The Long and the Short of It

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (A New Version)

by Robert Penn Warren
Random House, 141 pp., $8.95

Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978

by Robert Penn Warren
Random House, 96 pp., $4.95 (paper)

In 1811 a nephew of Thomas Jefferson nearly chopped off the head of a young slave named George. The seventeen-year-old boy had broken a pitcher belonging (we are told) to the deceased mother of his master, Lilburne Lewis. The drunken master, with the help of his own brother Isham, dragged George into the kitchen cabin, tied him down, and assembled the other slaves to witness the punishment that followed. Then Lilburne sank an axe into George’s neck, killing and almost decapitating him.

He forced one of the black men to dismember the body with the same axe. The pieces were thrown into the fireplace, where roaring flames had been built up. Lilburne Lewis warned the slaves to tell nobody what had happened.

At two o’clock the next morning a violent earthquake struck the region of western Kentucky where the Lewises lived. The chimney of the kitchen cabin fell down, smothering the fire and halting the process of cremation. Lilburne had the slaves rebuild the chimney and fireplace, hiding the fragments of George’s body in the masonry. But the quakes continued, exposing the remains; and a dog carried off the head, to gnaw on it until a neighbor noticed and turned the skull over to officers of the law.

Three months after the crime, a grand jury indicted Lilburne and Isham Lewis for murder; but both men were admitted to bail while awaiting trial. Three weeks later, in keeping with a pact they had made, the two brothers went to a graveyard intending to shoot one another. Lilburne showed Isham how to commit suicide if the flintlock misfired, but he accidentally shot and killed himself during the lesson. Isham left the graveyard and was jailed two days later as accessory to his brother’s self-murder. But he escaped, and we do not know what became of him.

My story of these events is taken from the handsomely documented and welltold account by Boynton Merrill, Jr., in his book Jefferson’s Nephews. Mr. Merrill asks what Jefferson knew or said about the monstrosities of his sister’s children, and he tells us, “No evidence has been discovered…that Jefferson ever wrote or spoke a word directly concerning this crime, or that it changed his life or attitudes.”

In 1953 Robert Penn Warren published Brother to Dragons, a narrative poem based on the crimes I have reviewed. He organized it as a dialogue of disembodied voices conversing long after the event, in an unspecified place. Instead of making the incidents themselves the substance of his poem, Warren treated those as starting a debate on “the human condition,” particularly the extent of men’s innate virtue or depravity. To suit his plan, he not only altered some of the facts; he not only added some fictitious characters; but he also planted himself and Thomas Jefferson in the poem, giving these outsiders many long speeches. Warren has now carefully revised and shortened Brother to Dragons for a new publication, altering many details …

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