Letters Archive
Fall 1995, Vol. 4, No. 1
  • The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millenium, and Other Transitions
  • The Inaugural Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture
  • Religion and Public Life: Seventy Years After the Scopes Trial
  • The Inaugural Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture

    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 Jefferson."

    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 or privately.

    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 "R.P.W."

    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.

    Lewis P. Simpson is Boyd Professor and William A. Read Professor of English Literature, emeritus, Louisiana State University. For over twenty years he was editor of The Southern Review, for which he now serves as consulting editor. He is the author of several books, including Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes (Louisiana State University Press, 1989; Avery O. Craven Award of the Organization of American Historians, 1990); The Fable of the Southern Writer (Louisiana State University Press, 1994; Jules and Frances Landry Award of the Louisiana State University Press, 1993) .In 1991, he was awarded the Hubbell Medal for Distin guished Contribution to the Study of American Literature by the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Associa tion. He is also a Fellow of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, which in April 1995 awarded him the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Southern Letters.

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