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Tom Chaney: A review of World Enough and Time

Of Writers and Their Books. Book review first appeared in Sundays, 24 and 31 July 2005 in the Hart County Herald. Money, Sex and Murder a review of World Enough and Time by Kentucky author Robert Penn Warren
The next previous Of Writers and Their Books: Murder in Scandinavia, a review of One Step Behind by Henning Mankell

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

Money, Sex, and Murder

When Kentucky entered the union as the fifteenth state in 1792, an era of growth and prosperity was under way. In 1820 the Commonwealth ranked sixth in population of the nation.

Land speculation and the expectation of continual rising prices put many of its citizens deeply into debt.

In the closing years of the eighteenth century, regular currency was simply unavailable. Banks were informal affairs. In 1780 one John Sanders set up in business in Louisville. An interesting document survives.
Know all men be these presents that Daniel Boone hath deposited 6 beaver skins in my Keep in good order and of the worth of six shillings each skin, and I have took from them 6 shillings for the keep of them, and when they be sold I will pay the balance of 30 shillings for the whole lot to any person who presents this certificate and delivers it up to me at my Keep. Louisville, Falls of Ohio, May 20, 1784. -- "John Sanders"
Barter instead of money was used for trade. Since Kentucky traded with the south down the river some currency from every nation was used.

In 1802 the legislature charted the Kentucky Insurance Company and gave it banking privileges. Four years later the Bank of Kentucky was chartered and capitalized for $1,000,000.

Kentucky entered the War of 1812 with a firmly established industry and commerce, especially since the British blockade kept foreign goods off the American market. An example of this industry is found in the powder manufacturing by the Philadelphian Gratz in the Mammoth Cave.

Inflation was rampant. Bluegrass land sold for from $100 to $200 per acre. In Louisville a single acre brought $30,000.

In response, the newly established United States Bank established branches in Louisville and Lexington. This bank was thought to stifle the Kentucky banks. Soon wildcat banks sprang up all over the state. Thomas D. Clark notes that all that was needed to start a bank was a charter and a printing press.

Kentucky had fifty-nine banking institutions in 1818. The next year the bubble burst. Land dropped to one sixth of its previous value. Property holders in the state owed $10,000,000 to local banks. Merchants owed $4,000,000 to their eastern suppliers.

In 1816 Governor George Madison became the first governor to die in office -- serving only two months. Lieutenant Governor Gabriel Slaughter became acting governor. When the bubble burst during his administration thousands of Kentuckians faced default. In the face of financial disaster, citizens demanded relief from the state legislature.

In 1820 advocates of relief gained control of the legislature. "Stay Laws" postponed payments due to creditors. Another bank was chartered that offered cheap money. If a creditor refused to accept the money of the Bank of the Commonwealth, he could not collect in court for two years.

The Court of Appeals did not approve.

On Christmas Eve in 1824, the legislature replaced three judges with four in favor of "relief." The "Old Court" refused to turn over its records to the "New Court," and the battle was joined.

In the midst of this controversy Solomon P. Sharpe from Bowling Green was murdered at the door of his Frankfort home. Sharpe had at first supported the New Court and was reputed to have switched sides. Old Court supporters accused their rivals of the murder.

But Jeroboam O. Beauchamp of Glasgow proved to be the assassin. Beauchamp's wife, the former Ann Cook had accused Sharpe of being the father of her stillborn child. Sharpe's friends countered with the accusation that the child was fathered by one of her slaves.

Beauchamp was convicted and sentenced to hang. Ann Cook Beauchamp persuaded the sheriff to let her stay in her husband's cell for the final days before the hanging. She smuggled in a knife and some laudanum. In a suicide pact they drank the laudanum. It did not work. They resorted to the knife. Ann killed herself. Beauchamp was not successful. But he was so wounded that, unable to stand, he had to be placed in a chair on the gallows to be hung.

Beauchamp's uncle of Bloomfield claimed the bodies. Ann and Jerry now lie arm in arm in a grave in the Bloomfield cemetery, under a tombstone containing a long poem written by Ann.

Both Edgar Allen Poe and William Gilmore Sims wrote stories about the murder and suicide. But it fell to Robert Penn Warren to adapt the tale in a stunning novel -- World Enough and Time. Thus the historical stage is set for the Warren novel.
Jeremiah Beaumont was born in 1801 in Glasgow County, Kentucky, on the edge of the section known as the Barrens. That name does not do less than a wrong to the land, for the first settlers who came found a high, shelving and rolling country covered with grass where elk grazed peacefully and where there was no need for the ax to clear a field for the plow.
Thus Robert Penn Warren sets a familiar landscape for his 1950 novel, World Enough and Time [Random House, 1950]. The geography of the heart is more difficult to divine.

Jeremiah's father, Jasper, came to Kentucky in 1791; settled in Lexington: managed a rope walk; defended a young man named Marcher in a fight; and married his sister over her father's objection. He brought his bride to Glasgow County the next year. Thus a literate, capable man prospered for a time in south central Kentucky.

Jasper was unlucky in children. In the first years were born three sons, one stillborn, the other two each dead within his first two years. Later a daughter was born. And then came Jeremiah.

Jeremiah learned the woods and books. His literate father set him to reading early, then put him to school at nine years to Dr. Leicester Burnham, a physician, scholar, and poet when he opened his school next to a spring. Jeremiah describes Burnham in his journal. "[He was] 'fat as a sow come to farrowing time' with a round face, 'the color of the belly of a dead catfish.'"

Four years later his grandfather Marcher sent for Jeremiah. In two summers there along the Kentucky River, he learned the pull of the river. Jeremiah's father died bankrupt at the end of the second summer. When Marcher offered to make him his heir if he would renounce his father's name, Jeremiah replied,
"No man shall call him blackguard, and were you not old and sottish and my own grandfather, I would show you that I am my father's son."
About this time the hell-fire preacher Corinthian McClardy brought the Great Revival to Glasgow County.
Before Corinthian McClardy came his "feats were told and his fame norated before him from farm to farm and creek to creek." He had garnered four hundred souls at one meeting, but also, with bare hands, he had wrenched the dirk away from a bully and trod it underfoot.

At a great meeting in Alabama an infidel had pestered him past endurance and he had boiled over the edge of his cart and seized the man to lift him by leg and neck high in the air and shout, "What shall we do, oh Israel!" and some unnamed worshipper had yelled, "Stomp the son-of-a-bitch and praise God!" According to report, the notion appeared for an instant to find favor in the preacher's eyes, but he controlled himself, and screaming, "Let the dead bough be cast into the fire!" heaved the middle-weight scoffer out of the ring and into bed with a broken arm.
Jeremiah knew the terror of conviction but could not be saved, despite McClardy's efforts, for he "had nothing to hand to offer for the price of his soul."

After a time of assisting Dr Burnham at his school, the doctor introduced him to Colonel Cassius Fort, an attorney in Bowling Green. There Jeremiah worked in a store, read law, and made the acquaintance of Wilke Barron.

Wilkie told him of Rachel Jordan up on Green River. The daughter of a failed plantation owner, Rachel and her mother were left in straightened circumstances upon the death of Mr. Jordan. Cassius Fort was helping to salvage what could be saved from the creditors. According to Wilkie, Rachel had given birth to a still-born child fathered by Fort.

Jeremiah leaves the employ of Fort: takes up residence with Wilkie's uncle near the Jordan place; and pays court to Rachel -- in love with the idea of tarnished virtue. After many months and much supplication, Jeremiah secures Rachel's acceptance,
"Yes," she replies, "if. . .""If what?" he demanded . . . "If what?" he insisted.

"Kill Fort!" she said.
He agrees; they marry; time passes.Fort, a major spokesman for the New Court/debt relief faction, switches sides and allies himself with the Old Court faction. Jeremiah attempts to challenge Fort to a duel in Frankfort, but Fort, still fond of Jeremiah, refuses to be drawn out.

Jeremiah surveys land in western Kentucky preparatory to speculation when his friend Wilkie tells him that Fort has further slandered Rachel by claiming in a political broadside that her child had been fathered, not by him, but by one of her slaves.

Jeremiah travels to Frankfort; calls Fort out by night; and kills him with a knife in the darkness.

He flees back to Rachel in the Green River country where he is captured and returned to Frankfort for trial. The trial, based entirely on trumped up evidence, results in conviction. Jeremiah is sentenced to hang.

Rachel joins him in his Frankfort cell. They are visited by Dr. Burnham who is persuaded to furnish laudanum for a double suicide. The dose is not strong enough.

Wilkie Barron arranges their escape from jail. Rachel and Jeremiah flee to the swamp land of far Western Kentucky where they take refuge with an aging outlaw, La Grand' Bosse, the big hump, who leads a colony of thieves and misfits. Rachel dies. Jeremiah leaves with the promise of a pardon from the governor. Along the way he is killed by his rescuer who brings his head back to Frankfort.

Thus has Jeremiah risen out of the obscurity of poverty, obsessed with the ideal of truth and virtue, to wallow in the swamp of whoredom and drunkenness. He realizes at the end that, according to his journal,
"I killed Cassius Fort, in darkness and deceit, and that was a crime. But I do not seek expiation merely for that. Nor for what I did to Rachel, greater crime as it is, to go to her not for her sake but my own and to defile her mind, and torture her until she cried for Fort's blood. . . . Nor that I had committed a thousand particular crimes. . . . No, that crime for which I seek expiation is never lost. It is always there. It is unpardonable. It is the crime of self; the crime of life, the crime is I."
Rachel's body was brought back to Frankfort. Jeremiah's head is buried with her in her coffin in an obscure corner of the graveyard beneath some verses from her hand.
"There must be a way I have missed," he says, and looks back on his story. "There must be a way whereby the word becomes flesh. There must be a way whereby the flesh becomes word. Whereby loneliness becomes communion without contamination. Whereby contamination becomes purity without exile. There must be a way, but I may not have it now. All I can have now is knowledge. . . . But if we can know the terrible logic of life, if we can only know that life tells no lies in the end, for all the lies, single and particular, will at last speak together in a great chorus of truth in many voices. . . . [Knowledge] is not redemption, but is almost better than redemption. . . . I may not have redemption. I no longer seek to justify. I seek only to suffer. I will shake the hangman's hand, and will call him my brother, at last."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749 (270) 786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-02-20 06:27:41
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