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Tom Chaney: World Enough and Time

Of Writers And Their Books: World Enough and Time. Tom ends this review of Robert Penn Warren’s book with a quotation “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.” This column first appeared 31 July 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Possum Hunters and the Tobacco Trust

By Tom Chaney

World Enough and Time

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, [see column from 24 July] 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
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2016-01-31 07:46:06
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