Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dragons and Men

now finished: Brother to Dragons by Robert Penn Warren
next up: something in Spanish, as it happens

Another check off the A-to-Z Literary Blog Project Top Half list: W.  Recall that the first time through the alphabet, I read All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren and he more than made the cut for my A-to-Z Top Half phase II of the project (which also includes A, C, D, E, F, I, L, R, S, U, V, and Y).

I was having a bit of difficulty deciding which Robert Penn Warren to read for my sequel, though. One, because he is not just a novelist but a poet, and he won the Pulitzer for fiction for All the King's Men, but also two, count 'em, two Pulitzers for poetry (Promises in 1958 and Now and Then in 1979). Two, because in all my popping in and out of bookstores and libraries whilst I was in Arizona for three months, I never came across anything of his but AtKM. I was definitely going to have to seek something out, but I couldn't decide what to seek out. He also wrote some other novels...should I try one of those since I will eventually read the Pulitzer-winning poetry on my Pulitzer quest anyway?

And then, on my last possible used books errand running day in Phoenix, just before flying to Queretaro, I was trying to declutter and I took some old books to a couple stores to sell/trade and ended up with a bunch of store credit. I already had a few books to bring to Mexico with me, and I didn't want to add more, but since I had just been gifted a bunch of store credit I thought I should at least see what they had, and right there in the Ws was Robert Penn Warren's Brother to Dragons, of which I had never heard. A sign, you say? Maybe.

Brother to Dragons  is a "tale in verse and voices" -- or was it "voices and verse" -- anyway, it is really not a play at all, although it is poetry. It imagines a variety of real figures and a couple of invented people talking about an event that occurred in the early 1800s:  Thomas Jefferson's nephews brutally murdered and hacked apart one of their slaves.  Apparently, Thomas Jefferson did not comment on this in real life, despite his extensive writing and waxing profound and all that, so you know he felt some of the shame and anger and bewilderment and utter despair at humanity that Robert Penn Warren conjures up in this book.

I really like what he does here. It's a quick read; sure there are parts you'll want to re-read to get more than just the gist, as with any good poetry, but it's less of a time commitment than, say, Beowulf. I found it to be a compelling supplement to my other current reading project of reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project obviously started during the Dubya administration).

RPW is basically asserting and grappling with his belief that Thomas Jefferson had all these ideas about the nobility of humanity, or even just mankind, and that an evil act such as this pre-meditated murder and mutilation really destroyed some of Jefferson's theory. It is philosophically compelling and filled with interesting poetry. The one weird part about this book is when the slave who nursed the murderer nephew as a baby speaks to him and he spits on the ground as if to spit the very milk he drank from her -- it's weird because they talk, like, really crudely about sucking the teat and whatnot. Other than that jarring section, the book was just good. I heard that RPW revised it and issued a new edition decades later, but I read the original version.

It's such a unique thing to read -- and a few weeks ago I didn't even know it existed! Give it a whirl!
Final Grade: B+

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