Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Beech, the Hearth, and the Hidden Name in World Enough and Time

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Beech, the Hearth, and the Hidden Name in World Enough and Time

Article excerpt

Crouching in the darkness outside a house in Frankfort, Jeremiah Beaumont remembers a moment from his boyhood. One morning after a night of freezing rain he had come out of his house to gaze upon an ice-covered beech in the sunlight. He plucked an icicle from it and put it in his mouth, and as he did so he felt his own strength pass from his fingers into the tree. "I seemed to become the tree," he had said to himself then, "and knew how it was to be rooted in the deep dark of earth...." (1) Now, waiting for Colonel Fort to emerge from the house in Frankfort so that he can strike him down to avenge the seduction of Rachel Jordan, Beaumont again fancies that he is "growing into the ground.., setting root like the plants of the thicket," and it is this fancy that triggers the recollection of the earlier quasi-mystical experience. "That memory was important to him now, for it seemed to verify him, to say that all his past was one thing ... that all had moved to this moment" (p. 238). Jeremiah is making of his life a work of art, he is "the author of his own ruin" (p. 6), a "dramatist" (p. 311) who writes the script of his quixotic quest for justice, of his avenging of a woman who did not really want to be avenged, of his murder of a just and decent man whose punishment at Beaumont's hands is out of all proportion to his crime. Robert Penn Warren's World Enough and Time is a historical novel about a man who writes his life history by living it in accord with his sense of drama--"It was to be a tragedy, like those in the books he read as a boy" (p. 5)--but the novel is made historical in an unusual sense by the strong possibility that this protagonist may not be the real author of his own life history, but that history itself is. Or, as the narrator tells us early on, "perhaps the land and the history of the land devised Jeremiah Beaumont and the drama in which he played, and the scene is the action and speaks through the mouth of Jeremiah Beaumont as through a mask" (p. 6). Perhaps words are put in his mouth as they were in his prophetic namesake's--"Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth" (Jeremiah 1:9)--and perhaps the icicle from the beech tree is the latter-day equivalent of the divine finger. The secular equivalent, for here it is history itself, together with the land where the history took place, that, the narrator suggests, have written Jeremiah's history.

Like a dream within a dream, this childhood incident will return yet again as the memory of a memory, for in the darkness of the prison cell where his murder of Fort will send him Beaumont will remember how he remembered the bright beech when he lay in wait among the lilacs (p. 315). Freud believed that the appearance of a dream within a dream was "the most decided confirmation of the reality" of its content, (2) and what happens here suggests that the same may be true of a narrative's memory of a memory, for this third appearance of the insistent beech puts us in touch with yet a deeper historical origin for Jeremiah's story. As most readers are aware, Jeremiah Beaumont is more devised than devising for another reason than what the narrator tells us about the land and the history of the land and about how the scene is the action, and that reason is that Beaumont's is the rewritten story of one Jereboam Beauchamp, who avenged the dishonor of an Anna Cook by murdering a Colonel Sharp in Frankfort. (3) Now perhaps in the manner of a dream, the beech tree keeps insisting because it is naming something that has been forgotten, something of which we could say that one level of consciousness is aware and another is not, something Robert Penn Warren knows and we know but Jeremiah Beaumont can never know, and that is that the name of his original was pronounced, in early 19th-century Kentucky fashion and in apparent ignorance of its French origin, Beech-am.

Indeed it does insist precisely in the form of a dream, the one that comes to disturb Jeremiah in the comfort of his marriage with Rachel like a message reminding him of his destiny. …

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