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Tom Chaney: Shadows on the Wall of The Cave

Of Writers And Their Books: Shadows on the Wall of The Cave. Tom says Robert Penn Warren is not retelling the story of Floyd Collins but is showing us how the community reacts when tragedy strikes. This column first appeared 20 February 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Elvis: a Tragic Life

By Tom Chaney

Shadows on the Wall of The Cave

In the dark February of 1925 while Floyd Collins was lying trapped in Sand Cave, the young writer Robert Penn Warren was just learning and practicing his craft at Vanderbilt University. His craft at that time was poetry.

So far as I know he showed no particular interest in the story which was unfolding some ninety miles north of Nashville.

About twenty-five years later he drew on the framework of the Collins story for his sixth novel, The Cave. His use of the story bears only tangentially on the facts of Floyd's entrapment, and does not exhibit much detailed knowledge of cave exploration.

This is why friends of mine, knowledgeable in caving matters, tended to write off The Cave as an inadequate attempt at retelling the Collins story.

In this, they have missed the point of the novel which harks back more to the Greek philosopher Plato's cave than to that owned by Bee Doyle on the Mammoth Cave Road.

A pair of Monkey-Ward boots, number X-362, sit carefully next to a guitar in a green glade before a Tennessee cave entrance. A boy enters the glade -- kid-scrawny wearing "blue-jeans tight enough to show his good leg and narrow hips" holding his hand "back toward the girl . . . as though tolling the girl out of the woods and brush toward the spot where grass is soft as silk."

Their sporting is interrupted when the boy recognizes his older brother's boots and guitar before the entrance to a cave he is exploring. But the dew is upon them. The brother is trapped in the fourth chamber of the cave.

The novel is not so much about the attempt to rescue Jasper Harrick from the cave as about the nature of the community as they learn how to see themselves and each other, bound as they are -- prisoners in their own cave as Plato put it in Book VII of The Republic.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
Later, in a 1980 collection of poetry Being Here, Warren reflects on the visit of a child of twelve into a cave with curiosity. The critic James H. Justus notes how the boy stretches "on a ledge above the dark waters, the speaker douses the light" and plunges the boy into a darkness where he reflects on "how the cave affects his senses and his sense of self."
I dared not move in a darkness so absolute.

I thought: This is me. Thought: Me -- who am I?
The Cave continues Warren's searching into the darkness of the human heart for definition.

The trapped Jasper becomes a kind of non-character about whom swirl the greed and compassion of the Greek restaurateur Nick Papadoupalous; the last hope of love between the Jasper's parents, Jack and Celia Harrick; the different passions of Ike and Mac Sumpter, father and son who between them exploit the needs of the community.

Father, MacCarland Sumpter, minister, keeps a revival going at the mouth of the cave while son, Isaac, fails to even get to the side of his trapped friend. Little Ikey finally escapes to New York to spend his thirty pieces of silver earned in the betrayal of Jasper, while his father, old Mac, crawls into the darkness; discovers Isaac's betrayal and drags a heating pad to the still warm corpse to cover his son's deceit.

Each of the eight or so narrative voices in The Cavesearches for a definition of self. A search may result in both loss and separateness or in peace and hard won love as in the case of the cancer-ridden Jack and his wife Celia.

Yet all we are able to see -- both in the novel and, perhaps, in our own condition -- are the feeble shadows thrown before us on the wall of our cave. Warren does, however, enable us to turn our heads a bit for a better view.

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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
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-12-21 05:01:29
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