World Enough and Time

by Robert Penn Warren

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Critical Evaluation

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Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, Solicitor General of Kentucky, was killed by a masked assassin in 1825. Shortly afterward, Jeroboam Beauchamp, a young lawyer and a member of the political party opposing Sharp, was arrested and charged with the crime. During the trial, it was revealed that Beauchamp had married a planter’s daughter whom Sharp had seduced. Found guilty and awaiting execution, Beauchamp was visited in his cell by his wife. The husband and wife stabbed themselves after a dose of laudanum failed to kill them. The wife died in her husband’s cell. Beauchamp was hanged. The Kentucky Tragedy, as this story of intrigue and revenge was called, became a popular subject during the nineteenth century, among writers as dissimilar as Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Barnes, Thomas H. Chivers, Charles F. Hoffman, and William Gilmore Simms. Robert Penn Warren, reworking the old tale, has filled it with philosophical speculation and symbolic moral overtones. His Jeremiah Beaumont is an idealist confronted by the realities and compromises of the world, a man betrayed not only by an acquisitive and self-seeking society but also by the very idealism that sustains him in loneliness and in doubt. The plot, centering on a theme of community guilt and expiation, illustrates the complex moral issues of the era.

Given his lifelong preoccupation with southern history, it is not surprising that Warren was attracted to the Kentucky Tragedy as a vehicle for the expression of his thoughts and feelings about idealism, fanaticism, politics, love, sex, and violence. In adapting this historical event—almost a folk legend—Warren begins with a story of innocence violated, villainy rewarded, revenge, political corruption, and backwoods violence. The raw material is, therefore, highly dramatic. Warren’s first problem is how to tell the story without descending to sentimental romance or lurid melodrama.

First, he mutes the obvious sensationalism of the events through his handling of point of view. An unnamed historian, piecing together the story from Jeremiah’s “confession” and other data, narrates the events with scholarly objectivity and frequent moralizing in an ornate prose style. This elaborate, indirect approach, with the highly charged dramatic scenes, gives the book both historical distance and dramatic intensity.

Second, Warren shifts the usual focus of the tale from the sentimental, revenge-seeking woman, Rachael Jordan, to her idealistic but confused husband, Jeremiah. Therefore, the novel takes on a shape not unlike Warren’s earlier masterpiece All the King’s Men (1946). As in the previous book, the novel revolves around the relationship between a young man (Jeremiah), a powerful father figure (Cassius Fort), who combines idealistic good with pragmatic evil and who inspires worship as well as revulsion, and a woman (Rachael), who is the victim both of the older man’s attractiveness and of his ruthlessness. Again, the father figure is murdered by the young man to avenge the honor of the woman.

Warren’s analysis of the political context of the act further differentiates his handling of the Kentucky Tragedy from previous ones. The results of Jeremiah’s act demonstrate the potential dangers of fanatical idealism in conflict with corrupt pragmatic politics. He is finally convicted not because he committed the crime but because his guilt serves the selfish needs of those in power.

Warren’s biggest deviation from the original events, however, lies in the novel’s resolution. The historical couple attempted mutual suicide; the woman died, and the man was hanged. In Warren’s version, an escape is arranged. In the course of their flight, Jeremiah and Rachael learn the truth of their situation, which drives Rachael to suicide and Jeremiah to an attempt at public confession. The important thing to Warren is not Jeremiah’s legal punishment but the growth of his personal awareness. Jeremiah, like other Warren protagonists, must finally accept responsibility not only for his own deed but also for the sequence of turbulent events provoked by that first act of violence.

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