Wednesday, June 08, 2011

World Enough and Time by Robert Penn Warren (1950)

"Therefore I searched my books for what truth might be beyond the bustle of the hour and the empty lusts of time."

My next stop on the western canon caravan is Robert Penn Warren's delightfully melodramatic and engagingly uneven World Enough and Time (1950). Warren is best known for his novel about Louisiana politics, All the King's Men, and while I haven't read that one (although I will because it is also on this list, along with Warren's Selected Poems), I can only imagine that World Enough and Time does for 1820s Kentucky politics what All the King's Men did for 1930s Louisiana.

I mentioned that the book is uneven and melodramatic, and usually I'd view that as a negative, but in this case, the uneven and melodramatic narrative perfectly matches the uneven and melodramatic nature of the two main characters, Jeremiah Beaumont and his infatuation, and later wife, Rachael Jordon.

Jeremiah grows up in rural eastern Kentucky in the late 18th / early 19th century. It was a time when the state had just recently stopped being the wild frontier, where memories of wars with the Indians (and the British) were still fresh, and every tavern had an old uncivilized hunter sitting in the corner and spinning tales. It was a land of people who, for whatever reason, had to leave and strike west to make their fortune, which leads to a lot of dissatisfied wives clinging to their good family names and wishing they were back in Virginia. It was also, of course, a time of slavery, although Warren doesn't let that enter much into the story.

A learned neighbor of Jeremiah's sets up a school, and he proves to be a quick student. When he becomes a young man, his teacher introduces Jeremiah to one of his good friends, Colonel Cassius Fort, a lawyer and politician who invites Jeremiah to Frankfort to study law under Fort's instruction and mentorship. Jeremiah does just that, staying in Frankfort with the carefree Wilkie Barron and his widowed mother, and getting involved in some heated politics. When Wilkie gets into a passion over a girl named Rachael Jordon who has been taken advantage of and impregnated by Fort, Jeremiah drops everything to insinuate himself into her life and avenge her name.

The story is closely based on the almost too tragically romantic to be true "Kentucky Tragedy." If you want to keep the bulk of the plot a secret, you obviously shouldn't read the Wikipedia article about it, but I would argue that the strength of this book comes from its layered build-up and relentless punishment of its characters, and not from the actions of the crime or the findings of the trial. And if you agree with me, or if you don't think you'll ever read this book, then you should definitely read about the tragedy. The one part I'm unsure about liking in the novel is towards the end where it drastically swings away from the true story, but the more I think about it the more I like where Warren took me.

And even better than where he takes you, is how you get there. Just sample some of this, and try to resist reading it out loud:

"He belonged to that old race of Devil-breakers who were a terror and a blessing across the land, men who had been born to be the stomp-and-gouge bully of a tavern, the Indian fighter with warm scalps at his belt, the ice-eyed tubercular duelist of a county courthouse, the half-horse, half-alligator abomination of a keelboat, or a raper of women by the cow pen, but who got their hot prides and cold lusts short-circuited into obsessed hosannas and a ferocious striving for God's sake."

"'Ah, gentlemen,' [Lancaster] said, 'I trust that I do not intrude.' He spoke in a slow, very musical voice, which caressed the ear. But no one answered a word, and those lips which apparently were designed for 'An expression of melancholy, almost female sweetness, drew back as from long practice into a twisted, thinning smile which made you think of new silk being ripped by a careless blade for wantonness or in hatred and contempt.... 'And I'll remember what you said to me when we met,' Lancaster said, and smiled again, but this time a smile of pitying friendliness, so sweet and sincere that you took that face to be the face of your dearest other self.

It should come as no surprise that Warren is the only person that has won the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry.

This one takes some slogging, but it is necessary and so worth it. If you have any love for tragic romance, psychological drama, or Kentucky, then you should give it a shot.

[p.s. I can't believe I forgot to mention this above, but the whole book is narrated by a contemporary historian telling the story of Jeremiah and Rachael through archival documents and Jeremiah's prison narrative justifying his actions. That's right: Archives!]

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