Law as Lament and Literature

A Paean to William Faulkner, his Pathos and Power, and Maybe to Another of Humanity’s Pilgrims

Jimmy Robertson

Article by Jimmy Robertson Featured Author


The first weekend in June of this year, a small but eclectic group of Mississippians—the Mississippi June Bug Society—made a visit to the Anderson Memorial Bridge were it lies across the Charles River, and well within the environs of Harvard University. The occasion—their obsession—was a search for the meaning and message of one of William Faulkner’s most sympathetic and yet sad creations, the “late” and still so lamented Quentin Compson, III.

An homage to Quentin’s lonely life and lonelier death has been said captured and enshrined in a small plaque affixed to the bridge.

In June of 1972, several students in an American Lit class at Harvard College, having read and come to know—to embrace—Quentin so fully, visited the bridge in the dark of night on the “anniversary” of his sad suicide. To their surprise, even amazement, these students had stumbled upon a small plaque which read: Quentin Compson, III, June 2, 1910. Drowned in the fading of honeysuckle.

Since that time the QCIII memorial plaque has had a poignant yet checkered history. And has produced checkered memories of its history.1 Its story has been told more than once.2

But you might say, all of this may be nice, but what does it have to do with the law? A hint of the answer might begin to emerge with the make up of this latest group of pilgrims.

Led by U. S. District Judge Michael Pious Mills, and including such multi-tasking worthies as U. S. Senator Roger Wicker and Mississippi state Senator Hob Bryan, the great majority of the group have law degrees, viz., Peyton Prospere, Jay Wiener and Dr. Philip Merideth of Jackson, along with Lucy Coolidge, James Kelly, Alysson Leigh Mills, Krystal Walker. Administrative Judge Linda Thompson and I were also there.

Formally, the event of June 2, 2019, was “The Quentin Compson Memorial Dinner and Symposium, The Sheraton Commander Hotel at Cambridge, MA.” After remarks by eleven members, the group assembled in the night on the Anderson Bridge for a reverential service recalling those like Quentin who had lost their lives via suicide.3

The Essential Grounding for a Great Judge

But there is a broader perspective that should be brought to bear. A few years back, Mississippi born and bred Evelyn V. Keyes—Justice, Texas Court of Appeals—put the point so well. One can never become “a great judge without a thorough grounding in what the humanities, including literature, as well as the law itself, really do have to teach us.”4 Of course, the same may be said of lawyers like Gavin Stevens and Atticus Finch.

Speaking to the consumers of law—the citizenry—Keyes added that “[O]nly a morally literate and humanistically informed people can maintain a free society against the dehumanizing forces of totalitarian ideology and destructiveness that constantly assail it, for only then will they know what is at stake.”5 And, given today’s practical realities, against the meanness of narcissistic bullies, as well. In a prior life, yours truly reminded those who read law that a good judge “must possess the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job and the humanity of Shakespeare.”6 More broadly, the law is one of the centerpieces of thought, meaning and activity that we label “the humanities.”

Sadly, not every law school teaches much of this anymore. Sadly, so many of those who appreciate the law as a centerpiece humanity get little reinforcement from their colleagues among the bench and bar. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”7 It is in this vein that the pilgrimage Judge Mills led in that first weekend in June of 2019 merits note and reflection—and repetition by others.

Law Among the Humanities

At least since Shakespeare, there has been a law and literature movement. Sadly, lawyers and judges have disregarded the practical reality that law lies among the great humanities, risking a lesser quality and quantity of justice and mercy. And of Tennyson’s truth that “I am a part of all that I have met.”8

Early on, most of us were exposed to the hard back two volume set, The Law in Literature and The Law as Literature, published in 1960.9 The gold standard today is the work of the prolific Richard A. Posner. All three editions of Law and Literature — see particularly Third Edition, 2009 — were produced while Posner was also working full time as a judge on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In 1984, the Mississippi College Law Review published The Law and Southern Literature Symposium, 4 Miss. Coll. L. Rev. 165–329 (Spring 1984). Focused on Faulkner, this work remains important, still yields insights. Justice Keyes has produced The Literary Judge; The Judge as Novelist and Critic, 44 Houston L. Rev. 679 (2007). I took my shot in Practical Benefits of Literature in Law, and Their Limits, 35 Miss. Coll. L. Rev. 266–342 (2016).

William Alexander Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee (1941), was a lawyer, as have been so many other Percys, before and since. Roy Percy, U. S. Magistrate Judge in the Northern District of Mississippi, is only the most recent.

Most are aware of Faulkner and the law. His work was front and center in the M.C. Law Rev. Symposium back in 1984. So many of his tall tales long to be written as the statement of facts in the beginning of insightful legal opinions, followed by a discerning identification of the relevant rules of law, and, most importantly, a reliable application of those rules to the facts found, producing an adjudication worthy of the judicial power and the constitution. 10

Faulkner’s magnificent exposition of the role of the courthouse in a community is front and center in my recent work.11 Lawyer Gavin Stevens makes regular appearances on Faulkner’s pages.

Quentin and Me

Quentin Compson, III, is at once one of Faulkner’s more sympathetic and tragic characters. He has been brought to life in two great works. The Sound and the Fury (1929, 1956) and particularly in Part Two, JUNE SECOND, 1910, and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). These works have been widely read here and abroad.

More than thirty years ago, Alabama native Dale Russakoff reminded us that over the nine-month period commencing in September of 1909, “[h]opelessly out of place at Harvard, [Quentin] turned to reliving in his mind all the glory, guilt and doom of the southern past,” to the point that “on June 2, 1910, he surrendered, caught between memories as sweet as honeysuckle and as dark as slavery.”

Flatirons tied to his feet, Quentin leapt from the Anderson Bridge, plunged into the Charles River, and was swallowed by the still cold waters in the New England night.12

Many years later, on June 2, 1965, a small plaque was placed on the Anderson Memorial Bridge across the Charles River, connecting Cambridge and Allston. Stanley Stephancic, then a student at Harvard Divinity School, has reported that he affixed the “plaque . . . with epoxy glue . . . on ‘a humid, foggy, rainy Cambridge evening,’ the 55th anniversary of Quentin’s suicide.”13 Two weeks and a day later, on June 17, 1965, to be exact, I graduated from Harvard Law School, and—a celebration being in order—the next day a group of us loaded all of the beer we could get into several cars and headed north for Ipswich Beach. Even after the anesthetizing effects of several cans of beer, the Atlantic waters were so so cold, unlike the Gulf of Mexico—theretofore the only off shore waters I had experienced. All of this while I was utterly unaware of the “fading of honeysuckle,” or of the sad saga and suicide of Quentin Compson III, or of the successor plaque we found on June 2, 2019.

The Beginnings of a Heresy

Around the Millennium, I began sliding towards the beginnings of what some June Bugs might see as heresy. It actually dated back to early Ole Miss days and the awe that so many shared regarding William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize. I began to hear that Faulkner was the second American to win a Nobel for literature. Fine, but—curiously— who was the first? Turned out it was a playwright named Eugene O’Neill. Not much of an impression, however, until at some point when I began hearing that O’Neill’s best work was said to have been done after he won his Nobel. Interesting. I sort of had such as this in mind one weekend evening in my Three-L year (1964–65) when I took the Red Line into Boston to see the Charles Repertory Theatre’s production of A Touch of the Poet. Understand that O’Neill was to New England more or less as Faulkner was to the South, and at roughly the same times. Poet was one of those plays that O’Neill had published after his Nobel. Once the curtains went up, I saw I was in for something special. Long before, I had read Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and encountered what had become a famous Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.14 A great, thought – provoking line.15 Fixed in my psyche, and resurrected from time to time. Fast forward.

At some point around the turn of the Millennium, I was in New York attending a highly acclaimed production of O’Neill’s last play, Moon for the Misbegotten. I was carried away, fixated, trying not to miss a word, when James Tyrone [fictional character patterned after O’Neill’s older brother] exclaimed, “There is no present or future–only the past, happening over and over again, now!”16 Wow! Had I heard that right?!? After the play, I googled the line to be sure of the exact text. I had it right. Further investigation and it was clear that O’Neill had written Moon in 1943, at least seven years before Faulkner’s Requiem. But then O’Neill’s play was never published or produced until 1957 or so. No way to discern whether Faulkner knew about O’Neill, one way or the other.

Giving up on that search, the more important question became, were O’Neill and Faulkner saying the same thing?17 And, if so, who said it better? Or was not each to be cherished? Pondering this, one leads the sympathetic humanist to other parallels. Faulkner died in July of 1962 several months shy of his 65th birthday. O’Neill made it to 65 but just barely, dying in 1953. Both men abused their bodies and their health—and no doubt the productivity of their respective literary genius—with grossly excessive consumption of alcohol over the course of many years. The core literary contribution of each was by a wide margin in the field of tragedy,18 though each dabbled elsewhere on occasion.

Both Faulkner and O’Neill left us with unforgettable characters. People all, and possessed of a humanity and stories to tell. Our two for today are Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, “born” as noted above, and O’Neill’s quasi-auto-biographical Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.19 In Journey and near the end of the play, Edmund, facing a fate of tuberculosis for life, shared a reflection with his father. "It was a great mistake, my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must be a little in love with death!"20 Whether and to what extent is there a parallel in the lonely lives of Edmund Tyrone and Quentin Compson? For nearing the end of his last day, Quentin reflected, "the strange thing is that man[,] who is conceived by accident and [whose] . . . every breath is a fresh cast with dice already loaded against him[,] will not face that final main which he knows beforehand he has assuredly to face without his essaying expenditures ranging all the way from violence to petty chicanery."

This though it had been his mother’s dream since he was born, for Quentin to go to Harvard, and “that no Compson has ever disappointed a lady.”21 And then, after carrying his grandfather’s watch—the one smashed to slow the flow of time—into Shreve’s room, putting it in his drawer, and brushing his teeth “the last note sounded. . . . Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw I had forgotten my hat.”22 Soon the stuff of history and legend and memories fading with honeysuckle.

On the evening of June 2, 1910, Quentin succumbed—leapt off the Anderson Bridge. Thoughts may then turn to what in time would occur only—as the crow flies—a bit further down. Eugene O’Neill died in November of 1953, in Room 401 of what was then the Shelton Hotel overlooking the same Charles River. Only a short hop past the Anderson Memorial Bridge. Wife Carlotta and doctor, Harry Kozol, heard O’Neill whisper “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and, goddammit, died in a hotel room.” His last words. Now officially Kilachand Hall at Boston University, though colloquially known Shelton Hall.

A Mississippi June Bug Society visit next year to the residential facility at 91 Bay Street, Boston, might round out a paean to the lost and lonely. And enhance our understanding of the humanity of those who seek out one form of suicide or another.

  1. Stanley Stefancic, a Unitarian minister and former student in the Harvard Divinity School has reported that he put the original plaque in place, viz., “the plaque was affixed with epoxy glue on June 2, 1965, . . . the 55th anniversary of Quentin’s suicide.” Dale Russakoff, “Faulkner and the Bridge to the South,” The Washington Post, July 21, 1985.
  2. In addition to Russakoff, see also “Where, Why, Whence the Plaque?” Harvard Magazine (Summer 1972); and John Michael Baglione, “Bridge of sorrow, by way of Faulkner,” Harvard Gazette, July 20, 2017.
  3. These proceedings were videotaped, and the text of remarks made are available through the offices of Judge Mills, fearless leader of the Mississippi June Bug Society.
  4. Evelyn Keyes, The Literary Judge; The Judge as Novelist and Critic, 44 Houston L. Rev. 679, 680 (2007).
  5. Keyes, 44 Houston L. Rev. at 699.
  6. Cheek v. Ricker, 431 So.2d 1139, 1143 (Miss. 1983).
  7. William Wordsworth, The World Is Too Much With Us (1807).
  8. Tennyson, Ulysses (1842).
  9. The World of Law, The Law in Literature (Ephraim London ed. 1960); The World of Law, The Law as Literature (Ephraim London ed. 1960). And before that see Cardozo’s Law and Literature and other Essays, Selected Writings of Benjamin N. Cardozo (1938).
  10. I have explained all of this more fully in my Variations on a Theme by Posner: Facing the Factual Component of the Reliability Imperative in the Process of Adjudication, 84 Miss. L.J. 471-683 (2015), establishing once again the potency and power of the lawyer’s imperative that one word should never be used when six or seven will do just as well.
  11. See my Heroes, Rascals, and the Law: Constitutional Encounters in Mississippi History, 3 (2019), quoting Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 35, 37 (Vintage Books, 1950, 1951).
  12. Dale Russakoff, “Faulkner and the Bridge to the South,” The Washington Post, July 21, 1985; brought forward by John Michael Baglione, “Bridge of sorrow, by way of Faulkner,” Harvard Gazette, July 20, 2017.
  13. Dale Russakoff, “Faulkner and the Bridge to the South,” The Washington Post (July 21, 1985).
  14. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was completed in 1950.
  15. I feature prominently two wonderful Requiem passages regarding the role and meaning of a courthouse in a southern community. See my Heroes, Rascals and the Law; Constitutional Encounters in Mississippi History, 3 (2019).
  16. O’Neill’s, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1957).
  17. I have heard it said but never run to ground that both O’Neill and Faulkner got the idea from Marcel Proust. Not sure how to get that one past Rule 802. Perhaps a bevy of Rule 702-qualified experts could advance the ball.
  18. Arezki Khelifa, The Tragic in Selected Works by O’Neill and Faulkner (2017).
  19. Twenty-three years old in the play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Edmund Tyrone is based on O’Neill himself.
  20. O’Neill, Long Days Journey Into Night (1956).
  21. Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 139 (1929; 1956).
  22. Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 139 (1929; 1956).