Dr. Gary Grieve-Carlson
Dr. Gary Grieve-Carlson Publishes “A Usable Past? Poetry and History in Robert Penn Warren’s Brother to Dragons,” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures
Robert Penn Warren’s long poem, Brother to Dragons, concerns the axe-murder of an African-American slave by a nephew of Thomas Jefferson in 1811. Although Jefferson almost certainly heard of this crime, nowhere among his papers is there any mention of it, and Warren takes this refusal to address the crime as evidence of a significant psychological repression on Jefferson’s part. In the poem, Jefferson’s knowledge of the crime completely vitiates the idealism that lay behind the Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson appears as a bitter misanthrope who rejects the Declaration as “One more lie in the tissue of lies we live by.” Over the course of the poem, however, he comes to acknowledge and forgive his nephew, and to embrace a tragic view of the human condition and human history. Warren’s poem is most interesting in that it attempts not only to make a point about the human condition, but also a point about American history, and the poem has generated a rich critical discussion regarding the persuasiveness of its different points. Grieve-Carlson reads the poem through the lens of Aristotle’s discussion of poetry and history in the Poetics, and argues that because Warren distorts the historical Jefferson in order to make his point about the human condition, he makes his point about American history untenable.
Dr. Grieve-Carlson explains his motivation for this study: "I’m interested in the ways in which poetry tells the truth, and in the ways that it doesn’t, particularly when it deals with history as its subject. We grant poets what we call “poetic license,” but one of the costs of that license is that we tend to suspect them of lying. In American poetry there is a rich tradition of poets writing about American history, from Longfellow and Whitman to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and I’ve always assumed that these poets want their claims about history to be taken seriously. In fact, they have some interesting claims to make about history, although those claims are not often taken seriously. I’m especially interested in the ways in which even the most objective historians have to “emplot” their material, and the ways in which poets can treat historical subjects as seriously and as truthfully as historians can."