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Tom Chaney: Night Rider: Idealism's Coil

Of Writers And Their Books: Night Rider: Idealism's Coil. Tom says Percy Munn is one of a long line of Warren characters whose idealism is their undoing. The coils of that idealism become entangled in the press of the crowd. This column first appeared 28 August 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Cyrus Edwards on the Elizabeth Wilson Family

By Tom Chaney

Night Rider: Idealism's Coil

The protagonist of Robert Penn Warren's Night Rider is Percy Munn, a lawyer and farmer near the fictional Bardsville in the black patch of southern Kentucky. Mr. Munn is drawn into the organizational meeting of the Association of Growers of Dark Fired Tobacco and accepts a leadership post in the group organized to fight low prices being paid farmers for their crop.

When persuasion of farmers does not result in enough members to make the tobacco companies come to agreement, the Association and Mr. Munn turn to increasingly violent tactics. They form the night riders, a clandestine organization designed to force grower compliance through means other than gentle persuasion.

Farmers receive bundles of switches left at their doorstep by masked men. When that tactic does not work, plant beds are scraped in the spring. Often the night riders force the farmer to destroy his own beds. The vigilantes in the fall burn the curing barns of the holdouts. Mr. Munn, as captain of a band of ten men is a major voice in planning and executing the violence.

Violence escalates as the night riders under the leadership of Mr. Munn and others plan the take over the town of Bardsville to destroy the tobacco trust warehouses.

As Mr. Munn descends into violence he sheds the meaningful relationships in his life. On the first day as his train approaches the station in Bardsville, he is pressed from behind by the crowd waiting to get off the train. "And as the movement of that crowd pushed him toward the door, Mr. Munn again resented that pressure that was human because it was made by human beings, but was inhuman, too, because you could not isolate and blame any one of those human beings who made it."

As he leaves the train, he meets Mr. Bill Christian, a wealthy farmer from out in the county, with his daughter Lucille. They proceed together to Mr. Munn's hotel room and then to the organizational meeting of the leaders of the Association. There they join Senator Tolliver, and with him go to the rally. Mr. Christian and Senator Tolliver maneuver Mr. Munn to the platform. The senator, unexpectedly, calls on Mr. Munn to address the crowd.

The speech, which Mr. Munn can never clearly recall later, moves the crowd to a fever pitch for organization. As in the departure from the crowded train, Mr. Munn is swept along by the undifferentiated crowd.

Under the press of Association business, Mr. Munn spends a great deal of time at the Christian farm. Lucille comes to his room by night to begin a rather torrid affair. Again, Mr. Munn is the moved, rather than the initial mover.

Mr. Munn's law practice suffers in the face of Association business. He and his wife May become estranged. She returns to the home of her aunt who raises a formidable barrier to Mr. Munn's half-hearted entreaties.

Senator Tolliver loses his bid for reelection and financial backing of the tobacco trust as a result of his support of the Association. But, when he learns of the night riders, he resigns the Association.

After the destruction of the warehouses at Bardsville, the state militia is called in. Mr. Munn's associate Doctor MacDonald is indicted for his part in the raid. During the trial, Mr. Munn goes to his office early one morning to open it for his assistant's later arrival. Later an unknown man enters the office and, using Mr. Munn's gun, kills an important witness for the prosecution.

Mr. Munn is accused of the crime and is forced to flee. While staying at the Christian farm, a posse comes for him. Lucille is in the room when Mr. Christian warns him. He escapes. Mr. Christian enters the room to discover Lucille. He has a stroke when he discovers the evidence of their affair.

Mr. Munn seeks refuge with Willie Proudfit, a buffalo hunter returned from the West to a green glade of memory where he lives at peace.

While there he learns the Association has sold out to the tobacco trust, getting much less for their tobacco than their asking price.

But Mr. Munn leaves the Proudfit sanctuary to confront Senator Tolliver and to be gunned down by the militia.

The Senator provides a useful contrast to Mr. Munn. Tolliver loses his position and his wealth but stands on principle in his support for the Association and his refusal to join those who advocate violence.

In speaking of The Tempest, Mark Van Doren observed that the play is like an electric field in that it lights up when touched at any point. This clarifying metaphor certainly applies to Night Rider.

As George Core notes in an insightful foreword to the novel, Warren himself said when writing of Ernest Hemmingway, "Neither the economic man nor the political man is the complete man: other concerns may still be important enough to engage the attention of a writer -- such concerns as love, death, courage, the point of honor, and the moral scruple."

Percy Munn tries to define himself in economic and political terms. Instead, he finds himself pushed by events and emotions throughout the novel -- much as he is pushed in the aisle of the train car. He is unable to steer a course of leadership consistently moral and right.

He loses the ability to love. He is removed from human communion. Mr. Munn is one of a long line of Warren characters whose idealism is their undoing. The coils of that idealism become entangled in the press of the crowd in the aisle of the train.

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 -

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