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John William Corrington: A Different Kind of Conservative

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Literature, Politics, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

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A slightly different version of this article originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

When John William Corrington died in 1988, Southern conservatives lost one of their most talented writers, a refined Cajun cowboy with a jazzy voice and bold pen whose work has been unjustly and imprudently neglected.

A man of letters with a wide array of interests, an ambivalent Catholic and a devotee of Eric Voegelin, a lawyer and an English professor, Bill (as his friends and family called him) authored or edited over 20 books, including novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. His most recognized works are screenplays – Boxcar Bertha, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man – but he hoped for the legacy of a belletrist. “I don’t give a damn about TV or film for that matter,” he once wrote somewhat disingenuously, adding that he cared about “serious writing – the novel, the story, the poem, the essay.” William Mills, who, after Bill’s death, collected the commemorative essays of Bill’s friends under the title Southern Man of Letters, declared that, should Bill have a biographer, “the story of his life will be very much the life of a mind, one lived among books, reading them and writing them.”

Bill was born in Ohio, a fact he sometimes concealed. He claimed on his C.V. that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, home to the Dixieland brass that inspired him to take up the trumpet. His parents, who were in fact from Memphis, had not intended to stay in Ohio but were seeking temporary work there to get through the Depression. Bill spent his childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he remained for college, taking his degree from Centenary College. He then earned a master’s in English from Rice, focusing on Renaissance drama, and later a doctorate in English from the University of Sussex in England. His doctoral dissertation was on Joyce’s Dubliners. He taught at LSU, Loyola University of the South, and California-Berkeley before tiring of campus politics and university bureaucracy. This was, after all, the late 1960s.

Film director Roger Corman discovered Bill’s fiction at this time and contracted with him to write a screenplay about the life of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Barron. As a child Bill was often bedridden with asthma, and his hobby was to build WWI and WWII model airplanes – as a young man he attempted to join the Air Force but was turned away for being colorblind – so Bill was already familiar with the Red Barron’s story. Having completed his assignment for Corman, Bill was confidant he could secure new sources of revenue when he left the academy and entered Tulane Law School as an already accomplished poet, novelist, and now screenwriter. During his first year in law school, he and his wife, Joyce, penned the screenplay for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the popularity of which ensured they would always have a job in film and television. Bill’s grades in law school may have suffered from his extracurricular writing, but it was writing, not the law, that ultimately proved profitable to him.

Joyce wasn’t Bill’s first wife. He’d married briefly to a young Protestant girl whose father was a minister. Bill’s Catholicism and academic interest in mystical, pagan, and heretical traditions meant the marriage was doomed. Bill claimed it was never even consummated because she found sex to be painful. Over almost as soon as it began, the marriage was officially annulled.

Bill’s fascination with Catholicism, the South, and the works of Eric Voegelin, combined with his disgust for Marxism and campus radicals, made for a unique blend of conservatism. Early in his career Bill and Miller Williams went on the lecture circuit together to defend the South and Southern intellectuals against what they considered to be an anti-Southern bias within universities. Bill kept photos of Robert E. Lee and Stonewell Jackson on the wall of his study and named two of his sons after them. With the rise of the conservative movement during the Reagan Era and the slow separation of traditionalist and neoconservatives, epitomized by the controversy over Reagan’s nomination of Mel Bradford as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bill felt compelled to offer a Southerner’s perspective on conservatism. He considered his conservatism to be regionally specific, explaining that “I am a Southerner and for all my travel and schooling, I am not able to put aside the certain otherness that sets a Southerner apart from the rest of America even in the midst of the 20th century.” “The South,” he maintained, “is a nation buried within another.” His essay “Are Southerner’s Different?” was published thirty years ago in The Southern Partisan but still resonates even now when Southerners have become less “different.”

Calling something “different” presupposes another something that’s not the same. The title of Bill’s essay therefore begs the question: “Different from what?” Bill crafted the essay for an audience of Southern conservatives. At the expense of style he might have framed his question this way: “Are Southern conservatives different from conservatives in other regions of America?” To which he would have emphatically answered yes.

He used the essay to compare three icons of conservatism – Ronald Reagan, George Will, and William F. Buckley – to ascertain whether they expressed regional distinctions within American conservatism and to suggest that each failed to formulate or represent the essence of conservatism. Constituted by disparate and oft-competing traditions, “conservatism” in America, he suggested, failed as a meaningful category of discourse in matters of national rather than local importance. Its characteristics among Southerners, however, were readily apparent.

Because Bill identified himself as a Southern conservative, he doubted whether he could sit down with Reagan, Will, and Buckley “over glasses of sour mash” and achieve “such sweet agreement on the range of problems facing the world” that “any opinion one of us stated might by and large draw nothing more than approving nods from the others.” He rejected as “mere sentimentality” and “downright delusion” the “notion that conservatives east, west, midwest and south” could “find themselves in agreement on most matters of public policy.”

Bill criticized Reagan for stationing marines in Lebanon “without a clear-cut combat role” or a “mission to achieve.” He doubted whether he and Reagan held “the same view of the use of military force.” Bill regarded his own view as “simple and founded purely on Roman principles: Avoid battle whenever an interest or purpose can be obtained by other means, political, diplomatic, or economic; fight only for clear-cut interests which can be won or preserved by force; fight when and where you will be able to achieve a determinable victory. If you engage, win – at whatever costs – and make sure the enemy suffers disproportionately greater loss than you do.” This view of war materialized in Bill’s first novel, And Wait for the Night, which, inspired by Hodding Carter’s The Angry Scar, depicted the devastation of the South during Reconstruction. And Wait for the Night begins with a long section on the fighting that resulted in the fall of Vicksburg. If there’s a theme common to Bill’s fiction about war, including his short stories and his third novel, The Bombardier, it’s pride in a soldier’s duty but sensibility to the horrors of war.

Bill’s dislike of Will arose from the controversy ignited by the failed Bradford nomination. Will had taken to the Washington Post to decry Bradford’s attachment to the “nostalgic Confederate remnant within the conservative movement.” Bradford’s singular offense was proposing that Lincoln was a “Gnostic” in the sense that Voegelin used the term. A friend and admirer of Voegelin who would eventually edit Voegelin’s works, Bill did not think Lincoln was a Gnostic. As Bill put it in a 1964 letter to Anthony Blond, the British editor who had published And Wait for the Night, Lincoln stood “in relation to the South very much as Khrushchev did to Hungary, as the United Nations apparachiks did to Katanga.”

Bill was one of those conservatives Will decried for having a not unfavorable view of the Confederacy. He once dashed off a missive to Charles Bukowski that referred to Lee as “the greatest man who ever lived” and he later asked to be buried with a Confederate flag in his coffin. A statue of General Sherman on a horse inspired – rather, provoked – Bill’s book of poems Lines to the South. Robert B. Heilman observed that 75% of Bill’s short stories involved the Civil War. Asked whether he was a Southern writer, Bill quipped, “If nobody else wants to be, that’s fine; then we would have only one: me.”

Unlike Will, Bill was not about to let Lincoln mythology become a condition for conservative office or to disregard the different historical circumstances that shaped political theories about the role of the central government in relation to the several states. “Will’s stance,” Bill announced with typical bravado, “comes close to requiring a loyalty oath to the Great Emancipator, and I for one will not have it. It is one thing to live one’s life under the necessity of empirical events long past; it is quite another to be forced to genuflect to them.”

Bill was unable to put his finger on what irked him about Buckley. Rather than criticizing Buckley directly, he criticized things associated with Buckley: “the Ivy League mentality” and “the American aristocracy.” Bill had an earthy dynamism and a brawling personality and didn’t take kindly to (in his view) pompous sophisticates who seemed (to him) to put on airs. He preferred the matter-of-fact, muscular qualities of those rugged Americans who possessed, as he mused in a rare moment of verbosity, “a hard-nosed intelligence, an openness to experience, a limited but real sense of classical past and a profound respect not only for institutions in place but for the work of a man’s hands and mind as well as a deep and unshakeable certainty of the role of divine providence in the affairs of humanity not to mention a profound contempt for inherited title, place and dignity.” This did not describe Buckley, at least not entirely.

Bill’s outline for conservatism, unlike Reagan’s and Will’s and Buckley’s, involved what he called “traditional Southern thought and sentiment,” to wit, the land, the community, and a foreign policy of “decency and common sense,” which is to say, a “realistic, non-ideological orientation toward the rest of the world.”

This last aspect of his conservatism, couched in such plain diction, simplifies what is in fact a ramified element of his shifting Weltanschauung. He hesitated to “presume to enunciate a ‘Southern view’ of foreign policy” but acknowledged that “there remain a few antique verities stretching from President Washington’s Farewell Address to the Monroe Doctrine.” These verities had to be, he believed, “reviewed” and “reinterpreted” in light of what was then the most pressing threat abroad to American values at home: “the rise of a Russian empire bound together by force.”

The policy of containment that was a shibboleth for some policy experts during the Reagan years was for Bill a waste of time. “I do not recall that our liberal predecessors argued for the ‘containment’ of National Socialism as it ravaged Europe in the late 1930s and 40s,” he said. That did not mean he categorically favored military intervention. “Obviously,” he qualified, “direct military force to attain specific goals is not among our options.”

What then was among the options? Bill’s answer was less quixotic than it was unhelpfully obvious: “political economics.” He anticipated that the Soviet Union would “find itself pressing the last drop of economic usefulness out of the poor befuddled bodies of its subjects” if the West quit supplying the Soviets with “western technology, western food, and vast sums of western credit.” Despite its artlessness, this approach won the day but never played out as neatly or innocently as Bill envisioned it.

Within weeks of publishing “Are Southerners Different?,” Bill delivered a paper in Chattanooga that decried the “rise of ideologies from the Enlightenment egophanies of the philosophes through the scientism and materialism of the 19th century to the political mass-movements and therapies of the 20th century, including, but not limited to, National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism,” all of which, he claimed, had “resulted in a virtual decerebration of the Humanities.” Bill had entered a melancholy, meditative phase in which he began to portray political extremism of all stripes as a vicious assault on the humanities, those organizing aesthetic and social principles that “bear witness to the truth insofar as they penetrate noetically to the common experiential symbols of human beings.”

Bill resisted categories and defied simple classification. He informed Bukowski, for instance, that he had taken up the sonnet just to throw “dirt in the eyes of those would love to put some label on my ass.” Shortly after discovering Voegelin, Bill began to read Russell Kirk. Bruce Hershenson, then a producer with a Los Angeles television station who had come to prominence through a documentary on the funeral of John F. Kennedy, commissioned Bill to write a screenplay of Kirk’s Roots of American Order. Bill drew up the script, but it was never produced. Kirk later entrusted the script to Richard Bishirjian. (That script is now on file at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.) Bishirjian intimated that the script’s failure had to do with “the new political appointees at NEH that Bennett recruited.” These appointees, Bishirjian said, were “ideologues for whom John Locke, the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Jaffa define America.”

The heavy burden of the past on Southern consciousness suits Southerners for the type of humanistic inquiry that interested Bill: the humanities, according to him, “remember” and “re-collect” and “force upon us the memory of humanitas in all its experiential and symbolic variety.” “It is a handy thing for a writer to discover that his geographical and spiritual situations are parallel,” he said. “It makes the geography live, and lends concreteness to the soul.”

Bill’s soul, as it were, was shaped by the South, to which his spirit belonged. Tapping Robert Frost, he speculated that the symbolism of General Lee’s and General Joseph Johnston’s surrenders “made all the difference” in terms of his “development as a writer.” Whatever he wrote or thought, he knew he’d already lost. In a basic sense this is true of us all: life heads unswervingly in one fatal direction. Better to realize we’re fighting battles we cannot win: that we cannot, of our own accord, bring about a permanent heaven on this temporary earth. We may take solace and even rejoice in our shared inevitability. We all go the way of the South: We die, no matter how hard we try to stay alive.

 

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