Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Is Left In Our Hands

"I can show you what is left. After the pride, passion, agony, and bemused aspiration, what is left in our hands. Here are the scraps of newspaper, more than a century old, splotched and yellowed and huddled together in a library, like November leaves abandoned by the wind, damp, and leached out, back of the stables or in a fence corner of a vacant lot.

Here are the diaries, the documents, and the letters, yellow too, bound in neat bundles with tape so stiffened and tired that it parts almost unresisting at your touch. Here are the records of what happened in that courtroom, all the words taken down. Here is the manuscript he himself wrote, day after day, as he waited in his cell, telling his story.

The letters of his script lean forward in their haste. Haste toward what? The bold stroke of the quill catches on the rough paper, fails, resumes, moves on in its race against time, to leave time behind, or in its rush to meet Time at last at the devoted and appointed place. To whom was he writing, rising from his mire or leaning from his flame to tell his story? The answer is easy. He was writing for us."*

Robert Penn Warren was the quintessential Southern writer, orginally from Kentucky (but his mother's people, the Penn's, were from a county just south of us. He was that elusive writer that excelled in holding up a mirror to the face of the 1940's and 1950's south, and he made sure that the reflection was accurate, whether flattering or not. Although raised a segregationist, by the 1950's he had converted (yes, at that time it was a conscious conversion and acknowledgement of societal wrongs) to a very public position as defender of the civil rights movement, writing Who Speaks for the Negro, a collection of interviews with black civil rights leaders including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in 1965, setting himself apart from his contemporaries.

World Enough and Time is an exercise that toys with history, memory and the truth, and how they blend in the mind.

"We have what is left, the lies and half-lies and the truths and the half-truths. We do not know that we have the Truth."*

*From World Enough and Time, Robert Penn Warren, 1950

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