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Troy Camplin Reviews “Napoleon in America,” a Novel by Shannon Selin

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, History, Humanities, Novels, The Novel, Writing on August 20, 2014 at 8:45 am
Shannon Selin

Shannon Selin

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 CamplinTroy 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.

John William Corrington, A Literary Conservative

In American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The Novel, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

 

Allen 2

 

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.”

 

Joyce Corrington Publishes the Work of Late Husband John William Corrington

In Arts & Letters, Books, Fiction, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Literature, Poetry, Southern History, Television Writing, The South, Writing on March 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Joyce Corrington, pictured above, has made her late husband John William “Bill” Corrington’s book The Upper Hand available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book. Click here to view or purchase this book.

Even more important, she has collected John William Corrington’s poems into a book. Click here to view or purchase this book. This is the first publication of Corrington’s collected poems, and Joyce is delighted to make them available to the public and future scholars.

Joyce Corrington is a writer who, with her late husband John William “Bill” Corrington, wrote several films, including The Omega Man (1970), Box Car Bertha (1971), and The Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Also with Bill Corrington, she co-authored four novels: So Small a Carnival (1986), A Project Named Desire (1987), A Civil Death (1987), and The White Zone (1990). She was head writer for such television series as Search for Tomorrow, Texas, General Hospital and Superior Court, and she has been a co-executive producer for MTV’s The Real World. She holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University. Her latest book, Fear of Dying, is available in both Kindle e-book and paperback format. Formerly a Malibu resident, she now resides in New Orleans.

To read more about John William Corrington, click here to read this profile.

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Joyce Corrington

In Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Fiction, Film, History, Humanities, Information Design, John William Corrington, Law, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Philosophy, Screenwriting, Television, Television Writing, Writing on September 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

Joyce Corrington is a writer who, with her late husband John William “Bill” Corrington, wrote several films, including The Omega Man (1970), Box Car Bertha (1971), and The Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  Also with Bill Corrington, she co-authored four novels: So Small a Carnival (1986), A Project Named Desire (1987), A Civil Death (1987), and The White Zone (1990).  She was head writer for such television series as Search for Tomorrow, Texas, General Hospital and Superior Court, and she has been a co-executive producer for MTV’s The Real World.  She holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University.  Her latest book, Fear of Dying, is available in both Kindle e-book and paperback format.  Formerly a Malibu resident, she now resides in New Orleans. 

Photo by Robert Corrington

Joyce, thank you so much for doing this interview.  I’m surprised we haven’t done one before.  You’ve been an enormous help to me over the years.  You even allowed me to stay at your home in New Orleans so that I could do research on your late husband, Bill.  During that time I learned that you hold a Ph.D. from Tulane University, and taught Chemistry at Xavier University for ten years.  Tell me, how did a person with that background become a writer?

I’m sure it would never have happened if I hadn’t met and married Bill when we were both at Rice University.  He was working on a doctorate so he could earn a living teaching, but he wanted to write.  Bill succeeded in publishing a number of well-received novels, which I typed and edited for him.  But we did not become co-writers until Roger Corman read one of Bill’s novels and invited him to write a movie script.  This was not something Bill especially wanted to do.  But it paid better than college teaching, so we evolved a film writing partnership, whereby I would create a detailed story structure and Bill would write a script following my outline.  After six films, we became involved in writing television series and continued our writing partnership there and in the four New Orleans mystery books we published.  Bill passed away as the fourth was being written, so I completed it.

Why did you choose to continue the series?

After Bill died I found it difficult to get the same kind of writing jobs we had been used to doing.  I think this was because all of my credits were as half of a writing team and producers felt uncertain whether I could do the job by myself.  Thus I had about two years where I had little to do and, while I read a lot during that time, I also began writing a sequel to our New Orleans mystery series.  I think I wanted to prove that I could do it by myself.  Just after finishing the manuscript for Fear of Dying, I was hired to help produce The Real World, a job which I held for eleven seasons.  I did not get around to publishing Fear of Dying until I retired from that job. Read the rest of this entry »

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