The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 07, 2015

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Mark Royden Winchell
Thomas H. Landess

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

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 Flies: Donald 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.

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