Madison Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Madison Jones is first and foremost a southern writer. His books are all set in and around Tennessee, but they encompass the spirit and turmoil of the American South in general. His novels all include some aspect of southern history, ranging from the pioneer settlers in 1802 to the civil rights marchers of the 1960’s. He seldom has written about the Civil War itself; the war figures largely in his 1997 novel Nashville 1864, but in most of his works it is present only through its shadow.

During the 1960’s, critics such as Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate placed Jones at the head of the second generation of twentieth century southern novelists, those who wrote in the shadow of William Faulkner. Louis D. Rubin, for example, in his 1963 essay “The Difficulties of Being a Southern Writer Today: Or, Getting Out from Under William Faulkner,” uses Jones’s third novel, A Buried Land, as an example of a southern novel that deals with the modern South on its own terms and not those established by Faulkner. Rubin asserts that Jones writes about a world different from Faulkner’s, with different loyalties and demands. Although one might question the absoluteness of Rubin’s conclusions—Faulkner does, after all, look clearly at the problems of the changing South in his later works such as The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959)—the fact remains that Jones is more closely aligned with Warren, Lytle, and Tate, and with the Fugitive movement in general, than with writers such as Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell, who tended to remain outside political or social movements. Nevertheless, although Jones’s novels cast a suspicious eye on the “benefits” of rapid change, they also question the romanticization of the past, the unthinking devotion to the heritage of a bygone era.

Indeed, what Jones seems to argue for most in his works is the need for balance. Characters such as Duncan Welsh in The Innocent and Hester Glenn in A Cry of Absence, who attempt to live in a kind of mythic past, do so at the risk of their own humanity by denying their present moral responsibilities. On the other hand, characters such as Percy Youngblood in A Buried Land and Judson Rivers in Passage Through Gehenna, who attempt to deny their past, are equally likely to find themselves teetering on the edge of damnation because they have no faith or loyalties to support them. Jones suggests that both extremes lead to isolation, both physical and spiritual, which is his version of hell on earth. Jones’s novels are structured on such conflicts—between past and present, good and evil, revenge and mercy.

Jones is, in a very real sense, a religious writer, one who believes strongly in the existence of sin and the inevitability of retribution, but who also sees the possibility of redemption. The act of writing itself he sees as a moral commitment. He has stated that he learned from Andrew Lytle that writing is, first of all, a craft to be mastered through demanding work; only then can the writer adequately express his or her private vision. In his book reviews, Jones has criticized writers who fail to look for answers to the human dilemma, who instead retreat into nihilism or descend into exploitation and sensationalism. He also realizes, however, that human beings, in an overzealous attempt to do good, to impose order, may ultimately pervert the very goodness they are trying to establish. Self-righteousness is, to Jones, another form of self-ignorance, and it is those characters who are most sure of themselves who come to suffer the greatest trials. They may finally achieve knowledge and salvation, but only after hellish journeys into the darkness of their souls.

The Innocent

The irony in the title of Jones’s first novel, The Innocent, should not be overlooked. Duncan Welsh, the book’sprotagonist, is the first of many of Jones’s characters who lose their innocence in the attempt to preserve it. Duncan is a young man retreating from a world he finds corrupt, complex, and devious. He wants absolutes in his life—absolute purity, absolute integrity—and he hopes to find them by returning to a past that is more a dream than a reality. The book is set in rural Tennessee in the mid-1930’s. Duncan has been absent from the region for seven years, working as a newspaperman in the North, where the lack of tradition and heritage has appalled him. He finds, however, upon his return, that many of the vices he sought to escape have now encroached even into his homeland.

Jones alerts the reader from the first to the impossibility of Duncan’s dream. The novel’s prologue describes a wrestling match Duncan observes upon his arrival, a match in which a young boy, who is portrayed in terms of his innocence, is killed by a more experienced fighter. The boy’s death anticipates Duncan’s own. Moreover, the reader learns that Duncan is blind in one eye, the result of a freak accident, and blindness becomes the central metaphor of the novel: Duncan simply cannot see the truth in his misguided attempts to maintain his “innocence.”

Duncan’s dream is to re-create the past, a way of life he never actually knew but has long imagined. He finds the family farm in disrepair, his father locked in senility, and his sister engaged to a local preacher, Hiram Garner. Garner represents all that Duncan hates (and much of which Jones himself disapproves): He preaches the social gospel of progress, he disparages the past, and he is contemptuous of those who think otherwise. Despite Garner’s cruel arrogance, he is not an evil man, nor are his calls for social change selfishly motivated. He quickly recognizes in Duncan what Duncan cannot see in himself, that his desire to live in the past is based on a fear of the present. Still, because of Garner’s self-importance, the reader’s sympathies lie with Duncan.

In his quest for an idealized world, Duncan begins to withdraw. After his father dies and his sister marries, he is left alone in the family house. He then sets his hopes on breeding the one remaining horse on the farm, a descendant of an almost legendary stallion once owned by Duncan’s ancestors in the glorious past. The newborn colt comes to represent the past to him, and as it grows into a stallion itself, it becomes the embodiment of some vague, romantic cavalier tradition. For a time, Duncan’s goals seem within reach. He falls in love with the daughter of a neighbor, and when they are married, she tells him that she is pregnant with his child. When Duncan learns that his wife was once the lover of another neighbor, Dicky Jordan, he rejects her, causing her to lose the unborn child, and he is soon again alone in the world.

From this point on, Duncan becomes a man possessed. When his horse is killed (with justification) by the same Dicky Jordan, Duncan’s only companion is a vicious outlaw moonshiner, Aaron McCool. Goaded by Aaron’s insinuations and challenges, Duncan murders Jordan, and when Aaron is arrested for the crime, Duncan helps him escape. Finally, in the woods, removed from civilization, Duncan and Aaron fight with each other when Aaron tries to kill the sheriff who is tracking them down. In the conflict, Duncan is shot, almost by accident, by Aaron, and he dies, blinded by the sun but afraid of the gathering dark.

Duncan Welsh’s fundamental ideas are admirable—he wants to maintain a sense of integrity in a corrupt world—but in order to do so, he turns inward, rejecting the companionship and love that others offer. Jones indicates Duncan’s growing isolation and cruelty by means of a doubling motif. Duncan is compared first to his father, the old man trapped in the past. Next, he is paralleled to the stallion, Chief, which has a “glass” eye, as does Duncan. The horse has spirit but also a meanness that disturbs those who see it. At one point, Chief kicks Nettie, Duncan’s wife, anticipating Duncan’s own actions toward her. Chief attacks Dicky Jordan’s horse without provocation. For all its fire and independence, the horse has the touch of Satan in it, according to Logan, a black farmhand. When Chief is killed, Duncan draws closer to Aaron McCool, and through Aaron, Duncan’s own latent violence is manifested: Duncan becomes a murderer. For all his fascination with the past, the one lesson Duncan fails to learn is the most important. It is found in the motto under his grandfather’s sword: “He who conquers himself is greater than he who conquers a city.” Because of his blindness, his lack of control, his readiness to hate and unwillingness to forgive, Duncan changes from a man seeking truth to a man fleeing justice. He leaves no heritage but shame.

Forest of the Night

The Innocent was strongly received for a first novel, especially among southern critics who admired Jones’s sense of place and character. A few objected to the violence of the tale and the strain of morbidness that runs throughout. These same virtues and faults are again in evidence in Jones’s second novel, Forest of the Night. Set in Tennessee and along the Natchez Trace in the early 1800’s, this book moves consciously into the realm of legend and the supernatural. Jonathan Cannon, the book’s protagonist, strongly resembles Duncan Welsh, for he, too, is an idealist and innocent. He has come west from Virginia to find the goodness and purity of the new world. When he discovers a horribly mutilated Indian, scalped and left to die by white settlers, Jonathan attempts to help the dying man, but that night the man attacks and almost kills him. The next morning, weak from loss of blood, Jonathan sees the body of the Indian being eaten by buzzards—a view of nature he has omitted from his dream.

After being taken in and nursed by a nearby family, Jonathan falls in love with the daughter, Judith, although he is disturbed by her obsessively religious father and her strange, wizened child. In town he learns that Judith was formerly the companion of Wiley and Micajah Harpe, the brutal and savage bandits who had terrorized the Trace. Despite warnings from the townspeople—and especially from an old woodsman named Eli, who tells him that a man must always consider the consequences of his actions, no matter how well intended—Jonathan determines to “save” Judith from her past, to restore her to an honorable state.

The path Jonathan takes is essentially that worn by Duncan Welsh before him. He tries to force goodness on Judith, insisting on her salvation. When Judith tells him that the Harpes also came west seeking righteousness and the promised land, and that their failure led to the butchery and horrors they committed, Jonathan is blind to the parallel with himself. By forcing Judith to return to the outlaws’ cave to face the scene of her depravity, Jonathan calls up the nightmares of her past that she apparently had put behind her. After rumor arrives that Wiley Harpe is still alive and in the vicinity, Judith becomes unbalanced, and one day Jonathan returns to find her and her child gone. In his search to find her, Jonathan begins to isolate himself in a kind of “defiant withdrawal.” He becomes the very thing from which he had sought to save Judith. Indeed, people come to mistake him for Wiley Harpe.

When he does find Judith, her first child is dead, she is again pregnant, and she can no longer distinguish between Jonathan and her former lover. Sick and half mad himself by this time, Jonathan begins to hate Judith and to fear the child she is carrying. In an episode of unrelenting cruelty, Jonathan forces her to walk until she goes into labor and then abandons her in the woods as she dies in childbirth. Returning...

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