In the following C-SPAN Booknotes interview, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia discusses books, readings, the liberal arts, and more.
Archive for the ‘The Novel’ Category
Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com.
The review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.
Following the success of his powerful debut legal thriller, The Professor (Thomas & Mercer 2015), Bailey offers a second, stunning story in the series. In his novel Between Black and White (Thomas & Mercer March 2016), Bailey establishes beyond doubt that he is an author to be read and reckoned with.
Between Black and White is closely tied to Bailey’s first book and involves several of the same characters. In The Professor, readers were introduced to aging former law professor Tom McMurtrie, who returns to the courtroom after being forced out of his teaching position at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tom teams up with Rick Drake, an impetuous young attorney and his one-time student. Together, in The Professor, Tom and Rick pursue a tense and dangerous wrongful death lawsuit.
While Tom and Rick dominate The Professor, another lawyer—Bocephus Haynes, or Bo—steps into that story at critical times to boost and support Tom. Bo is a bigger than life black University of Alabama football star who blew out his knee and, instead of retreating into depression over the loss of a pro football career, goes to law school. Tom is one of his professors, and the two develop a close friendship.
As much as The Professor was Tom and Rick’s story, Between Black and White is Bo’s story. In the prologue, we meet Bo as a five-year-old who watches members of the Ku Klux Klan lynch his beloved father. From the opening pages of Chapter One—which finds a disheartened, angry Bo getting drunk on the anniversary of his father’s brutal lynching—to the shocking, violent conclusion, Bo leaps off the pages with boldness and spirit. But like all well-crafted fictional heroes, he is flawed, and his failings land him in a courtroom as the sole defendant in a capital murder case.
His near fatal flaw: hunger for revenge. Obsessed with punishing the man who lynched his father, Bo shapes his professional life around that goal. After graduating with honors from The University of Alabama School of Law, Bo turns down offers at prestigious law firms. He returns to his home town, Pulaski, Tennessee, to a solo law practice as the city’s only black attorney—and to pursue the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. Too many people in the city of Pulaski know Bo is driven by his fixation to punish the man he blames for his father’s lynching. His wife has even left him because his drive to avenge his father’s murder has endangered their two children.
Since Bo was five years-old, he has blamed Andrew Davis Walton, a powerful businessman in Pulaski, for his father’s death. Once the Imperial Wizard of the Tennessee Knights of the KKK, Walton shook off the robes of the Klan and made millions in the stock market. Known as the “the Warren Buffett of the South,” he tried to make amends for his Klan actions.
Yet people have a long memory when it comes to the Klan—and no one more than Bo. Though Walton was hooded the night five-year-old Bo witnessed the lynching, Bo recognized Walton’s voice. But no one in law enforcement was ever willing—then or later—to prosecute Walton on the testimony of a child claiming to identify a voice.
On the 45th anniversary of his father’s lynching, Bo gets drunks in a local bar. Walton and Maggie, Walton’s aging, beautiful wife and one of the local landed aristocracy, seemingly accidentally run into Bo in the bar. Face to face with Walton, Bo threatens him in front of witnesses by quoting the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”
After the bartender breaks up the confrontation, Walton steps outside. But before Bo leaves the bar, Maggie returns to tell him that Walton is dying. She asks that Bo leave her terminally ill husband alone. Bo staggers out, lamenting to himself that Andy Walton was going to die before he could bring him to justice.
That night, someone shoots Walton and stages a mock lynching at the site where Bo’s father was lynched four and a half decades before.
Physical evidence points directly at Bo. Everyone in the legal community knows he had the motive and opportunity. Even before Bo recovers from his hangover, he is in jail. The prosecutor, a fierce woman attorney who has butted heads with Bo in court before, decides to seek the death penalty.
Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and many residents and officials in the city strive to live that down. So when the murder, with its roots in the old KKK lynching, puts Pulaski and its Klan heritage back in the spotlight of national media, city officials attempt to pressure Bo to plead guilty and avoid the further media circus of a trial.
Bo refuses. He is innocent of murdering Walton—or so he claims, though no one in law enforcement believes him. He calls on his former law professor and close friend, Tom, to defend him. Reluctantly, Tom agrees and retains local attorney Raymond “Ray Ray” Pickalew, another former U of A football player. Rick, who is now Tom’s law partner, is dragged into the case as well.
Though Tom and Rick sense a setup, they struggle against multiple roadblocks—and the overwhelming physical evidence of Bo’s guilt—to determine who had a motive to kill Andy Walton and frame Bo. During their quest, Tom is assaulted and sidelined by his injuries; Ray Ray is a drunk with an attitude, and young. Overwhelmed Rick is left to unravel the seemingly unrelated pieces of a complex, emotional puzzle. Villains from The Professor return to taunt and threaten Tom and Rick, adding further intricacy to the plot.
Thus, Bailey sets up the classic formula of a legal thriller. Mind you, formula is not used as a derogatory term here. Shakespeare’s sonnets were formula and critics do not dismiss them in disparaging terms. As used here, formula simply refers to the structure and elements that define a genre or a literary style. In a legal thriller where the focus is on a criminal defendant on trial for his or her life, readers expect the odds to be stacked against the defendant. They expect the defense attorneys to be complicated, troubled, overwhelmed and conflicted. And, owing perhaps to the Perry Mason standard, readers expect a surprise witness and revelation near the close of the trial which allows the defense attorneys to prevail and the defendant to be found not guilty.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to this basic formula. Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill come to mind. Both of those legal thrillers had guilty defendants, yet with vastly differing twists at the end.
Given the formulaic elements at play in the genre, a successful legal thriller author has to avoid creating a stale, mechanical plot that reads like a written version of a paint-by-number canvas. Yet the author has to keep the plot within the confines of the genre or publishers will scratch their heads and throw the manuscript on the reject pile.
In other words, authors working within a prescribed genre face a kind of delicate yet vicious circle. On the one hand, they must write within the parameters of their chosen genre. But, on the other hand, they have to do something new, exciting and fresh. It’s kind of like saying: Color within the lines. But don’t color within the lines.
Within this catch-22, the author has to give the reader something more—and something different. This Bailey does, and does with a bang.
Yet, having said that much, to say much more about the surprising, original twists of Between Black and White risks spoiling the plot. Thus, this reviewer will only observe that per the Perry Mason/John Grisham model, an unexpected witness with a startling revelation does pop up at the end of the trial. But just when the reader settles back to relax and believe that justice has been achieved, something complicated, violent and utterly surprising happens.
It isn’t just that Bailey knows how to surprise us, but he also writes well. Very well. Make no mistake on that point. His sentences are clear, clean, distinctive, and when they need to hit with a punch, they do. His pacing is excellent—an edge-of-the-seat, can’t-put-it-down momentum fuels the storyline from the prologue to the climatic ending. His characters are well-drawn, his sense of place and world-building excellent. The plot is intricate, but believable. There is redemption for some characters, resolution for others—and those that deserve neither are left to flounder in their own hell. Justice is achieved, albeit in a confused, violent way.
In short, Bailey wrestles what in less talented hands could have been a formulaic story into something wholly fresh, engaging, and ultimately rich and satisfying. This is a book you want to own and read.
Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com
This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.
Move over, John Grisham, there’s a new kid on the legal thriller playing field.
Robert Bailey, an Alabama trial attorney and graduate of The University of Alabama School of Law, returns the kickoff for a 100 yard touchdown with his debut novel, The Professor. The football reference is apropos as the protagonist of The Professor was a member of Alabama’s famous 1961 National Champion football team, and the book opens with a guest appearance by venerated Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Alabama’s 1961 national championship was the first of the six that Bear Bryant would win as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and the fighting spirit of that 1961 team resounds throughout the novel.
But one does not need to be a football fan or even a fan of legal thrillers to enjoy Bailey’s book as its writing is smooth, captivating and, in all the right places, emotionally moving—all the more impressive in that Bailey only took a single creative writing class while an undergraduate at Davidson College. According to Bailey, “We wrote four short stories, and the critiques I received were mostly positive. It was definitely a confidence builder and a whole lot of fun.”
How did he go from taking just one creative writing class to writing a riveting debut of a legal thriller?
In law school, Bailey served on the law review, an honor generally reserved for those who can write well. Yet there is a football field of difference in writing an analytical, academic, footnoted and blue-booked law review article and composing an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller.
The bridge, then, between writing like a lawyer and writing like a top-drawer novelist was part inspiration, part studying other novels, and part the hard work of rewriting, redrafting, and revising. Bailey’s inspiration came from growing up in Alabama as a Bear Bryant fan and from wanting to write about a brash young “bull-in-a-china-shop” new attorney—a character whose experiences resemble Bailey’s own days straight out of law school. As for studying other legal thrillers and books, Bailey has said, “Yes, I have learned a lot from reading other novels. Also, Stephen King’s instructional memoir, On Writing, was a big influence and inspiration.” And as for the hard work of revision and rewriting—it took Bailey eight years to finish The Professor, though he was practicing law, trying cases, and raising a family at the same time.
Bailey, a history major and a Huntsville, Alabama, native, is quite the Bear Bryant fan and a football historian. These personal interests enrich The Professor and play into Bailey’s creation of the lead character, Professor Thomas Jackson McMurtrie.
In some ways McMurtrie, the protagonist, is an unusual leading man. For one thing, he is 68 and his glory days on the famous Alabama football team of 1961 are long behind him. He faces serious health issues, mourns his late wife, and has been unfairly manipulated out of his position as an evidence professor at the University of Alabama School of Law into an unwanted early retirement. One of his former students—and a man he had called a friend—was complicit in the scheme to push him out as a law professor, and the betrayal wounds McMurtrie deeply.
Yet, in other ways, McMurtrie is the ideal leading man—for one thing his skills and instincts as a trial attorney form the perfect balance to his headstrong, volatile former student, Rick Drake, when they take on a trucking company in a wrongful-death case. McMurtrie, named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, epitomizes what we would want in both a leading man and a lawyer—he is somewhat of a modern Atticus Finch, albeit with some different demons. Bailey writes in his author’s notes that he wanted to create a character that was a “man of exceptional integrity, strength, and class.” This Bailey has done.
Rick Drake, the lawyer version of a yin to McMurtrie’s yang, is more of what readers might expect in legal thrillers. A young lawyer, brash, over his head, yet passionate about his client and the case, Drake has more gumption and zeal than skills. He needs the experience and even temperament of McMurtrie. Drake also needs an expert in evidence, and McMurtrie literally wrote the textbook on evidence law in Alabama.
But here’s the rub: Drake and McMurtrie have a turbulent history. Drake was McMurtrie’s law student and the two came to blows—literally—after Drake hotheadedly dashed his trial advocate team’s chances of winning a national trial competition. McMurtrie was the team’s coach. After a video of the angry clash between the professor and the student was posted on YouTube, a conniving new dean at the law school used the incident as part of his plan to push McMurtrie out of his tenured position.
So, let’s just say Drake and McMurtrie are not best friends.
Yet each man knows the value of the other. Drake has the vigor McMurtrie fears is waning in himself. And McMurtrie has decades of knowledge and the calm, deliberate skills Drake lacks.
Thus, out of these conflicts and contrasting personalities, the characters of McMurtrie and Drake form an integral part of what makes The Professor work so well. This is a book about people, vividly drawn and fully realized, overcoming obstacles within themselves—as well as obstacles placed in their way by unscrupulous others.
Superb writing and engaging protagonists, though, are not the only things that make this debut so compelling. This is a bam-bam-bam book as far as plot goes, with plenty of action in and out of the courtroom. In the opening chapters, there is a horrific and fiery automobile crash, betrayal, suicide, murder, blackmail and enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages all night. There’s a good reason Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump and another Alabama writer, calls The Professor “[g]ripping from the first page to the last.”
In a tightly woven plot that unfolds naturally in well-paced scenes, McMurtrie refers a former girlfriend (from the days before his marriage) to Drake for representation in a wrongful-death action after her granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law slam into a speeding eighteen-wheeler and die. McMurtrie recommends that she retain Drake in part because Drake grew up in the town where the lawsuit will be tried and McMurtrie believes in the home-court advantage. Yet McMurtrie also believes Drake can win the case—and he wants to help the struggling lawyer.
The defendant trucking company’s owner is an unscrupulous yet tough adversary who has the power to pervert the quest for hard evidence. Drake and McMurtrie have to prove in a court of law what they know is true—the trucking company had a consistent, deliberate pattern of forcing its truckers to speed in order to clock more miles and make more money for the company. Yet the trucking company’s owner doesn’t play by any rules, which gives him an apparent upper hand in disposing of key witnesses and the paper trail of evidence. Compounding the pressure on Drake and McMurtrie, the trucking company’s attorney is none other than McMurtrie’s former friend who betrayed him and helped oust him from his teaching career.
The stakes go beyond money. The plaintiff wants the world to know the truth about the accident—that her family died because of a concerted, greedy corporate plan that turned its eighteen-wheelers into dangerous weapons.
McMurtrie wants to avenge himself against his former friend and later betrayer, and he wants to help his former girlfriend. Not incidentally, he hopes to prove that even at 68, “The old bull still has a little gas in the tank.” And, maybe, he hopes to get his job as a law professor back. He definitely wants to help Drake and set matters right between them.
Yet in some ways, Drake is the one who has the most at stake. The YouTube of his shoving contest with McMurtrie painted him as an uncontrollable hothead and cost him his position at a big law firm. He is barely earning his rent as a solo practitioner. He questions himself. If Drake is going to survive as an attorney, he needs a courtroom victory. But beyond building his career, he needs to get right in his own head and prove he is capable of being a winning trial attorney—one who will not blow up and ruin the case as he did during the law school trial team competition. Drake is a young man, not fully formed as a man or an attorney, and this trial will make or break his maturation.
The trial scenes resonate with realism. Naturally so, given that the author is a practicing attorney and a shareholder with the law firm of Lanier Ford in Huntsville. Interestingly enough, the author defends—among others—trucking companies. Similar to his character Drake, Bailey was a winner in trial advocacy competitions while in law school.
The Professor introduces the character of Bocephus Haynes, McMurtrie’s favorite former student. Bocephus plays an important yet secondary role in the story as ally and emotional support, but he is set to return in a leading role in the sequel, Between Black and White. A third manuscript, now in the works, will take Drake and McMurtrie back to Tuscaloosa, and Drake’s story line and growth as a character will be explored further and in more detail.
Despite blots on his character after Harper Lee’s publication of Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch can and probably should remain a hero, though not without qualification. He can no longer represent the impossible standard of perfection that no actual person or compelling fictional character could meet.
If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Atticus is a flawed man who despite his depravity found the courage and wisdom to do the right thing under perilous circumstances.
Consider what Uncle Jack says to Jean Louise Finch in the final pages of Watchman: “As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us.”
These words are aimed at adoring readers as much as at Jean Louise. They’re not just about the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird; they are about any Atticuses we might have known and loved in our lives: our fathers, grandfathers, teachers, coaches, and mentors. Lee may have had her own father, A. C. Lee, in mind. After all, he was, according to Lee’s biographer Charles Shields, “no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters. In many ways, he was typical of his generation, especially about issues involving integration. Like most of his generation, he believed that the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races.”
Yet A. C. Lee defended two black men charged with murder, just as Atticus defended Tom Robinson.
The above text is an excerpt from my essay “Children Once, Not Forever: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Growing Up,” published in the Indiana Law Journal Supplement, Vol. 91, No. 6 (2015). To view the full essay, you may download it here at SSRN or visit the website of the Indiana Law Journal.
This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.
What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.
Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.
Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.
Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.
Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”
What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.
The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”
What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”
The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.
Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?
My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.
They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.
Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.
Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.
Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”
This interview originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.
APM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down for this interview, Bob. Your novel The Inside War is about an Appalachian mountain family during the Civil War. How long have you been interested in the Civil War?
RJE: I have had an interest in the Civil War for many years. Specifically, the effect of the war on Appalachia became an interest as I researched family history, now more than a decade ago. I realized that not much had been written, outside of academic treatises, on this aspect of the war. Bushwhacking ambushes, bands of roving deserters, intensely opposed partisan factions, and a breakdown in civil society befell western North Carolina. Of course, much study had been given to the poverty of the area during the twentieth century, but not much, save bluegrass music, about its culture. What I discovered was a vibrant pre-war society thoroughly rent by the war. And, the area did not recover.
APM: The story of Will Roberts, your novel’s protagonist, is similar to that of many actual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. How much historical research went into this book? It seems as if there are a number of events in your story—Sammy Palmer’s shooting of the sheriff, for instance—that track historical occurrences.
RJE: Much of the story is based on historical events. In fact, Will Roberts was a real person, as was his brother, Edwin. I traced their wartime adventures, researched the battles and conditions of their captivity and wove a fictional story around them. Likewise their wives, as portrayed in the story, were based on real people, although their story is more fictionalized. The novel does incorporate many historical characters and events that occurred in the vicinity of Marshall, North Carolina, by which I attempt to portray a picture of the character of the area and the severe impact of the war on it.
APM: There are some themes in the book that cover an aspect of the Civil War that is not often covered. Tell us about those.
RJE: The tactic of bushwhacking, or ambushing mountain patrols, is one. Guerrilla warfare as a matter of accepted tactics was new and was a terrifying degradation of the morality of warfare. There was a real cultural divide among the citizens of western North Carolina between those who supported the North, the “tories,” and those who supported the Confederacy. These divisions played out in many ways, most notably in atrocities like the Shelton Laurel massacre, but more subtly in familial and neighbor relationships. I doubt many women suffered as did those in Appalachia, from the depredations, theft and physical threat of the men who populated the mountains during the war. I was surprised to learn of the inhumane prison conditions at Ft. Delaware. Everyone knows of Andersonville, but not many are aware of Ft. Delaware. We know of the great Civil War battles, but there were scores of skirmishes every week that terrified the contestants and shaped their perceptions. Certainly, Roberts’s family suffered greatly, even though their war happened in the background to better known events.
APM: You seem careful not to glorify war but to present it as the complex tragedy that it is. The book’s epigraph states, “For those who have suffered war.” I wonder if the process of writing this book taught you anything about war itself. What do you think?
RJE: The grand histories of the conflicts, eulogizing the fallen and celebrating the victorious are all necessary parts of our remembrance of a terrible, national conflict. What I found in researching this story was intense personal suffering, unnoted except at the basic unit of society, the family, and rippling out to the church, neighborhood and town. Why would a woman abandon her children? What would drive a member of the home guard to massacre captives – mere boys? How could people, so crushed, hope? And, of course, the main theme of The Inside War is hope; hope after, and despite the loss and suffering. As we deal with the veterans of the conflict with radical Islamists we need to surround them with a culture of hope.
APM: From one attorney to another, do you think being a lawyer affects your writing in any way—from the preparation to the organization to the style?
RJE: That’s interesting. Certainly the actual practice of law involves clear writing. I have a hard time reading novels written in stream of consciousness or in rambling, shuffling styles. So, hopefully this book will be understandable and clear to the reader. I like the process of legal research and enjoyed the process of researching this book. However, the characters, though based on historical figures, came about from my imagination, which is why the book is a novel and not a history.
APM: It’s been said that the Revolutionary War produced political philosophy in America whereas the Civil War produced literature. Do you agree with this, and if so, why?
RJE: Perhaps the truth in that statement devolves from the Revolutionary War defining the creation of a nation, the Civil War defining its character. The revolution tested the theories of individual liberty and melded them, free of sovereign control, imperfectly into a new nation. The Civil War represents a gigantic challenge to the notion that a nation of citizens can be free. Millions were intimately involved in the latter conflict and the upheaval and changes were intensely felt and recorded in innumerable books. But the fundamental story of both wars is ongoing, in my view, and that is America must re-experience, “a new birth of freedom,” with regularity if America is to retain her vibrancy and hope.
APM: Thanks, Bob, for taking the time. I appreciate it, and I know our readers do, too.
Napoleon in America is a “what-if” historical novel that combines a variety of styles – epistolary, newspaper article, and regular novelistic narrative – to create a work that reads like a very well-written narrative of history. Given that the author is necessarily working with an entirely fictional world – one in which Napoleon escapes from St. Helena to the United States – the fact that she can create such an effect is quite remarkable. The reader is made to feel as if he or she is reading about actual historical events. Of particular note is the fact that Selin creates the impression that we are reading a Great Men History book, which makes it rather distinctive. As such, it is going against the direction in which historical studies have, themselves, gone.
Much contemporary history deals with everyday life, local histories, etc. But given that the protagonist of this novel, Napoleon, is the kind of person who is distinctly bored with everyday life – is too big for everyday life – we should not be surprised to find a story dominated by the overwhelming presence of the personality of Napoleon. It is perhaps for this very reason that the novel becomes involved in the great movements of Napoleon rather than the intimate details of his life. These aspects are touched on here and there, of course, but in the end, we remember Napoleon the Conquerer, not Napoleon the almost-died-when-he-got-to-America. Napoleon quickly recovers to dominate the novel with his personality. But this personality is not one changed by circumstances. He is the Napoleon we all love and loathe. He cannot settle down. He has to conquer.
Thus, with Selin’s novel, we have a complete inversion. The novel has, historically, dealt with everyday people in their everyday lives. The actions of most novelistic characters do not have a major impact on historical events. If we look at the way histories are written over the same time period of the rise of the European novel (which includes American and Canadian literature and, stylistically, much literature written in the rest of the world during the 20th century), we primarily see the complete opposite: an interest in major figures and their major effects on history dominate most historical narratives over this same time period. However, we see a shift within history toward the same kinds of concerns we see in novels: everyday peoples, the histories of institutions, local histories, etc. Thus, we should not be surprised to find novels picking up the kinds of narratives we once found in histories.
Along with the Big Men of the time, Selin deals with the Big Ideas of the time; of course, the Big Men are often the Big Men precisely because they discuss and try to enact the Big Ideas of their time. Liberalism and dictatorship and whether Napoleon is really a liberal or little better than the kings he likes to depose are discussed – as no doubt they were, in fact, discussed historically. We see some of the conflicts within French Liberalism – and some of the contradictions. Was it a mere coincidence that French Liberalism led to the Terror and to the Empire under Napoleon? Or was it simply bad luck? Pro- and anti-Napoleon liberals are unified in their opposition to the Bourbons, but the question is raised as to whether replacing one monarch with another is really an improvement. Yet, there seems a willingness, even among those who oppose Napoleon, to support revolution against the Bourbons, even if it results in another Napoleon (literally or figuratively). Along these lines, Selin does a magnificent job of showing how blinding the opposition to the Bourbons is in the decision by the French government to invade Spain. The King in fact opposes the invasion, but ends up being talked into it; the liberals believe the invasion is a Bourbon plot and evidence of his being a cruel dictator. The reality is more humdrum than the conspiracy theory the liberals are desperate to believe.
Overall, Selin’s book goes beyond what we would expect to find in a historical novel whose main character is a major historical figure. A traditional historical novel would have the characters doing all the major, public actions the history books tell us happened. Selin has to do something quite different. She has to first know what did in fact happen during the historical period in question; she then has to understand Napoleon well enough to understand what he might do in circumstances other than those in which he did, in fact, find himself; and then she has to create a realistic alternative to what did in fact happen, understanding the butterfly effects of a Napoleon in America. It is a garden of forking paths, and one can go in any number of directions. To this end, Selin is certainly effective in her choice of direction. The great uncertainty created by Napoleon’s presence in America is well demonstrated. The U.S. government does not seem to know what to do with him. We are, after all, talking about a young country still learning where it fits in the world. It has the benefit of being separated from Europe – where all the action lies – by a large ocean. But the action has come to America’s shores when Napoleon escapes St. Helena. The uncertainty that leaves Napoleon free to raise an army and wander into Texas is well within the realm of possibilities. As is the naïve belief by some – such as James Bowie – that Napoleon can be “handled.”
The majority of the novel is dominated by the spirit of uncertainty and worry. All the action comes in at the end of the novel, when Napoleon finally does invade Texas. And even then, we are left with a great deal of uncertainty. Napoleon has won a battle and established himself in San Antonio; however, we are left with the question of what will happen next. Napoleon in America has the feeling of the first novel in a sequel. It would not surprise me if Napoleon in Texas were to follow. There is a great deal more to this story that could be explored. Will Napoleon be able to create a long-term presence in Texas? What will be the response of Mexico? What will be the response of the American government? What will be the response of the American settlers? Will the people of Kentucky and Tennessee volunteer to fight for Texas independence under Napoleon as they did for its independence under Austin? Is Napoleon just preparing the way for the Americans to take over, making it a bit easier than it was historically? Or is he perhaps making it a bit harder, since a Mexican government may take Napoleon as a much more serious threat to the government of Mexico than those who only wanted an independent Texas?
For those who enjoy the What-If History genre, these are fun questions to consider. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who reads Napoleon in America – which should include most of those who enjoy historical fiction – would fail to want these questions answered in a sequel.
Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.
The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.
Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.
An earlier version of this essay appeared here at Fronch Porch Republic.
Remember the printed prose is always
half a lie: that fleas plagued patriots,
that greatness is an afterthought
affixed by gracious victors to their kin.
—John William Corrington
It was the spring of 2009. I was in a class called Lawyers & Literature. My professor, Jim Elkins, a short-thin man with long-white hair, gained the podium. Wearing what might be called a suit—with Elkins one never could tell—he recited lines from a novella, Decoration Day. I had heard of the author, John William Corrington, but only in passing.
“Paneled walnut and thick carpets,” Elkins beamed, gesturing toward the blank-white wall behind him, “row after row of uniform tan volumes containing between their buckram covers a serial dumb show of human folly and greed and cruelty.” The students, uncomfortable, began to look at each other, registering doubt. In law school, professors didn’t wax poetic. But this Elkins—he was different. With swelling confidence, he pressed on: “The Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, Supreme Court Reports. Two hundred years of our collective disagreements and wranglings from Jay and Marshall through Taney and Holmes and Black and Frankfurter—the pathetic often ill-conceived attempts to resolve what we have done to one another.”
Elkins paused. The room went still. Awkwardly profound, or else profoundly awkward, the silence was like an uninvited guest at a dinner party—intrusive, unexpected, and there, all too there. No one knew how to respond. Law students, most of them, can rattle off fact-patterns or black-letter-law whenever they’re called on. But this? What were we to do with this?
What I did was find out more about John Willliam Corrington. Having studied literature for two years in graduate school, I was surprised to hear this name—Corrington—in law school. I booted up my laptop, right where I was sitting, and, thanks to Google, found a few biographical sketches of this man, who, it turned out, was perplexing, riddled with contradictions: a Southerner from the North, a philosopher in cowboy boots, a conservative literature professor, a lawyer poet. This introduction to Corrington led to more books, more articles, more research. Before long, I’d spent over $300 on Amazon.com. And I’m not done yet.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 28, 1932, Corrington—or Bill, as his friends and family called him—passed as a born-and-bred Southerner all of his life. As well he might, for he lived most of his life below the Mason-Dixon line, and his parents were from Memphis and had moved north for work during the Depression. He moved to the South (to Shreveport, Louisiana) at the age of 10, although his academic CV put out that he was, like his parents, born in Memphis, Tennessee. Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school in Louisiana but was expelled for “having the wrong attitude.” The Jesuit influence, however, would remain with him always. At the beginning of his books, he wrote, “AMDG,” which stands for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—“for the greater glory of God.” “It’s just something that I was taught when I was just learning to write,” he explained in an interview in 1985, “taught by the Jesuits to put at the head of all my papers.”
Bill was, like the late Mark Royden Winchell, a Copperhead at heart, and during his career he authored or edited, or in some cases co-edited, twenty books of varying genres. He earned a B.A. from Centenary College and M.A. in Renaissance literature from Rice University, where he met his wife, Joyce, whom he married on February 6, 1960. In September of that year, he and Joyce moved to Baton Rouge, where Bill became an instructor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University (LSU). At that time, LSU’s English department was known above all for The Southern Review (TSR), the brainchild of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, but also for such literary luminaries as Robert Heilman, who would become Bill’s friend.
In the early 1960s, Bill pushed for TSR to feature fiction and poetry and not just literary criticism. He butted heads with then-editors Donald E. Stanford and Lewis P. Simpson, who thought of the journal as scholarly, not creative, as if journals couldn’t be both scholarly and creative. A year after joining the LSU faculty, Bill published his first book of poetry, Where We Are. With only 18 poems and 225 first edition printings, the book hardly established Bill’s reputation as Southern man of letters. But it invested his name with recognition and gave him confidence to complete his first novel, And Wait for the Night (1964).
Bill and Joyce spent the 1963-64 academic year in Sussex, England, where Bill took the D.Phil. from the University of Sussex in 1965. In the summer of 1966, at a conference at Northwestern State College, Mel Bradford, that Dean of Southern Letters, pulled Bill aside and told him, enthusiastically, that And Wait for the Night (1964) shared some of the themes and approaches of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. Bill agreed. And happily.
Of Bill and Miller Williams, Bill’s colleague at LSU, Jo LeCoeur, poet and literature professor, once submitted, “Both men had run into a Northern bias against what was perceived as the culturally backward South. While at LSU they fought back against this snub, editing two anthologies of Southern writing and lecturing on ‘The Dominance of Southern Writers.’ Controversial as a refutation of the anti-intellectual Southern stereotype, their joint lecture was so popular [that] the two took it on the road to area colleges.”
In this respect, Bill was something of a latter-day Southern Fugitive—a thinker in the tradition of Donald Davidson, Allan Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and John Crowe Ransom. Bill, too, took his stand. And his feelings about the South were strong and passionate, as evidenced by his essay in The Southern Partisan, “Are Southerners Different?” (1984). Bill’s feelings about the South, however, often seemed mixed. “[T]he South was an enigma,” Bill wrote to poet Charles Bukowski, “a race of giants, individualists, deists, brainy and gutsy: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson (Andy), Davis, Calhoun, Lee, and on and on. And yet the stain of human slavery on them.” As the epigraph (above) suggests, Bill was not interested in hagiographic renderings of Southern figures. He was interested in the complexities of Southern people and experience. In the end, though, there was no doubt where his allegiances lay. “You strike me as the most unreconstructed of all the Southern novelists I know anything about,” said one interviewer to Bill. “I consider that just about the greatest compliment anyone could give,” Bill responded.
While on tour with Williams, Bill declared, “We are told that the Southerner lives in the past. He does not. The past lives in him, and there is a difference.” The Southerner, for Bill, “knows where he came from, and who his fathers were.” The Southerner “knows still that he came from the soil, and that the soil and its people once had a name.” The Southerner “knows that is true, and he knows it is a myth.” And the Southerner “knows the soil belonged to the black hands that turned it as well as it ever could belong to any hand.” In short, the Southerner knows that his history is tainted but that it retains virtues worth sustaining—that a fraught past is not reducible to sound bites or political abstractions but is vast and contains multitudes.
In 1966, Bill and Joyce moved to New Orleans, where the English Department at Loyola University, housed in a grand Victorian mansion on St. Charles Avenue, offered him a chairmanship. Joyce earned the M.S. in chemistry from LSU that same year. By this time, Bill had written four additional books of poetry, the last of which, Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965), benefited from Bukowski’s influence. Bill’s poetry earned a few favorable reviews but not as much attention as his novels—And Wait for the Night (1964), The Upper Hand (1967), and The Bombardier (1970). Writing in The Massachusetts Review, Beat poet and critic Josephine Miles approvingly noted two of Bill’s poems from Lines, “Lucifer Means Light” and “Algerien Reveur,” alongside poetry by James Dickey, but her comments were more in passing than in depth. Dickey himself, it should be noted, admired Bill’s writing, saying, “A more forthright, bold, adventurous writer than John William Corrington would be very hard to find.”
Joyce earned her PhD in chemistry from Tulane in 1968. Her thesis, which she wrote under the direction of L. C. Cusachs, was titled, “Effects of Neighboring Atoms in Molecular Orbital Theory.” She began teaching chemistry at Xavier University, and her knowledge of the hard sciences brought about engaging conservations, between her and Bill, about the New Physics. “Even though Bill only passed high school algebra,” Joyce would later say, “his grounding in Platonic idealism made him more capable of understanding the implications of quantum theory than many with more adequate educations.”
By the mid-70s, Bill had become fascinated by Eric Voeglin. A German historian, philosopher, and émigré who had fled the Third Reich, Voegelin taught in LSU’s history department and lectured for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he was a Salvatori Fellow. Voeglin’s philosophy, which drew from Friedrich von Hayek and other conservative thinkers, inspired Bill. In fact, Voegelin made such a lasting impression that, at the time of Bill’s death, Bill was working on an edition of Voegelin’s The Nature of the Law and Related Legal Writings. (After Bill’s death, two men—Robert Anthony Pascal and James Lee Babin—finished what Bill had begun. The completed edition appeared in 1991.)
By 1975, the year he earned his law degree from Tulane, Bill had penned three novels, a short story collection, two editions (anthologies), and four books of poetry. But his writings earned little money. He also had become increasingly disenchanted with the political correctness on campus:
By 1972, though I’d become chair of an English department and offered a full professorship, I’d had enough of academia. You may remember that in the late sixties and early seventies, the academic world was hysterically attempting to respond to student thugs who, in their wisdom, claimed that serious subjects seriously taught were “irrelevant.” The Ivy League gutted its curriculum, deans and faculty engaged in “teach-ins,” spouting Marxist-Leninist slogans, and sat quietly watching while half-witted draft-dodgers and degenerates of various sorts held them captive in their offices. Oddly enough, even as this was going on, there was a concerted effort to crush the academic freedom of almost anyone whose opinions differed from that of the mob or their college-administrator accessories. It seemed a good time to get out and leave the classroom to idiots who couldn’t learn and didn’t know better, and imbeciles who couldn’t teach and should have known better.
Bill joined the law firm of Plotkin & Bradley, a small personal injury practice in New Orleans, and continued to publish in such journals as The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review, and in such conservative periodicals as The Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age. His stories took on a legal bent, peopled as they were with judges and attorneys. But neither law nor legal fiction brought him fame or fortune.
So he turned to screenplays—and, at last, earned the profits he desired. Viewers of the recent film I am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith, might be surprised to learn that Bill and Joyce wrote the screenplay for the earlier version, Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston. And viewers of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) might be surprised to learn that Bill wrote the film’s screenplay while still a law student. All told, Bill and Joyce wrote five screenplays and one television movie. Free from the constraints of university bureaucracy, Bill collaborated with Joyce on various television daytime dramas, including Search for Tomorrow, Another World, Texas, Capitol, One Life to Live, Superior Court, and, most notably, General Hospital. These ventures gained the favor of Hollywood stars, and Bill and Joyce eventually moved to Malibu.
Bill constantly molded and remolded his image, embracing Southern signifiers while altering their various expressions. His early photos suggest a pensive, put-together gentleman wearing ties and sport coats and smoking pipes. Later photos depict a rugged man clad in western wear. Still later photos conjure up the likes of Roy Orbison, what with Bill’s greased hair, cigarettes, and dark sunglasses.
Whatever his looks, Bill was a stark, provocative, and profoundly sensitive writer. His impressive oeuvre has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves. That scholars of conservatism, to say nothing of scholars of Southern literature, have ignored this man is almost inconceivable. There are no doubt many aspects of Bill’s life and literature left to be discovered. As Bill’s friend William Mills put it, “I believe there is a critique of modernity throughout [Bill’s] writing that will continue to deserve serious attentiveness and response.”
On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, Bill suffered a heart attack and died. He was 56. His last words, echoing Stonewall Jackson, were, “it’s all right.”