Southern Comfort

Claude Rawson

  • Jefferson Davis gets his citizenship back by Robert Penn Warren
    Kentucky/Transatlantic Book Service, 114 pp, £4.85, December 1980, ISBN 0 8131 1445 4
  • Being here: Poetry 1977-1980 by Robert Penn Warren
    Secker, 109 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 436 36650 9
  • Ways of light: Poems 1972-1980 by Richard Eberhart
    Oxford, 68 pp, £5.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 19 502737 X

‘In 1979 Robert Penn Warren – novelist, critic, and dean of American poets – returned to his native Todd County, Kentucky, to attend ceremonies in honor of another native son – Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whose United States citizenship had just been restored, ninety years after his death, by a special act of Congress.’ The scene is set for a fine old feast of Southern Nostalgia, a versatile literary property whose manifestations range from memorable poignancies of anguished belonging, self-division and loss, to a vulgar stereotype of vaguely dyspeptic graciousness, all mint-julep and magnolia and nagging resentful memories of old gallantries downtrodden. From Warren at his best, as from Faulkner, and the Allen Tate of The Fathers, we expect the former. The blurb from which I quoted arouses apprehensions of the latter. Warren’s latest book falls somewhere in between, alas tilting somewhat to the blurb.

We begin with memories of the author’s grandfather, sitting under a cedar tree smoking his cob pipe, from whom the author imbibes lessons of gritty wisdom. Grandfather astonished him one day by remarking ‘musingly ... that he had been a Union man,’ opposed to secession and knowing that ‘slavery couldn’t last,’ though Warren ‘gathered from conversation that there must have been slaves in the family.’ He fought, however, for the Confederacy as a volunteer, despite his opposite sympathy, because ‘you went with your people’; and later he ‘even deplored segregation’, thus preserving his stubborn upright individualism to the end. His fidelity to the South, we infer, adorns the ostensibly un-Southern attitudes in a peculiarly Southern way, the gallantry of honourable principle parading its loyalty to the glamorously unprincipled by being sacrificed in the name of honour. Grandfather told Warren about Jefferson Davis, evidently seen as a similar sort of figure, who was preparing for the progress and education of the Negro but who accepted the Presidency of the Confederacy of slave-states. The case, like that of grandfather himself, is presented as a monument to that high-toned gradualism which requires the South to be allowed to take its gentle time over conceded wrongs: rather as Warren himself thought the Negro wasn’t ready for integration at the time of the celebrated Agrarian manifesto, I’ll take my stand (1930), and even told Ralph Ellison and Eugene Walter in 1957 that this unreadiness had been an ‘objective’ fact in 1929. The posture does Warren an injustice. The early statement is less crudely inhumane than it is made to seem, and the subsequent record is honourable. But the mental set remains. It is as though Augustine said that ‘objectively’ God hadn’t been ready for his chastity to begin with.

Jefferson Davis was apparently not a good military leader and not a politician, but was ‘a gentleman’ and brave, and stuck to the rights of the state he represented, Mississippi, as a ‘sacred honor’: ‘How odd it all seems now – when the sky hums with traffic, and eight-lane highways stinking of high-test rip across hypothetical state lines, and half the citizens don’t know or care where they were born just so they can get somewhere fast.’ These highways are a familiar feature in the landscape of Warren’s poems and novels (the most memorable is perhaps in the opening of All the King’s Men, and there are some in the new book of poems). They suggest a forcing or mutilation of the natural and vital. Here, the eloquent painfulness has curdled into a lordly stereotype of contempt for the rootless modern hordes.

So Davis led the Confederacy, with honour and a certain Quixotic failure. Meanwhile the North was getting richer, and preparing to build all those future highways, while the South, chivalrous and doomed, had to lose. ‘The modern men won,’ the new men like Sherman, advocate of ‘total war’ (the theme that the Civil War is the prototype of later global wars is also a favourite of Warren’s), so different from the gallant Southern generals who led their own troops in person. There is more than a whiff here of that traditional antithesis (of which every age since Homer seems to throw up a variant instance) between the gentlemanly valour of skilled personal fighting and the mean upstart butchery of the missile weapon, or whatever new refinement of it calls for revision of received notions of gallantry at any given time. The new missile is often despised, not because it is more efficiently murderous, but because it is further from the immediacy of bloodshed and the living feel of death. Thus we are told that Grant, who conducted war on a ‘balance sheet’ of killing, ‘flinched from the sight of blood and could eat only overdone meat’. It all has to do with the victory of the new men over the old honour, of money over class, of the machine over nature.

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