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Who Was John William Corrington?

In America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Poetry, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on October 10, 2018 at 6:45 am

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Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 28, 1932, John William Corrington—or Bill, as his friends and family called him—claimed on his academic CV that he was 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 would remain with him as he explored in his scholarly pursuits certain forms of Catholic mysticism as well as the teachings of the ancient Gnostics.

Bill loved the South and Southern literature and during his career 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 he 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. A year after joining the LSU faculty, he published his first book of poetry, Where We Are. With only 18 poems and 225 first edition printings, the book hardly established his reputation as a Southern man of letters. But it gave his name instant recognition and inspired his confidence to complete his first novel, And Wait for the Night (1964).

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Bill and Joyce spent the 1963-64 academic year in Sussex, England, where Bill took his D.Phil. from the University of Sussex in 1965, writing his dissertation on James Joyce. In the summer of 1966, at a conference at Northwestern State College, Mel Bradford, a Southern conservative English professor, pulled Bill aside and told him that And Wait for the Night (1964) shared some of the themes and approaches of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished.  Bill agreed, happily.

Of Bill and Miller Williams, Bill’s colleague at LSU, Jo LeCoeur, poet and literature professor, once stated, “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 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 her 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 Charles Bukowski’s friendship and 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. Dickey himself 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; 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.”

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Bill became increasingly disenchanted with what he perceived to be radical campus politics, so he entered law school at Tulane University, graduating in 1975 and, with Joyce, coauthoring the screenplay for Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) while he was still a law student. By the time he graduated from law school, he had penned three novels, a short story collection, two editions (anthologies), and four books of poetry. But his writings earned him little money despite their sales figures.

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 the fame or fortune he desired.

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So he turned to screenplays—and, at last, earned the profits he sought. 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 the recent Battle for the Planet of the Apes films, the latest of which is currently in theaters, might be surprised to learn that Bill co-wrote the film’s original screenplay. All told, Bill and Joyce wrote five screenplays and one television movie together. Bill collaborated with Joyce on various television soap operas as well, among them Search for TomorrowAnother WorldTexasCapitolOne Life to LiveSuperior Court, and General Hospital.  These ventures gained the favor of Hollywood stars, and Bill and Joyce eventually moved to Malibu.

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By the mid-70s, Bill, who preferred deep learning and philosophy to the popular writing that was earning him a comfortable living, had become fascinated by Eric Voegelin. 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. Voegelin’s philosophy inspired Bill and gave Bill a research focus and writing subject for the hours when he was not writing for film or television. 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.)

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.

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Whatever his looks, Bill was a stark, provocative, and profoundly sensitive writer. His impressive oeuvre has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves. 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 were, “it’s all right.” An introduction to his life’s work is both timely and necessary; this proposed manuscript will fill a gap in scholarship in addition to surveying the works of a man who was so important to the literary scene of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, this manuscript will make a scholarly contribution even as it serves as a basic introduction to Corrington’s writing and career.

This manuscript, moreover, will have the added benefit of being the first book-length exposition of Corrington’s oeuvre and will place his fiction and poetry into historical context. The manuscript will consist of approximately 58,000 to 60,000 words, including bibliography and front matter. It will include both primary and secondary bibliographies. More detailed information about the specific plan of the book may be found below. Here, in conclusion, is a list of Corrington’s most notable works:

 

Where We Are (Poetry), The Charioteer Press, Washington,

  1. C., 1962. Hardback and paperback.

 

The Anatomy of Love and Other Poems (Poetry), Roman Books,

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 1964.  Hardback and paperback.

 

Mr. Clean and Other Poems (Poetry), Amber House Press, San

Francisco, California, 1964.

 

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And Wait for the Night (Novel),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1964;

Anthony Blond, Ltd., London, 1964;

Pocket Books, Inc., New York, N. Y., 1965;

Panther Books, Ltd., London, 1967.

 

Lines to the South and Other Poems (Poetry), Louisiana State

University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1965.

 

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Southern Writing in the Sixties: Fiction (Anthology), ed.

with Miller Williams, Louisiana State University Press,

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1966. Hardback and paperback.

 

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Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry (Anthology), ed.

with Miller Williams, Louisiana State University Press,

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1967. Hardback and paperback.

 

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The Upper Hand (Novel),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1967;

Anthony Blond, Ltd., London, 1968;

Berkeley Books, New York, N. Y., 1968;

Panther Books, London, 1969.

 

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The Lonesome Traveler and Other Stories (Short Fiction),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1968.

 

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The Bombardier (Novel),

  1. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, N. Y., 1970;

Lancer Books, New York, N. Y., 1972.

 

The Actes and Monuments (Short Fiction), University of

Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1978. Hardback and paperback.

 

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The Southern Reporter Stories (Short Fiction),

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge,

Louisiana, 1981.

 

 

Shad Sentell (Novel),

Congdon & Weed, Inc., New York, N. Y., 1984;

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(Shad) Macmillan, London, 1984;

(Shad) Grafton Books, London, 1986.

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So Small a Carnival, (Novel, with Joyce H. Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1986;

Ballantine Books, New York, 1987;

(Karneval med doden) Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck

A/S, Kobenhavn, Denmark, 1988;

Hayakawa Publishing, Inc, Japan, 1988;

(New Orleans Carneval) Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munchen,

Germany, 1988;

(Carnaval de Sangue) Editora Best Seller, Sao Paulo,

Brazil, 1988;

Mysterious Press, London, UK, 1989;

(Carnaval de Sangue) Editora Nova Cultural Ltda., Sao

Paulo, Brazil, 1990.

 

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A Project Named Desire, (Novel, with Joyce H. Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1987;

(Das Desire-Projekt) Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, Munchen,

Germany, 1987;

 

Ballantine Books, New York, 1988;

(Dannys sidste sang) Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck,

Kobenhavn, Denmark, 1988;

Hayakawa Publishing, Inc., Japan, 1988;

(Una Canzone Per Morire) Arnoldo Mondadori Editore

S.p.A., Milano, Italy;

(Um Projecto Chamado Desejo) Editora Nova Cultural

Ltda., Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1990;

(Um Projecto Chamado Desejo) Circulo do Livro, Sao

Paulo, Brazil, 1990;

(Um Projecto Chamado Desejo) Editora Best Seller, Sao

Paulo, Brazil, 1990.

 

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A Civil Death, (Novel, with Joyce H. Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1987;

(Begrabnis Erster Klasse) Wilhelm Heyne Verlag,

Munchen, Germany, 1988;

Ballantine Books, New York, 1989;

Hayakawa Publishing, Inc., Japan, 1989;

(Finche Odio Ci Separi) Arnoldo Mondadori Editore

S.p.A., Milano, Italy, 1989.

 

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All My Trials, (2 Short Novels, “Decoration Day” and “The

Risi’s Wife”), University of Arkansas Press,

Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1987. Hardback and paperback.

 

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The White Zone, (Novel with Joyce Corrington),

Viking/Penguin, New York, 1990.

 

 

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The Collected Stories of John William Corrington, ed. by

Joyce Corrington, University of Missouri Press,

Columbia, Missouri, 1990.

 

The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 27, The Nature

    of the Law, and Related Legal Writings, ed. with Robert

Anthony Pascal, James Lee Babin, Louisiana State

University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1991.

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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.

 

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

 

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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.”

 

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