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Mark Royden Winchell

Fall 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 4

THOMAS H. LANDESS was for many years a professor of English at the University of Dallas.

Those of us who valued Mark Winchell'sfriendship and good company share inthe grief of his wife and two sons. We too willmiss him. A victim of cancer at the age offifty-nine, he was one of those people whoshould live to be a hundred, not only becauseof his warmth and wit and enormous capacityfor friendship, but also because he foughtthe good fight and carried the scars of numerousencounters with the Old Enemy. Hisdeath leaves yet another gap in our alreadyraggedline of defense.

For many years, Mark taught at Clemson,which began as an agriculture college andover the years evolved into a politicallycorrect university. Today Clemson boastsalmost as many ideologues teaching the humanitiesas you're likely to find at the leadingIvy League schools. Yet Mark managed todirect a program called the Great Works ofWestern Civilization without being burnedat the stake by his colleagues.

In the last few years of his career, he grewincreasingly disturbed by the sea changetaking place locally and on campuses nationwide.Clemson University was bouncing andrattling behind the rest of academia like apull-toy jerked along by an insolent child.Mark recoiled, not so much from the grind ofpaper grading, impertinent students, andfaculty meetings (the nearest thing to hell onearth), but from the hijacking of truth and itsdevastating effect on the minds of students.

Though born in the North, Mark lived inSouth Carolina for twenty-three years andlearned more about the region's history andculture than all but a handful of Southernbornacademics. Among his friends werescholars like Clyde Wilson of the Universityof South Carolina and Donald Livingston ofEmory, who explored the complexities of theregion to counter the more simplistic andagenda-driven depictions by Stanley Elkins,Kenneth Stampp, and other leftistmythmakers. Mark's virtues as a scholar—thoroughness, objectivity, and an opennessto the nuances of language and human conduct—moved him to throw in with theSouthern conservatives rather than the leftleaningrevisionists; and at one point hetentatively titled a collection of his essaysConfessions of a Copperhead. He even delivereda paper at a New Orleans gathering ofthe Philadelphia Society in which he tackledthe Confederate flag controversy, dissectingthe rhetoric of the opposition with lighthandedirony.

On the other hand, in his biography ofFugitive-Agrarian Donald Davidson he gavea sternly disapproving account of Davidson'sinvolvement with the Tennessee Federationfor Constitutional Government, an organizationthat sought to block desegregation ofthe state's school system by filing legal challengesin federal court. Mrs. Davidson, whohad a master's degree in law, wrote some ofthe challenges. The courts dismissed them.The schools were duly integrated. The manyVanderbilt alums who studied under Davidsonand idolized him might have been temptedto airbrush this episode in his life. Markcovered it in raw detail.

That kind of hardboiled integrity, alongwith an aptitude for empathy rare among theprofessorial class, made him one of the bestbiographers the academy has ever produced.Two of Mark's works—Cleanth Brooks andthe Rise of Modern Criticism and Where No FlagFlies: Donald Davidson and the Southern Resistance—are definitive and will probably standalone into perpetuity. A third—Too Good toBe True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler –deals with a figure dramatically differentfrom Brooks and Davidson and demonstratesMark's ability to write a fair and rivetingbiography of just about anybody, fromOsama bin Laden to the third man on thegarbage truck. These three serve to representthe consistently high quality of his work.

Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism
came as a surprise to Brooks himself, whonever imagined that anyone would want towrite a biography of a mere critic. When hewas finally persuaded to sit for his portrait, hecooperated fully and in good cheer. Thosewho know that Brooks's closest friend wasRobert PennWarren, sometimes assume thatthe two agreed on the basic things. Nothingcould be further from the truth. Warren wasan atheist; Brooks was a committed Christianwho left the Episcopal Church when it departedfrom strict orthodoxy. Warren was apolitical and social liberal; Brooks was aconservative, who—at a meeting commemoratingthe fiftieth anniversary of I'll Take MyStand—told fellow panelists, "Let's get somethingstarted again."

In this biography, Mark uses Brooks's lifeto focus on twentieth-century literary theory,and particularly the "New Criticism," knownalso as "aesthetic formalism"—a method ofapproaching poetry and fiction through aclose reading of the text, the exploration ofconnotation as well as denotation, multilevelmeanings, irony and allusion—and withlittle or no attention to the author's life. Priorto the rise of the New Criticism, Englishteachers in high school and college typicallylectured on the lives of the poets or fictionwriters, then pointed out how specific eventsinfluenced specific works. In taking up "Odeon a Grecian Urn," for example, biographicalcritics would tell students about Keats'srelationship with his fianceé, Fanny Brawne.In contrast, Cleanth Brooks wrote a lengthyessay exploring the poet's use of tone andimagery, diction and syntax, paradox andirony that enabled readers to understand therich complexity of that poem for the firsttime ever. This essay epitomizes the NewCriticism and is regarded as one of its finestachievements.

Mark traces this approach to literaturefrom its beginnings in the informal meetingsof the Vanderbilt Fugitive Group, to itsdominance of the classroom for decades, andfinally to its downfall at the hands of the NewLeft, whose leadership saw literature not as anend in itself, as did the New Critics, but asone more means to further the revolution. Inhis summary of the struggle between competingcritical theories (and ultimately competingideologies), Mark—well-versed inthis surprisingly esoteric subject—is fair to allsides (even to Alfred Kazin, F. O. Matthiessen,and Leslie Fiedler),—despite his commitmentto Brooks and the New Criticism.

He bolsters his opinion by explicatingBrooks's major works in detail, chapter-bychapter,point by point. Of particular significance,is his discussion of UnderstandingPoetry and Understanding Fiction, the twotextbooks—written with Robert Penn Warren—that transformed the teaching of literaturein America.

In the end, Mark affirms the central themeof his biography—that Brooks had a brilliantcreative mind, that he was the prime mover inthe rise of the New Criticism, and that thosewith a different point of view understoodprecisely what he stood for, which is why theyattacked him so fiercely. Linkingthe man with his work,Mark said of Brooks, "He combineda tough mind and a kindheart better than anyone else Ihave known."

Where No Flag Flies: DonaldDavidson and the Southern Resistance
a project he inheritedwhen Mel Bradforddied—will surely suffice untilthe Rapture. Here, he takes asubject who ordinarily wouldbe of little interest to anyonebut a remnant of literary scholarsand makes of his life a paradigm of theoutsider—a poet, critic, and historian who,during a long career, deliberately chose thelosing side, knowing the cost and acceptingdefeat before it ever arrived on his doorstep.

Davidson—a shy and ostensibly colorlessacademic—remained at Vanderbilt whilefellow Fugitive-Agrarians John Crowe Ransom,Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tatewent North to establish national reputations.Davidson refused to abandon the principlesof Agrarianism and wrote non-modernistpoetry when the hue was not the wear. Healso attacked industrialization at a time whenAmerica's greatest heroes were its Captainsof Industry. To many, he seemed diffidentand passionless. Yet an unquenchable flameburned in his heart. In his soft-spoken classroomlectures—always focused on the literarywork, never polemical or hortatory—Donald Davidson probably attracted morestudents to the conservative cause than didthe rest of the Agrarians combined.

No one could ever figure out the riddle ofhow he did it. Peabody—then a teacherscollege located across the street fromVanderbilt—would send over spies to takehis classes and, like Delilah, discover thesecret of his strength. The spies would comeback with empty notebooks:"I don't know. He just talks."

If Mark's biographydoesn't answer that riddle, heprovides readers with valuableclues to solve the largermystery of this complex andhighly private man. To accomplishthe task, he had tobecome a wide-ranging historianof the period; a criticwho understood not only theliterary currents of the earlytwentieth century, but alsothe subtleties of poetic dictionand prosody; a political andsocial philosopher who confronted the 220-year-old oxymoron of E Pluribus Unum;and a tough yet sympathetic interpreter ofthe human mind and heart.

Mark is at times severe with DonaldDavidson, exposing the flaws in his poetrywhen he finds them and addressing Davidson'soccasional lapses into mulishness and petulance.But even in dealing with these episodes,his account is circumspect. In this volume, heaccomplishes the goal of every serious biographer,which is to define his subject so preciselythat he or she will come alive for both thepresent and the future. Davidson—who as ateacher and critic influenced some of the mostformidable literary figures of the twentiethcentury—deserved a first-rate biographer.In Mark Winchell, he got one.

Norman Podhoretz and Richard Kostelanitz,among others, speak of two American "literaryfamilies"—one Jewish, the other Southern.In some respects the families are similar.In others they are crucially different. Afterwriting biographies of two prominent Southernfamily members—both products of smalltowns, both political and social conservatives,both conventional academics—Markalso examined the life and works of a prominentmember of the Jewish family—a productof the seamier side of Newark and NewYork City, a fierce Trotskyite, and a highprofilerattler of academic cages.

Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of
Leslie Fiedler is an unlikely subject for aconservative to tackle, either as author orreader. Most conservatives, North and South,probably believe that Love and Death in theAmerican Novel is less about Herman Melvilleand Mark Twain than about a hyperactiveegotist who should never have been allowedto read Freud. Among other accomplishments,Fiedler, an enfant terrible into old age,taught American critics and readers to findtwisted sexual relationships in every literarywork from Moby Dick to Rebecca of SunnybrookFarm. You would think the man who wrotethe definitive biographies of Brooks andDavidson would have crossed the street toavoid 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 adiligent investigative reporter and a quietand attentive listener. He asked few questionsand was tolerant of lengthy, circumlocutoryreplies. He seldom interrupted and throughouthis interviews maintained a mask ofobjectivity. This demeanor encouraged hissubjects to babble on and reveal more thanthey might have otherwise intended.

After reading this book, one can imaginehow the sessions with Fiedler must havegone: Mark, his face an enigma, noddingwhile Fiedler, a world-class raconteur, talkedon and on, interrupting one anecdote to startanother, each crowded with sharp detail.You can see the results of those conversationsin this entertaining and at times highly idiomaticnarrative: the youthful Fiedler, learningabout sex and alcohol while working inthe neighborhood shoe store; hanging outwith bums in the park; reading Thoreau atthe age of twelve and Marx at thirteen; hisbest friend's love affair with his fiftyish Latinteacher; refusing to salute the flag when theROTC marched by. All of these are renderedin prose that is intense and at timesscatological. You can almost hear Fiedler'svoice in its cadences. When the narrativemoves beyond the personal, however, thevoice is again Mark Winchell's.

Particularly interesting is an account ofthe intellectual warfare between Trotskyitesand Stalinists. To early twentieth-centuryestablishmentarians, they were both "reds"or "commies"; but the situation was morecomplicated. They hated each other. TheTrotskyites not only hated the Stalinists buthated the Soviet government as a consequence.Mark reports this conflict in thesame discreet, non-judgmental way he reportsdisagreements among the Fugitive-Agrarians—as if he had friends on both sides.Likewise, he explicates Love and Death in theAmerican Novel and Fiedler's other criticalworks and fiction with an eye toward theirvirtues as well as their shortcomings, hisconservative face all but unseen, except,perhaps, in a few paragraphs, where the smileof the Cheshire cat floats in the branches.

Depending on how you count them, Markwrote some twelve to fifteen books Most wereliterary biographies, including studies of JoanDidion, William F, Buckley, John GregoryDunne, William Humphrey, and HoraceMcCoy. (The last three are pamphlets in theBoise State Western Writers Series.) He wasby no means the first to fold critical commentaryinto a literary biography; but the carefulattention he gives to each work and the lengthof his explications mark his studies as specialand unique, something close to a new genre.

He also wrote extensively on Southernpolitics. Books on the region include TheCause of Us All: Cultural Politics and theAmerican South; Reinventing the South: Versionsof a Literary Region, a collection of hisessays; Talmadge: A Politician's Legacy, APolitician's Life (co-authored with SenatorHerman Talmadge of Georgia); and maybefifty essays on the subject. Most of these,along with pieces that focus on other areasand issues, deserve to be published posthumouslyin several volumes.

Mark was also interested in popular media.His recently published book, God, Man.and Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinemafrom Birth of a Nation to The Passion of theChrist, examines films that promote a traditionalview of America, religion, and thefamily. And his marvelous piece on Jerry LeeLewis—written for the pop-music crowdand full of rock 'n' roll idiom—can still befound on the Internet.

Finally, he wrote and publishedNeoconservative Criticism: Norman Podhoretz,Kenneth S. Lynn, and Joseph Epstein and—with his wife, Donna Haisty Winchell—Ideas in Conflict, Writing about the Great Issuesof Civilization. These round out the long anddiversified bibliography of a highly prolificscholar.

In reflecting on Mark's life, those whodidn't know him can mourn the loss of themany more literary lives he might havechronicled, the political commentary left unwritten,the silencing of a distinctive voice indefense of the permanent things. No morebrilliant surprises from that quarter. His bodyof work—a substantial achievement for someonetwenty years older—is now complete.

For those of us who knew him, the loss ofartistry and craft is, as always, troubling andsad—but not nearly as painful as the loss of afriend. Sooner or later we all say goodbye toeach other; but as the years pass, it doesn't getany easier. Mark Winchell: Requiescat inpace.