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...
(The entire section is 652 words.)