Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Mark Royden Winchell,” By Thomas H. Landess

Clement Vallandigham, Copperhead.

Editorial Note: This memorial essay was written Thomas H. Landess, and it is republished here with permission from ISI. We publish now on Christmas Eve to remember a fine, honest soul who pursued the truth. From all of us at Nomocracy in Politics, Merry Christmas! 

Those of us who valued Mark Winchell’s friendship and good company share in the grief of his wife and two sons. We too will miss him. A victim of cancer at the age of fifty-nine, he was one of those people who should live to be a hundred, not only because of his warmth and wit and enormous capacity for friendship, but also because he fought the good fight and carried the scars of numerous encounters with the Old Enemy. His death leaves yet another gap in our alreadyragged line of defense.

For many years, Mark taught at Clemson, which began as an agriculture college and over the years evolved into a politically correct university. Today Clemson boasts almost as many ideologues teaching the humanities as you’re likely to find at the leading Ivy League schools. Yet Mark managed to direct a program called the Great Works of Western Civilization without being burned at the stake by his colleagues.

In the last few years of his career, he grew increasingly disturbed by the sea change taking place locally and on campuses nationwide. Clemson University was bouncing and rattling behind the rest of academia like a pull-toy jerked along by an insolent child. Mark recoiled, not so much from the grind of paper grading, impertinent students, and faculty meetings (the nearest thing to hell on earth), but from the hijacking of truth and its devastating effect on the minds of students.

Though born in the North, Mark lived in South Carolina for twenty-three years and learned more about the region’s history and culture than all but a handful of Southernborn academics. Among his friends were scholars like Clyde Wilson of the University of South Carolina and Donald Livingston of Emory, who explored the complexities of the region to counter the more simplistic and agenda-driven depictions by Stanley Elkins, Kenneth Stampp, and other leftist mythmakers. Mark’s virtues as a scholar— thoroughness, objectivity, and an openness to the nuances of language and human conduct— moved him to throw in with the Southern conservatives rather than the leftleaning revisionists; and at one point he tentatively titled a collection of his essays Confessions of a Copperhead. He even delivered a paper at a New Orleans gathering of the Philadelphia Society in which he tackled the Confederate flag controversy, dissecting the rhetoric of the opposition with lighthanded irony.

On the other hand, in his biography of Fugitive-Agrarian Donald Davidson he gave a sternly disapproving account of Davidson’s involvement with the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, an organization that sought to block desegregation of the state’s school system by filing legal challenges in federal court. Mrs. Davidson, who had a master’s degree in law, wrote some of the challenges. The courts dismissed them. The schools were duly integrated. The many Vanderbilt alums who studied under Davidson and idolized him might have been tempted to airbrush this episode in his life. Mark covered it in raw detail.

That kind of hardboiled integrity, along with an aptitude for empathy rare among the professorial class, made him one of the best biographers the academy has ever produced. Two of Mark’s works—Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism and Where No Flag FliesDonald Davidson and the Southern Resistance— are definitive and will probably stand alone into perpetuity. A third—Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler – deals with a figure dramatically different from Brooks and Davidson and demonstrates Mark’s ability to write a fair and riveting biography of just about anybody, from Osama bin Laden to the third man on the garbage truck. These three serve to represent the consistently high quality of his work.

Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism came as a surprise to Brooks himself, who never imagined that anyone would want to write a biography of a mere critic. When he was finally persuaded to sit for his portrait, he cooperated fully and in good cheer. Those who know that Brooks’s closest friend was Robert PennWarren, sometimes assume that the two agreed on the basic things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Warren was an atheist; Brooks was a committed Christian who left the Episcopal Church when it departed from strict orthodoxy. Warren was a political and social liberal; Brooks was a conservative, who—at a meeting commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of I’ll Take My Stand—told fellow panelists, “Let’s get something started again.”

In this biography, Mark uses Brooks’s life to focus on twentieth-century literary theory, and particularly the “New Criticism,” known also as “aesthetic formalism”—a method of approaching poetry and fiction through a close reading of the text, the exploration of connotation as well as denotation, multilevel meanings, irony and allusion—and with little or no attention to the author’s life. Prior to the rise of the New Criticism, English teachers in high school and college typically lectured on the lives of the poets or fiction writers, then pointed out how specific events influenced specific works. In taking up “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for example, biographical critics would tell students about Keats’s relationship with his fianceé, Fanny Brawne. In contrast, Cleanth Brooks wrote a lengthy essay exploring the poet’s use of tone and imagery, diction and syntax, paradox and irony that enabled readers to understand the rich complexity of that poem for the first time ever. This essay epitomizes the New Criticism and is regarded as one of its finest achievements.

Mark traces this approach to literature from its beginnings in the informal meetings of the Vanderbilt Fugitive Group, to its dominance of the classroom for decades, and finally to its downfall at the hands of the New Left, whose leadership saw literature not as an end in itself, as did the New Critics, but as one more means to further the revolution. In his summary of the struggle between competing critical theories (and ultimately competing ideologies), Mark—well-versed in this surprisingly esoteric subject—is fair to all sides (even to Alfred Kazin, F. O. Matthiessen, and Leslie Fiedler),—despite his commitment to Brooks and the New Criticism.

He bolsters his opinion by explicating Brooks’s major works in detail, chapter-bychapter, point by point. Of particular significance, is his discussion of Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction, the two textbooks—written with Robert Penn Warren— that transformed the teaching of literature in America.

In the end, Mark affirms the central theme of his biography—that Brooks had a brilliant creative mind, that he was the prime mover in the rise of the New Criticism, and that those with a different point of view understood precisely what he stood for, which is why they attacked him so fiercely. Linking the man with his work, Mark said of Brooks, “He combined a tough mind and a kind heart better than anyone else I have known.”

Where No Flag FliesDonald Davidson and the Southern Resistance—a project he inherited when Mel Bradford died—will surely suffice until the Rapture. Here, he takes a subject who ordinarily would be of little interest to anyone but a remnant of literary scholars and makes of his life a paradigm of the outsider—a poet, critic, and historian who, during a long career, deliberately chose the losing side, knowing the cost and accepting defeat before it ever arrived on his doorstep.

Davidson—a shy and ostensibly colorless academic—remained at Vanderbilt while fellow Fugitive-Agrarians John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate went North to establish national reputations. Davidson refused to abandon the principles of Agrarianism and wrote non-modernist poetry when the hue was not the wear. He also attacked industrialization at a time when America’s greatest heroes were its Captains of Industry. To many, he seemed diffident and passionless. Yet an unquenchable flame burned in his heart. In his soft-spoken classroom lectures—always focused on the literary work, never polemical or hortatory— Donald Davidson probably attracted more students to the conservative cause than did the rest of the Agrarians combined.

No one could ever figure out the riddle of how he did it. Peabody—then a teachers college located across the street from Vanderbilt—would send over spies to take his classes and, like Delilah, discover the secret of his strength. The spies would come back with empty notebooks: “I don’t know. He just talks.”

If Mark’s biography doesn’t answer that riddle, he provides readers with valuable clues to solve the larger mystery of this complex and highly private man. To accomplish the task, he had to become a wide-ranging historian of the period; a critic who understood not only the literary currents of the early twentieth century, but also the subtleties of poetic diction and prosody; a political and social philosopher who confronted the 220- year-old oxymoron of E Pluribus Unum; and a tough yet sympathetic interpreter of the human mind and heart.

Mark is at times severe with Donald Davidson, exposing the flaws in his poetry when he finds them and addressing Davidson’s occasional lapses into mulishness and petulance. But even in dealing with these episodes, his account is circumspect. In this volume, he accomplishes the goal of every serious biographer, which is to define his subject so precisely that he or she will come alive for both the present and the future. Davidson—who as a teacher and critic influenced some of the most formidable literary figures of the twentieth century—deserved a first-rate biographer. In Mark Winchell, he got one.

Norman Podhoretz and Richard Kostelanitz, among others, speak of two American “literary families”—one Jewish, the other Southern. In some respects the families are similar. In others they are crucially different. After writing biographies of two prominent Southern family members—both products of small towns, both political and social conservatives, both conventional academics—Mark also examined the life and works of a prominent member of the Jewish family—a product of the seamier side of Newark and New York City, a fierce Trotskyite, and a highprofile rattler of academic cages.

Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler is an unlikely subject for a conservative to tackle, either as author or reader. Most conservatives, North and South, probably believe that Love and Death in the American Novel is less about Herman Melville and Mark Twain than about a hyperactive egotist who should never have been allowed to read Freud. Among other accomplishments, Fiedler, an enfant terrible into old age, taught American critics and readers to find twisted sexual relationships in every literary work from Moby Dick to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. You would think the man who wrote the definitive biographies of Brooks and Davidson would have crossed the street to avoid this one.

Yet Too Good to Be True is a joy to read, and Fiedler emerges as a delightful figure. When researching biography, Mark was a diligent investigative reporter and a quiet and attentive listener. He asked few questions and was tolerant of lengthy, circumlocutory replies. He seldom interrupted and throughout his interviews maintained a mask of objectivity. This demeanor encouraged his subjects to babble on and reveal more than they might have otherwise intended.

After reading this book, one can imagine how the sessions with Fiedler must have gone: Mark, his face an enigma, nodding while Fiedler, a world-class raconteur, talked on and on, interrupting one anecdote to start another, each crowded with sharp detail. You can see the results of those conversations in this entertaining and at times highly idiomatic narrative: the youthful Fiedler, learning about sex and alcohol while working in the neighborhood shoe store; hanging out with bums in the park; reading Thoreau at the age of twelve and Marx at thirteen; his best friend’s love affair with his fiftyish Latin teacher; refusing to salute the flag when the ROTC marched by. All of these are rendered in prose that is intense and at times scatological. You can almost hear Fiedler’s voice in its cadences. When the narrative moves beyond the personal, however, the voice is again Mark Winchell’s.

Particularly interesting is an account of the intellectual warfare between Trotskyites and Stalinists. To early twentieth-century establishmentarians, they were both “reds” or “commies”; but the situation was more complicated. They hated each other. The Trotskyites not only hated the Stalinists but hated the Soviet government as a consequence. Mark reports this conflict in the same discreet, non-judgmental way he reports disagreements among the Fugitive- Agrarians—as if he had friends on both sides. Likewise, he explicates Love and Death in the American Novel and Fiedler’s other critical works and fiction with an eye toward their virtues as well as their shortcomings, his conservative face all but unseen, except, perhaps, in a few paragraphs, where the smile of the Cheshire cat floats in the branches.

Depending on how you count them, Mark wrote some twelve to fifteen books. Most were literary biographies, including studies of Joan Didion, William F, Buckley, John Gregory Dunne, William Humphrey, and Horace McCoy. (The last three are pamphlets in the Boise State Western Writers Series.) He was by no means the first to fold critical commentary into a literary biography; but the careful attention he gives to each work and the length of his explications mark his studies as special and unique, something close to a new genre.

He also wrote extensively on Southern politics. Books on the region include The Cause of Us All: Cultural Politics and the American SouthReinventing the South: Versions of a Literary Region, a collection of his essays; Talmadge: A Politician’s Legacy, A Politician’s Life (co-authored with Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia); and maybe fifty essays on the subject. Most of these, along with pieces that focus on other areas and issues, deserve to be published posthumously in several volumes.

Mark was also interested in popular media. His recently published book, God, Man, and Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ, examines films that promote a traditional view of America, religion, and the family. And his marvelous piece on Jerry Lee Lewis—written for the pop-music crowd and full of rock ‘n’ roll idiom—can still be found on the Internet.

Finally, he wrote and published Neoconservative Criticism: Norman Podhoretz, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein and— with his wife, Donna Haisty Winchell—Ideas in Conflict, Writing about the Great Issues of Civilization. These round out the long and diversified bibliography of a highly prolific scholar.

In reflecting on Mark’s life, those who didn’t know him can mourn the loss of the many more literary lives he might have chronicled, the political commentary left unwritten, the silencing of a distinctive voice in defense of the permanent things. No more brilliant surprises from that quarter. His body of work—a substantial achievement for someone twenty years older—is now complete.

For those of us who knew him, the loss of artistry and craft is, as always, troubling and sad—but not nearly as painful as the loss of a friend. Sooner or later we all say goodbye to each other; but as the years pass, it doesn’t get any easier. Mark Winchell: Requiescat in pace.

The late THOMAS H. LANDESS was for many years a professor of English at the University of Dallas. This memorial essay was originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of Modern Age, and it is republished here with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  

2 Responses to ““Mark Royden Winchell,” By Thomas H. Landess”

  1. bobcheeks

    Dr. Winchell was a Southern man of the first order. A a good Christian gentleman, a kind and gracious man, a tremendous scholar, as well as a devotee of all things Southern, particularly it’s people.
    On a personal note, Dr. Winchell, asked me to contribute to his book, “Robert Penn Warren, Genius Loves Company,” a challenge that I really enjoyed. His death leaves a void in American letters.


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