrogating the individual events of which they are comprised. He exposes the fact that as Brown adopted more dubious methods such as theft and murder, he also employed more sophisticated methods of media control. As William Bedford Clark notes, Brown's manipulation of media helped to create Brown's "most enduring and enigmatic text--his self-created Self" (p. 39). Chapter Six, "A Little Company By Ourselves," presents the central controversial event in Brown's life--the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which Brown and his band killed opponents and stole their horses, guns, and other items so as to supply themselves and their cause with provisions. This event was and still is central because it provided Brown with the fame he needed to gain support for the Harper's Ferry raid, but controversial because in order for Brown to remain a heroic figure it had to be revised or totally erased from the historical record by both Brown and his sympathetic biographers. Warren resurrects the events of the massacre to question the heroic savior-martyr plot of Brown's life. In other words, as a New Critic, Warren locates an event that has been excluded from the plot, and inserts it so as to call the unity of the entire plot into question.
After the massacre, the men traded the horses they had stolen to get rid of the most obvious evidence of the crime and also obtain faster horses. However, "the terms of [this] transaction will never be known," because, as Warren writes:
The sons who survived John Brown even denied for years his presence on the Pottawatomie on the night of May 25. When the truth was out at last and the world had prepared a motive--a motive which would fit the martyr--there were confessions from the sons. The world had justified the murderer; the Browns knew that it is a little more difficult to justify a horse thief. (p. 166)
The "truth" of this event depends upon the motives of the storytellers. Because the severity of the crime paradoxically implies the sincerity of convictions, the execution of opponents fits into the martyr plot. Petty thievery does not flatter a martyr.
Knowing the damage that such information could inflict upon the story that he was constructing for himself, Brown hired a press agent so that he could "become to some people who could forget or excuse Pottawatomie, or deny his share in it, a sort of hero and defender" (p. 176). Warren treats the press agent with irony. Abolitionist reporter James Redpath "knew that what the Free State cause needed to consolidate ... was a hero," and whereas previous men were "not good copy," "Old John Brown would do admirably" (p. 183). Similarly, his letter to his wife following the crime is in reality, according to Warren, "his official announcement" denying any involvement in the crime. Warren comments: "That was all he had to say about Pottawatomie. It was the story he wanted the world to accept" (pp. 176-177). Years later, while drawing up a constitution for the provisional government that he was preparing to establish if necessary, Brown wrote a preamble stating his absolute belief that slavery was a declaration of war, which justified any act however dishonest or violent: "And so, a little tardily, the events of Pottawatomie received their definition" (p. 281). The Pottawatomie crimes had certainly received their definition within Brown's own consciousness, but this document, Warren argues, is a public statement giving the crimes a context. By investigating the process of defining prior events, Warren exposes Brown's apparatus for imposing versions of himself onto popular audiences.
In Chapters VII and VIII, "Letters of Marque from God" and "Passing the Hat," Warren makes his most extensive summation of Brown's rhetorical ability to manipulate audiences whenever he was speaking and writing on behalf of his cause. Warren comments that Brown "always managed delicately to adjust the extent of his connection with Pottawatomie to the stomach of his audience" (p. 203). He notes that "with his more ambitious scale of action he gave a new dignity to the business by drawing up a Covenant" (p. 207), implying that Brown realized the rhetorical function of official documents. In these chapters Warren wryly cites Brown's "genius for saying the impressive thing, at the impressive moment" (p. 210). Warren exposes Brown's strategies for marketing himself, "to create for the world at large" a "picture of the hero":
Brown knew well enough that the pen was mightier than the sword, but he saw no reason why one should not use both; and the battle he lost by the sword was converted magically into a victory won by the pen. (p. 216)
In other words, Brown would falsify numbers, maximizing the casualties of the enemies and minimizing his own. At one point Warren calls Brown's pen and even Brown's name his "weapon" for responding to criticism (pp. 302, 306).
In his hands the pen and oratory were weapons eventually meant to conquer his enemies by first conquering his supporters. One particular example is most illustrative for its colorful narration and humorous tone. Brown asked Mrs. Steams, the wife of a well-known philanthropist, to give her opinion on a speech that he was writing. A sort of farewell address to be delivered to a congregation, the speech explained that due to the dwindling resources (i.e. financial), he and his followers must disband and terminate their abolitionist efforts. While delivering the speech to her, "John Brown lifted his eyes now and then to watch the effect on Mrs. Stearns" (p. 240). Warren comments:
In all probability Mrs. Stearns was the entire audience for which John Brown intended his farewell. That audience was completely converted and completely ashamed ... Mrs. Stearns was in the mood for selling all her goods and giving the money to the poor Captain John Brown. (p. 241)
Mrs. Stearns prodded her husband, who gave Brown a check for $7,000. Warren's terse commentary: "The two paragraphs of 'Old Brown's Farewell' are one of the highest paid literary productions on record" (p. 241). The purpose of describing this scene at length is that it illustrates Warren's point that to Brown, "vocabulary was simply a very valuable instrument" (p. 246). Warren portrays Brown using discourse pragmatically to shape and impose images of himself.
Warren even accounts for disparate versions of the events at Harper's Ferry by concluding that Brown must have continued his efforts to revise events by giving false statements to the authorities. Given Warren's sardonic comments throughout the biography, some of the statements in this section seem dissembling or contradictory in their deferential tone: "It is unpleasant to recall John Brown's words, for they rob the scene of something of the worth which his courage had earned and the dignity which was its due" (p. 389). According to Marshall Walker, in Warren's construction of Brown, ulterior motives follow Brown all the way to the execution, for Brown "realized that death on the scaffold would provide him with the inestimable advantage of becoming a myth" (Walker, p. 87). To the end, Brown tries to enforce the myth that he had become.
What makes all of these observations, investigations, and disclosures about Brown's life useful to Warren is that they demythify the hero. In Warren's text, "the idea of the martyr is fairly melted back into the impure elements of history" (Walker, p. 86). Brown and his supporters envisioned Brown to be a man driven by absolute principles. However, his willingness to shape the message according to the particular situation reveals him to be a pragmatic man as well, negotiating his absolutes as a means of upholding those very same absolutes. In this regard, Brown is the forerunner of protagonists like Willie Stark and Jeremiah Beaumont, who discover that reaching the goal of an ideal paradoxically requires employing means that violate that ideal. Instituting an ideal requires using the very political and financial machinery that may be antithetical to the ideal. Warren presents Brown as a shrewd politician who accepted that setting his sights upon more daring political acts would require shaping his discourse into marketable versions of his message.
While Brown is certainly a prototype of Warren's later protagonists, he is a prototype for reasons other than those that have been conventionally identified. Other Warren scholars have noted that Brown prefigures Warren's later conflicts between idealism and political reality, and between individual identity and public persona. But Brown prefigures more. His discourse is the prototype for that which Warren's later protagonists employ.
Because Warren exposes and criticizes this discourse, the narrator is also a prototype. William Bedford Clark has suggested that Warren's examination of John Brown's writings resembles Burden's use of Mastern's journal and the narrator of World Enough and Time examining Jeremiah Beaumont's journal (p. 38). For example, the historian-narrator of World Enough and Time comments on Jeremiah Beaumont, "It was a drama he had prepared, an ambiguous drama which seemed both to affirm and to deny life, to affirm and to deny humanity.... It may be that a man cannot live unless he prepares a drama." (17) In writing his journals, Jeremiah purposefully leaves behind a lifescript for the historian to work from. Like Brown he is a "self-made" man in the sense that he deliberates how his decisions will construct his private and public identities. After Beaumont kills Fort, he takes pleasure in condemning the act, as though cleansing himself of the corruption and returning to the society of others; this is just one of his many intentional efforts to reconstruct himself publicly. Such ironies are not lost on the narrator. When Jeremiah and Ruth attempt suicide, the narrator recognizes their noble effort to escape the dishonor of execution in Roman fashion. But they fail, and in wry tones reminiscent of the Brown narrator, the narrator comments, "So after the fine speeches and the tragic stance, the grand exit was muffed. The actors trip on their ceremonial robes" (p. 401). As in John Brown the narrator demythifies the players by exposing the historical truth. As the historian of John Brown exposes the layers of historical revision in his "Bibliographical Note," the historian of World Enough and Time also often "protests" (to use Woodward's term) the incompleteness of the historical record. The narrator surveys the scraps of letters and newspaper clippings that remain, and he finally comments, "We have what is left, the lies and half-lies and the truths and half-truths" (p. 3). These protests make the reader "skeptical" of the "narrator's pretensions," "and that ... is the author's intention. Otherwise, why does the narrator protest so much?" (18) The historian of John Brown exposes the historicity of his subject by disclosing to the reader the fallibility of the historical record as it has been created and distorted by historians and by the historical personage himself. In these ways the John Brown historian prefigures Warren's later narrators.
We can see another example in All the King's Men. Like John Brown, Willie Stark is an idealist who compromises his ideals. Burden demythifies Willie by exposing the apparatus with which he constructs public images of himself. Willie is a "self-made" man who composes plots and images of himself as methods for establishing his power. Among these images are the large photographs of him in drugstores and poolhalls, his casting himself into an American success story, the photo session in which an image of him as a family man is staged, his apprenticeship in speech writing and oratory, his son's success on the gridiron, and his hospital. Stark's political rise is not only the result of his learning how to put aside ideals and employ compromise, corruption, and intimidation in political games. His political success was very much the result of his learning to revise and publicize representations of himself. Warren's relation to John Brown in 1929 prefigures Jack Burden's relation to Willie Stark fifteen years later. In 1946 Warren's ironic tone resurfaces in Burden's wry and sardonic comments, but more importantly, his interrogation of the historical record reappears as well. In both works, the protagonists and narrators manipulate the historical record. The difference is that Brown and Stark impose themselves into history; Warren and Burden take these figures "out of history into history" by exposing their historiographical impositions.
The discourse of Brown and Stark is linear--monological. They dominate an audience through manipulation and deception and, as Warren suggests, they compromise values in that process. For example, though Brown would invoke history when he needed a precedent, he would also revise history as necessary to his purposes: "John Brown never looked back; his past and history were simply an instrument for framing astounding future" (p. 310). Similarly, theology was also a political instrument: "When [an issue] was transposed into terms of theology there was no hope of settlement" (p. 314). And American values like Freedom could also be useful; in Brown's paramilitary "school" his student-disciples
learned, above all, what virtue can lie in a word; the word 'Freedom' obscured every selfish motive, and transformed, in the public mind if not in the recesses of their own more realistic minds, every act of criminality or violence into something worthy and excellent. (p. 264)
These three examples--history, theology, freedom--demonstrate how concepts conventionally considered enlightening become tools of concealment in Brown's agenda. Though these are traditionally considered cohesive elements for a community, Warren's Brown employs them against communities. As Warren constructs him, Brown uses dialectic rhetorical situations to serve his linear purposes.
Because Warren discloses the methods with which the public version of John Brown has been constructed, this biography anticipates his continued investigations into the rift between private self and public persona. For example, John Brown introduces one type of scene which reappears throughout Warren's historical fictions. As Brown and his band travel to Harper's Ferry at night, the narrator notes that none could have answered the question of why they were there except for Brown, who "might have found a readier answer, but it, like the other answers, would not have told the whole story.... He marched down the road to Harper's Ferry because he could not do otherwise" (pp. 348-349). This moment anticipates characters like Percy Munn in Night Rider and Jeremiah Beaumont in World Enough and Time, questioning their motives as they ride at night to commit their crimes. Their public selves have driven their private decisions, but with the darkness concealing their public identities, their private identities emerge, leading them to ask themselves why they are there. Public and private selves are in dialogue, or sometimes in debate.
In John Brown Warren's omniscient narrator enters Brown's private self behind the public image, and reveals the discursive means by which that public image has been created. He emphasizes "the importance of the individual's private self over whatever public persona he might assume" (Ruppersburg, p. 27). The biography demonstrates that the private John Brown (like the private Jeremiah Beaumont and Willie Stark) is a reality, but the public version is a fiction. And with all of these protagonists, the fictional public version eventually encroaches upon the private self. The individuals come to believe their own fictions to the point that the validity of the private self comes under question. Identity in Warren's novels, then, is a product of historical representation. History and identity are in dialogue, constructing each other, but sometimes they are in conflict.
Warren's biography proposes itself as a corrective because he enters the friction between history and identity by examining how the hero is a person "made" by himself and by others. Such a self-conscious narrative connects past to present. By demythifying--by removing the public construction and leaving only the private self--Warren forces the hero to become human. Thus, the "hero" becomes accessible and connected to the present. This approach to historiography permits a more authentic response to history than hero-worship permits. Burden learns how to act responsibly when he discovers that history is a matrix rather than a timeline--that all events and actions are connected like the points of a spider web. Warren removes historical figures from the pedestals that separate them from the world below and places them within the matrix of time. When Warren "calls upon the testimony of the past to counter, rather than foster, a myth" (Clark, p. 35), he does not destroy history, but revives historical figures by acknowledging that they are individuals "with virtues and weaknesses, products of their era and environment" who "become great because their society comes to see them as such, or because they come to view themselves as such, not because of innate ability or vision" (Ruppersburg, p. 27). Because demythification makes historical figures more human than heroic, it makes history more accessible.
The major problem with John Brown is that Warren performs the demythifying process for its own sake. He does not return to his home soil or seek redeeming knowledge; he approaches the trope of reconciliation in a vacuum. Whereas historical revision becomes a vehicle for significance in his more mature works, in John Brown revisionism is an aesthetic beyond which the young biographer does not reach. One reviewer (see epigraph above) was not entirely far from the truth in accusing Warren of not only toppling the idol from his pedestal but hacking the idol into pieces.
In later works (poems like "Founding Fathers" and biographical narratives like "The World of Daniel Boone") Warren strips away heroic textualizations to create a sense of connection with the historical figure. The narrator and reader join the historical subject in what L. Hugh Moore defines as "historical interrelatedness" (Moore, p. 65), and the knowledge that all are joined within the same matrix of time redeems them from the burden of history. In John Brown Warren makes no such attempt at connection or redemption. His approach to reconciling the ledgers of past and present is less forgiving. He is more concerned only with revising the past rather than reconciling with the past. He critiques and dismisses all prior representations of Brown without offering any redeeming representations of his own. He tears away the idealistic portrayals from history, but he does not stop to tend the wounds.
As in "The World of Daniel Boone," Warren's approach in John Brown is dialogical. The "Bibliographical Note" and bibliography bring other texts and voices into the debate. However, like Jack Burden narrating the Cass Mastern story, Warren asserts his own narratorial voice over all of the others. In this regard, L. Hugh Moore delivers the sharpest and most precise criticism: "In John Brown, then, Warren is guilty of the very things he has warned against, a one-sided attack, ignoring the tremendous complexities which he believes inhere in any historical event or any human motivation" (p. 28). Warren begins by calling for dialogue, but he develops into a monological narrator.
The monological voice proposes to "correct" the previous biographers, but he does not interrogate his own agenda with the same diligence. Warren criticizes Villard, Wilson, and Redpath for creating their own versions of Brown, but he does not recognize that he, too, is creating a version of Brown, a "realistic" version. Instead, he substitutes previous biographers' conventions of idealized history with his own conventions of realism. The main convention Warren employs is the examination of how Brown and others after him have textualized him. The other convention is the cynical tone with which Warren, like Jack Burden, persistently attempts to legitimate the narrative as authentic. The narratorial voice is so concerned not to take on characteristics of hero worship that it swings too far into the opposite direction by taking on characteristics of an exaggerated, affected, academic detachment. What makes John Brown an immature text is not simply the presence of these conventions; it is the author's unexamined assumption that such conventions are synonymous with objectivity. As a young biographer Warren was astute in questioning the authority of prior biographers, but he also fails to question his own assumption that he is writing the definitive text.
In later biographical works, Warren becomes disabused of these false assumptions. The works become more reflective and more patient with their subjects as the author, like Jack Burden, acknowledges complicity with the past. In later historiographical projects, Warren's style of demythifying changes. Woodward states that the Brown project "was the first but not the last venture into history that Warren made, though the later ones were more in the nature of reflections on history" ("Introduction," p. xv). In later biographical narratives, the fallibility of the historical figure affirms the humanity of those who lived in the past and those who inherit the past.
In John Brown we can see a movement toward the philosophical histories that he would write later in his career: "The World of Daniel Boone," The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial Segregation, Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, and Portrait of a Father. As words like "portrait" and "meditations" in these titles indicate, Warren's conception of history was that it could unite traits of "fact" and "truth" by uniting both an archivist's concern for accuracy and a philosopher's concern for significance. For all of its immaturity, John Brown tends toward these more reflective histories in its substitution of conventions of realism for conventions of romanticism in the construction of historical narratives. As such, it is an important text in the Warren canon. John Brown has been called "an essay in philosophical biography" (Walker, p. 87); the book shows, in Justus's terms, "a poet's sensitivity to the interstices of the record." (19) Warren himself agreed with this assessment. During a panel discussion at Vanderbilt in 1956, he called the book "a step toward fiction." (20) It was a step toward philosophical history as well.
We may admit that the genre of conventional nonfiction biography may not have been the best vehicle for Warren. As Louis Rubin suggests, "the factual requirements of straight biography [were] too restrictive to permit Warren to let his imagination go fully to work" (Rubin, p. 337). Nevertheless, in John Brown: The Making of a Martyr we see the author attempting to go "beyond what happened to include the how and the why" (Woodward, "Introduction," p. xiv). John Brown is "the first full-blown evidence of Warren's philosophy of history which he would employ in later prose and poetry" (Connelly, p. 15). By the time he writes A Place to Come To in 1977, Warren's first-person narrator Jed Tewksbury can comment on his own "angry, hard, bantering tone" as he writes his autobiography. In a passage that echoes how the young Warren may have approached his biography of Brown, Jed reflects, "That tone represents, I suppose, an unconscious will to detach myself from the scene that is my subject," but Jed also questions that if he remains detached, "what can I now be writing about? For what else can I be and where else can I belong?" (21)
Like Jed, Warren's metahistorical approach becomes more reflective upon the nature of time, more empathetic to the historical figures, and, in the novels and later nonfiction histories, more willing to acknowledge the presence of individuals who do not compromise principles or discourse. As all writers do with their apprentice work, Warren would step away from the biography of Brown. But this biography will always be Warren's essential entrance into "the awful responsibility of Time."
JONATHAN S. CULLICK
University of Minnesota
(1) Florence Finch Kelly, "John Brown Sits for a Critical Portrait," New York Times Book Review, January 12, 1930, p. 7.
(2) William MacDonald, Review of John Brown, in Nation, July 2, 1930, pp. 22-23.
(3) For example, see Louis D. Rubin, Jr., The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), p. 337; Marshall Walker, Robert Penn Warren: A Vision Earned (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979), p. 87; James H. Justus, The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), p. 1; Hugh Ruppersburg, Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), pp. 24-25. My argument, however, takes its origin from L. Hugh Moore's Robert Penn Warren and History: "The Big Myth We Live" (Paris: Mouton, 1970), which proposes that history is the central subject in Warren's work.
(4) See Leonard Casper, Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960), p. 92; Charles H. Bohner, Robert Penn Warren (New York: Twayne, 1964), p. 31;John L. Stewart, The Burden of Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 447-448; Justus, Achievement, p. 210; Thomas Connelly, "Robert Penn Warren as Historian," in A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren, ed. Waiter B. Edgar (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), p. 15; Ruppersburg, p. 25; C. Vann Woodward, "Introduction," John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, Robert Penn Warren, Southern Classics Series (Nashville: J. S. Sanders, 1993), p. xvi.
(5) Avery Craven, review of John Brown, in Books, January 12, 1930, p. 17. For more positive reviews, see Allan Nevins's review ("Martyr and Fanatic," New Republic, March 19, 1930, pp. 134135), which praises Warren's accuracy and insight, and the anonymous review in Historical Outlook, 21 , 186), a journal for history teachers, which notes that Warren "has judiciously re-evaluated the facts and events of Brown's life."
(6) For example: "There is in it a certain quality of keen analysis and ability for pointed statement, but the temptation to clever manipulation and overstatement is too great" (Craven, p. 17); "John Brown is dramatized, made vital, and to a certain extent he grips the reader's imagination. But he is not made understandable.... [One familiar with the history] cannot feel that such an estimate tells the whole story" (Kelly, p. 7); "Warren's book, for all its interest and value, does not get at the heart of that figure" (F. L. Robbins, review of John Brown, in Outlook, November 13, 1929, p. 153); See also mixed reviews: Dexter Perkins, "Figures in Perspective," Virginia Quarterly Review, 6 (1930), 614-620; and R. H. Gabriel, who states that the work, though unscholarly, identifies biographical problems and thus should stimulate further inquiry ("Seven American Leaders," Yale Review, 19 , 590-596).
(7) What William Harvard says of Warren's fiction can be applied to the nonfiction as well: "The striking feature of Warren's effort is the tremendous scope of his quest"; thus, if he occasionally fails, "it is a noble failure" ("The Burden of the Literary Mind: Some Meditations on Robert Penn Warren as Historian," in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Lewis Longley [New York: New York University Press, 1965], p. 182). Similarly, this "very failure was an eloquent witness to the ambitious nature of his vision and offered an undeniable promise of greater things to come" (William Bedford Clark, The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991], p. 36).
(8) John L. Stewart, "Robert Penn Warren and the Knot of History," English Literary History, 26 (1959), 103.
(9) Gerard Genette has noted that certain paratextual elements distinguish history from fiction ("Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative," Poetics Today, 11, no. 4 (1990), 772.
(10) Robert Penn Warren, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (Payson & Clarke, 1929). References are to the Southern Classics Series reprint edition (Nashville: J. S. Sanders, 1993), pp. 442-443.
(11) For example, see Justus, p. 209; Stewart, Burden, p. 447; Walker, p. 86. Some note that the tone is the result of this book's being an "Agrarian's attempt to demythologize a Northern martyr" (Walker, p. 87). In an interview with Marshall Walker, Warren agreed with this assertion but added that this was not a "conscious motive" since his work on the biography began before the "Agrarian conversations" (Marshall Walker, "Robert Penn Warren: An Interview," September 11, 1969, in Talking with Robert Penn Warren, ed. Floyd Watkins et al. [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990] p. 150).
(12) Warren does this in one other text, Audubon: A Vision, which begins with a preface that corrects the "official version" of Audubon's identity as the Lost Dauphin and cites other "embellishments" and "legends." The first section of the poem is titled, "Was Not the Dauphin" (Audubon: A Vision, 1970, in Selected Poems, 1923-1975 [New York: Random House, 1976]).
(13) Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, Understanding Fiction (1943), 2nd ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Croft, 1959), p. 274.
(14) Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 14.
(15) Robert Penn Warren, "The Use of the Past," in New and Selected Essays (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 32.
(16) In "How Texas Won Her Freedom," (Holiday, 23 [March 1958], 72), Warren speculates that Sam Houston viewed his own trial as a stage upon which he could promote his own fame.
(17) Robert Penn Warren, World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 5.
(18) C. Vann Woodward, "History in Robert Penn Warren's Fiction," The Future of the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 230.
(19) James H. Justus, "Warren and the Narrator as Historical Self," in Time's Glory: Original Essays on Robert Penn Warren, ed. James A. Grimshaw (Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1986), p. 110.
(20) Robert Penn Warren, "Fugitives' Reunion: Conversations at Vanderbilt," in Talking with Robert Penn Warren, p. 20.
(21) Robert Penn Warren, A Place to Come To (New York: Dell, 1977), p. 15.
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|Author:||Cullick, Jonathan S.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1997|
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