The Inaugural Harry C. Howard Jr.
This fall, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities will host the
inaugural Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture. The lectureship was endowed by Mr. and
Mrs. Thomas Nash Jr. and Mr. and Mrs. George Renfro, all of Asheville, North
Carolina. By creating the lectureship, the couples have honored Harry C. Howard
Jr. of Atlanta, Georgia (BA ' 51 ), their longtime attorney and friend. The
lectureship will allow the Center to bring an outstanding scholar to Vanderbilt
annually to deliver a lecture on a significant topic in the humanities. Lewis P.
Simpson, Boyd, Professor, and William A. Read, Professor of English Literature,
emeritus, at Louisiana State University, will present the inaugural lecture on
Thursday, October 12 at 4:10 p.m. in 126 Wilson Hall on the Vanderbilt campus.
His lecture is entitled "The Poet and the Fa ther: Robert Penn Warren and Thomas
Professor Simpson will discuss the two versions of Robert Penn Warren's
well-known poem Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voice. The event that
provides the narrative framework of the poem is the murder of a slave in Livingston
County, Kentucky, on Sunday December 15, 1811. Two brothers, Lilburne and Isham
Lewis, brutally killed one of the family slaves, George, for purportedly breaking
their deceased mother's favorite vase. To hide their act, the Lewis brothers cut
the body into pieces and attempted to burn the parts in the fireplace of a cabin
on their farm. Their attempt to cover up their odious crime was thwarted when,
early the next morning, the New Madrid earthquake jolted the earth, causing the
chimney to tumble down on George's dismembered body, smothering the fire.
George's remains were discovered, and Lilburne and Isham Lewis were subsequently
indicted for murder.
The brothers were set free on bond. Wishing to avoid the negative publicity a
murder trial would bring to their family, as well as the possibility of having to
spend time in prison, the brothers agreed upon a suicide pact. They met in the
family graveyard, where they decided they would shoot one another across the
graves. Lilburne Lewis died; his brother Isham survived. Isham was jailed and
tried for the murder of George, but he escaped from jail and formal justice.
The record of this brutal murder continues to hold a certain fascination because
the two murderers were the sons of Thomas Jefferson's sister, Lucy. As War ren's
poem indicates, Jefferson never commented on the crime, although the actions of
the Lewis brothers were common knowledge at the time. In fact, there is no
evidence that Jefferson ever acknowledged his nephews' actions either publicly
As Simpson points out in his book The Fable of the Southern Writer, in the
chapter entitled "The Loneliness Artist: Robert Penn Warren," Warren was, from
the very beginning of his career, preoccupied with "the tension between ideality
and reality in American history." Brother to Dragons reflects this interest. The
core of the poem is concerned with the idealism of Thomas Jef ferson, whose ghost
appears as one of the main speakers. In the course of a dialogue with "R.P.W.,"
Jefferson is confronted with the bitter fact that his own relatives were capable
of committing such a violent and atrocious act. At the same time, he is
confronted with the evidences of continuing evil in American history since his
time. As a result, Jefferson is forced to re-examine his belief in the innate
goodness and perfectibility of humanity and to refigure, on a broader and more
realistic basis, a new definition of human hope. A resolution to this enigma
required that the facts of history be themselves placed within an ideal framework
constructed by the poet. Now, "R.P.W." had the same moral enigma Jefferson had
faced, complicated by the poet's dedication to artistic form.
Warren was very interested in situations that questioned the poet's proper
relation to the facts of history. The very form of Brother to Dragons reflects
his awareness that the tension between the ideal and the real in American
history cannot be resolved by placing the facts of history into a pure,
idealized literary form, as this would only produce another irresolvable tension.
This does not mean, however, that Warren wanted to abandon the literary form and
the possibility of constructing a space for the resolution of the tensions of history.
As Warren writes in a prefatory note, the form of Brother to Dragons is
that of a "dialogue spo ken by characters, but it is not a play. . . The main
body of the action lies in the remote past—in the earthly past of characters long
dead—and now they meet at an unspecified place and at an unspecified time and
try to make sense of the action.... The place of the meeting is, we may say, 'no
place,' and the time is 'any time."' As such, Warren takes real events and places
them in an idealized, literary space in order to give the murder and Jefferson's
astonishing lack of reaction to it a more thorough consideration. At the same
time, however, Warren recognized that this maneuver required the action of the
poet. Rather than hide the active participation of the poet behind the ideality
of a constructed literary form, Warren put himself and his considerations into
the poem. Thus the story itself is related partly by the principal actors from
history and partly in direct narrative and commentary by the poet, identified as
The experience of writing Brother to Dragons was a confrontation between
Warren's own poetic sensibilities and the facts of history; the resolution to historical tensions presented in the original publication was contingent on
Warren's beliefs and opinions at the time. Despite being hailed in 1953 as
Warren's most important book, Warren continued to work on the poem. For the next
twenty years, he continued to reshape and reform the poem, until, in 1979, he published Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voice: A New Version. He writes in
the 1979 foreword that "as I began to live with the text . . . my dlssatlsfaction
with several features grew. Now there are a number of cuts made from the original
version and some additions.... Though the basic action and theme remain the
same, there is, I trust, an important difference in the total 'feel.' For the
reworking was not merely a slow and patchwork job. It meant, before the end, a
protracted and concentrated reliving of the whole process." It is the significance
of "reliving of the whole process" that Professor Simpson will address in
the inaugural Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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