American Literature as a recognized category actually has a fairly short history. While there are now libraries full of works that capture the post-Colonial and early experimental movement toward a body of work that encompasses and celebrates American culture, it typically coalesces around Ralph Waldo Emerson circa 1836. With advancements in printing and a newfound focus on reading, American Literature takes in a wealth of stories from the North and travels as far South as Missouri to claim Mark Twain as one of their own.
Twain's contribution proved to be most important because he wrote in the vernacular, quoting nearly every instance of local dialect possible. The language of the South opened the door for more Southern writers. After years of far-too-accurate “slave narratives” and far-too-inaccurate post-Civil War screeds (Kate Chopin and others not included), the need for a so-called “Southern Renaissance” took shape.
The Twentieth Century proved to be a turning point for America. The advances that Modernists like T.S.Eliot made in England were finally reflected in the study and writing of a new group of American writers. The alienation and existentialist gloom that became synonymous with The Lost Generation in Paris had long infected relations in the fractured American South. With the growth of industry, education took on never-before-seen importance.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville was the home to not only a great staff and students in its burgeoning English department, but “townies” that were active writers as well. So it was fitting that they would assemble and talk about poetry. With their intergenerational makeup, the group could easily argue about not only the merits of their poetry against the rest of the world (and antiquity).
So it made sense that this group of enthusiasts and scholars could meet every two weeks and lead poetic tradition into a new age. Where the Modernists were breaking all the rules, this coterie of writers was actually willing to connect their writing to the past thus rebranding Southern Literature's ties to tradition. It was also fitting they would start a magazine to publish their works and actively compete with the other higher-profile universities and urban centers. “The Fugitive” ran from 1922-1925 and translated their bi-weekly discussions of everything into one of the most influential collections of the 20th Century.
“The Fugitive” generates four notable men of letters, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. H.L. Mencken once wrote about the South, “not a single contribution to human knowledge has come out of her colleges for twenty-five years.” In this brief three-year period, “The Fugitives” generated two U.S. poet laureates and Warren, the only writer to be awarded Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry and prose.
The Kentucky native's most famous work is 1948's “All The King's Men.” Seen as a “political novel” written around the legend of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, “All The King's Men” is a shining example of how a writer can essentially paint imagistic pictures with local color and still supply an omniscient but liminal narrator who makes everything so smart. Penn Warren is using nearly every available aspect of the English Language in these pages.
The big picture of “All The King's Men” is that decisions always have consequences. Whether our protagonist Willie Stark is on his way up from common man to Governor or down, even his selling of his plans is rooted more in reality than unabashed optimism. This is not necessarily foreshadowing, but the smart placement of Jack Burden as the so-called “student of history.” At every moment Stark seems to bring everyone up around him, Burden is there recording it all in his notebooks (which then reside in a safe deposit box).
Our history as Americans and Southerners is filled with audacious men and women who promise you the world and then say they not doing it for votes. However, once six million dollars starts getting kicked around, everyone sees who benefits and who does not. This is a universal tale, one that goes all the way back to the Greek and Roman poetry Penn Warren admired for its forms. Corruption and that dastardly devil in the details led many a leader from the road of progress for all to the road of compensation for the select few.
Furthermore, the fantastic images of “The Fugitives” that set their poems apart from the other works of the Twenties can find no better home than the mysterious Louisiana backdrop in the Thirties for its story. Burden's journey is to find the truth, but he is derailed by the loss of his job (among other tragedies). His internal conflict encompasses his quest for information and the damage that it can do in the wrong hands.
“I didn't mean to cause any ruckus. I didn't think—” And all the while that cold, unloving part of the mind--that maiden aunt, that washroom mirror the drunk stares into, that still small voice, that maggot in the chess of your self-esteem, that commentator on the ether nightmare, that death's-head of lipless rationality at your every feast — all that while that part of the mind was saying: You're making it worse, your lying is just making it worse, can't you shut up, you blabbermouth!”
This battle between sides of the brain in Burden is not just proof that this conflict exists in all of us. It goes so far as to remake the struggle to do good versus its opposite as our fundamental source of finding our own identity. In total, Warren purports that inside every one of us — whatever stratum on the social scale we reside — must gaze into ourselves and decide how we can live with ourselves amid the myriad consequences of action or non-action.
It must be noted that Penn Warren while quite the aesthete, did knowingly engage in segregationist philosophy once several of “The Fugitives” reconvened in the Thirties as “The Southern Agrarians.” By 1956, Penn Warren chose to go on record in Life magazine and even write a book where he rebranded himself as a staunch supporter of integration. By 1965, Warren even published a book of his interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Perhaps like the characters in his award-winning novel, he followed the consequences of his own actions. Finally, in 1974, the Dallas, TX school board banned “All The King's Men” for displaying “a depressed view of life” — something to consider as this is the national observation of Banned Books Week.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.
New This Week
VIEUX FARKA TOURE & KHRUANGBIN - Ali [LP/CD/CS](Dead Oceans/ Secretly/AMPED)
The union of the holy Malian Blues of Vieux Farka Toure ("Savanne" is his own longtime sizzler) and funky favorites Khruangbin is a match made in heaven. Both are famous for their understated but impressive songs built around World music textures. Together, "Ali" is most impressive because they manage to raise the bar for each other.
OZZY OSBOURNE & MOTORHEAD - Live To Win [LP/CD](Cleopatra)
The legacies of Ozzy and Lemmy live on in this assembly of all of the great guest appearances on Motorhead tracks during their career. The main attraction is Ozzy fresh from "Patient Number 9" screaming along with Lemmy on Philthy Phil's drum basher (and NWOBHM standard-bearer" "Overkill." In addition, Lemmy covers AC/DC with Ozzy's second guitar player Jake E. Lee, Queen's "Tie Your Mother Down" with The Nuge and Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" with Rat Scabies of The Damned. Also, there are pair of Motorhead rarities: a 1978 version of the locomotive Rock standard "Train Kept A 'Rollin" and a cover of Judas Priest's "Breaking The Law."
REISSUES OF THE WEEK
ALICE IN CHAINS - Dirt [2LP])(Legacy)
The legacy of Alice in Chains is a difficult one to understand. As a band that was largely dismissed by the in-crowd of surging Seattle in the early Nineties, their biggest credit comes from never losing that "outsider status." Too hard for Rock radio. Not Grunge enough for Alternative Radio. Alice in Chains proved them all wrong with the still-devastating "Dirt" in September 1992. Their debut "Facelift" only reached chart status thanks to MTV's play of their videos like "Man In The Box." In Spring 1992, Alice In Chains launched their own custom-made charm offensive. Entering the studio to record a track for the upcoming Cameron Crowe film, the band wisely assembled an acoustic EP "Sap." Despite guest appearances from Nancy Wilson of Heart and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, the band asked that it not be promoted and instead only shelved as a "reward" to their true fans. The actual single they cut for Crowe's movie, "Would?" turned heads among those seeing Alice In Chains as yet another Seattle band and landed them their first hit on Rock radio. "Sap" and "Would?" both established that there was a darker side to their music and Alice In Chains was in pursuit of a new album that be less angry and grimmer than most.
On Dirt, every terrible thing in either Alice In Chains' world or the real world was there for inspiration. Jerry Cantrell wrote "Dam That River" after bassist Sean Kinney smashed him over the head with a coffee table. Cantrell and Layne Staley turned "Rain When I Die" into a means of expressing their frustrations with their girlfriends. While the harrowing "Rooster" was a character study of a depressed Vietnam Veteran. The real pall over "Dirt" is drugs. Alice In Chains set out to make a record that was both bleak and heavy and succeeded enough to influence future generations with it. "Dirt" lives on because of its balanced attack. "Them Bones" is a chugging, metallic gut-punch lined with sarcasm and vitriol, while "Down In A Hole" is a frightening ballad that characterizes depression far too well. These 13 songs have all aged perfectly. "Dirt" still inspires bands today and likely gets more airplay today than it did upon release. Alice in Chains became inescapable after "Dirt" - a fact that today still makes the loss of Layne Staley hurt.
BAD BRAINS - Quickness [LP](ORG/AMPED)
After ten years of being on the cutting edge of Punk/Thrash, DC's legendary Bad Brains finally caught a break in 1986 when their video of "I Against I" started to propel sales of the SST album of the same name. Their newfound success proved at first to be problematic. Lead singer H.R. wanted to disband and go back to playing Reggae. Drummer Earl Hudson actually sat this record out (although he was on the cover). Signed to Caroline in the wake of Funk/Metal bands like Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz, "Quickness" was like dynamite lit to explode. The opener "Soul Craft" (also another MTV video) remains one of their best singles. The slam of the earlier records has a little more drive behind it even as Dr. Know makes his guitar squall. Otherwise "Don't Blow Bubbles" calls all the way back to the classic debut, while the pure Reggae songs on Side Two still sound reverent today.