World Enough and Time

by Robert Penn Warren

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Places Discussed

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*Frankfort

*Frankfort. Kentucky city in which the crucial event of the novel occurs: the assassination of Colonel Cassius Fort, a prominent state politician. A young attorney, Jeremiah Beaumont, is avenging the earlier seduction and presumed slander of the woman who is now his wife. Beaumont’s trial is also held in a Frankfort courtroom where, not surprisingly, he is convicted through perjury rather than evidence. Awaiting his public hanging, Beaumont is joined in his cell by his wife, Rachael, who wishes to share his fate.

Saul County

Saul County. Fictional Kentucky county modeled on Simpson County of the real Kentucky tragedy. Rachael’s family has retreated to rural Kentucky from the more favored regions of Virginia, after reversals of fortune. Suffering both emotional and cultural exile, they live in relative isolation, comforted by a few books salvaged from more favored times, including the romantic verse of Lord Byron.

La Grand’Bosse’s refuge

La Grand’Bosse’s refuge. This setting, somewhere in a southwest direction, totally departs from the historical record of “the Kentucky Tragedy” and has generally been regarded as the novel’s least effective location, but it is essential to the development of Warren’s own themes. His characters, unlike their real-life models, are rescued from their Frankfort prison and taken to the lair of a half-breed pirate, La Grand’Bosse. The outlaw refuge serves as a further means of Beaumont’s enlightenment. Throughout the narrative he has spoken of “going west,” sharing the American myth of the West as a land of escape. Now, as he fraternizes with the utter dregs of society, he sees the untamed territory as it is, a land of lawlessness, gracelessness, and even further treachery.

Literary Techniques

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Yet despite excellent characterizations and some of Warren's more impressive writing, World Enough and Time might benefit from some judicious editing and a tighter narrative technique. Although it is a very serious novel, rather than a pretentious potboiler (as some of Warren's critics have claimed), its length and the exasperating nature of the tragic hero make it less than an unqualified success.

Warren's narrative technique in World Enough and Time is adumbrated in All the King's Men by Cass Mastern's narrative, which is related in Mastern's florid nineteenth-century rhetoric, followed by Jack Burden's sardonic modernist commentary on it. Similarly, in World Enough and Time, Warren's narrative voice, alternately descriptive, compassionate, and sardonic, is played off against the romantic rhetoric of Beaumont's own narrative (a fictitious one created by Warren of course) of his life and crime. However, it is in the use of these dual voices that Warren begins to use some of the forced and melodramatic "high rhetoric," which has aroused a good deal of criticism of the later novels.

Literary Precedents

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The short Confession of the historical Jeroboam Beauchamp and the court records of the trial provided Warren with material for the story of Beauchamp, Ann Cook, and Colonel Solomon Sharp. Other American writers had been drawn to the "Kentucky Tragedy," notably Edgar Allan Poe in his drama Politian and William Gilmore Simms, the antebellum imitator of Walter Scott for the Old South in his novel, Beauchampe (1842). But such earlier treatments of the material probably gave Warren little more than an awareness of mistakes to avoid, especially the moralizing emotionalism of Simms.

The example of some of William Faulkner's stubbornly romantic young men, such as Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), may have been an influence on Warren in the creation of Beaumont. The name "Beaumont," though close to that of the historical...

(This entire section contains 231 words.)

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Beauchamp, also suggests the Beaumont who wrote Jacobean tragedy, which is clearly an influence on some of Warren's novels and his dramatic poem,Brother to Dragons. Finally, though some critics have suggested that World Enough and Time was influenced by cinematic costume romance in the tradition of Gone With the Wind, Hollywood's romantic Technicolor films of the 1940s seldom exhibit the tragic spirit or the unhappy resolution found in Warren's novel. If one must invoke cinematic models, then surely the film noir tradition would be a better choice.

Bibliography

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Burt, John. “The Self-Subversion of Value: World Enough and Time.” In Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Discussion of the novel as romance and of Beaumont as unaware of the world’s complexity. The novel’s major images reinforce the idea that humanity’s best instincts lead to self-destruction.

Guttenberg, Barnett. “World Enough and Time.” In Web of Being: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1975. Existential interpretation of Beaumont as an absolutist whose reliance upon the ‘idea’ has not prepared him for the ‘reintegration of self’ that is necessary when he perceives reality. The novel develops the conflict between humanity’s need for order and the world’s incoherence.

Justus, James H. “Dream and Drama: World Enough and Time.” In The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. Discussion of Warren’s double point of view, as the narrator at various times supports, undercuts, and simply relates Beaumont’s account. Another of Warren’s egoist idealists, Beaumont struggles but fails to remake the world to conform to his nebulous ideals.

Kallsen, Loren J. The Kentucky Tragedy: A Problem in Romantic Attitudes. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963. Collects nineteenth century publications which have served as the sources for literary treatments of this historical incident. Supposedly, these documents are Jeroboam Beauchamp’s confession, Ann Cook Beauchamp’s letters to a friend in Maryland, the transcript of the couple’s trial, and a brother’s vindication of Solomon Sharp’s character. The book also includes a bibliography and discussion questions.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. “The Romantic Tragedy of Self in World Enough and Time.” In Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Lewis Longley, Jr. New York: New York University Press, 1965. Discussion of the novel’s theme as typical of Warren’s emphasis upon the self-induced alienation of the individual who cannot distinguish between romance and reality. Beaumont journeys west in search of Edenic innocence; instead, he finds a savage wilderness.

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Critical Essays