Anybody Raised Down Home-Down South: Brother to Dragons and Warren's Southern Ethnography
Heuston, Sean, The Mississippi Quarterly
SINCE THE REVISED VERSION OF ROBERT PENN WARREN'S 1953 BOOK-LENGTH poem Brother to Dragons appeared in 1979, (1) numerous scholarly responses have concentrated on the political implications of the poem's central event, the 1811 murder of a slave by two nephews of Thomas Jefferson in rural Kentucky. Such critiques have too often taken for granted that Warren's magnum opus should be considered exclusively as a poem, a generically stable and exclusively literary construct that should be evaluated according to certain inviolable criteria. As Michael Kreyling notes while examining Brother to Dragons, "'Poetry' is the name we customarily give to cultural products that are privileged, by canons of reading and interpretation, to boast the closure, meaning, finishedness that lived history negates" (xi). Such a concept of poetry (which one could extend to literature in general) serves poorly in an examination of Brother to Dragons, because Warren's poem continually destabilizes its own meanings, refuses authoritative closure and finishedness, and presents itself not as a pure poem but as a complex literary hybrid.
The conceptual models developed in works of contemporary or postmodern ethnographic theory--most notably James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art--provide a particularly well-suited critical apparatus by which to examine Brother to Dragons as a work of creative ethnography. Although Clifford's work will serve as the theoretical starting point of this essay, I will refer to other noteworthy contemporary ethnographic theorists in order to address other possibilities for ethnographic literary criticism that such theorists explore. Clifford's status as the pre-eminent theorist of the interdisciplinary connections between ethnography and literature is as yet unchallenged. No other ethnographic theorist has paid a comparable amount of attention to the interdisciplinary possibilities of ethnographic theory and its potential applicability to literary criticism, and Clifford's prominence in recent ethnographic critical discourse is emphasized by the amount of time other critics in the field spend responding directly to his work.
This essay will move back and forth between Warren's Brother to Dragons and ethnographic theoretical texts, reading Warren's works by the lights of the various theorists' comments on the interrelationships between ethnography and literature, and recognizing the similarities between various paradigms of ethnography and Warren's approach to American cultural issues. This approach will call attention to the extent to which the works analyze and construct versions of America and national forms of injustice and complicity, particularly those traditionally identified with the South. Ultimately, however, this juxtaposition of ethnographic theory and Warren's works may prove most useful because of discrepancies between Warren's texts and the ethnographic theoretical models. Noticing the ways the theoretical models fail to accommodate Warren's narrative strategies will provoke readers to consider the ways Warren's works deconstruct themselves and continually complicate the very questions readers might expect them to resolve.
During Warren's lengthy literary career, he published some fifteen books of poetry, ten novels, one book of short stories, six books of non-fiction prose (not counting his literary criticism), one play, textbooks (including the remarkably influential Understanding Poetry with Cleanth Brooks) in multiple editions, and a great deal of critical writing covering everything from literature to broad social issues. Walter Sullivan expresses a conviction--common among Warren scholars--that "The autobiographical element is stronger in Warren's poetry than in his fiction." (2) It is stronger still in Warren's non-fiction prose writings on race. Although one could extend an ethnographic reading of Warren into his novels, the element of disguise surrounding the novels' narrators would ultimately make such a critical pursuit less fruitful than an ethnographic consideration of Brother to Dragons. …