Burden begins the chapter by looping back to his initial conversation with Irwin, along with Willie, at Irwin’s home in 1936. Burden states, again, that he did in fact manage to find “dirt” on Irwin, as Willie wanted, but Burden calls this his “second job of historical research,” and he goes on to describe his first, which was his period of time as a doctoral student in history at the state university in Louisiana, before Burden became a reporter for the Chronicle. Burden says that, although this “first job” of historical research doesn’t have directly to do with Willie, it has to do with his (Burden’s) own story, and that Willie’s and Burden’s stories are, effectively, one story.
Burden’s tenure as a graduate student was possibly informed by Penn Warren’s own graduate studies, which were significant. Of course it is hard to say the extent to which Burden is an autobiographical character, but in this chapter, particularly, one gets the sense of a certain intimacy between the character portrayed and the life of the man portraying it. The solitary work of writing a dissertation is not far removed from the work of writing a novel.
Burden lived with two graduate students, one “drunk and unlucky and stupid,” the other “drunk and lucky and smart,” in a squalid apartment which horrified Burden’s mother, when she visited briefly early in his graduate tenure. Burden was writing his dissertation on Cass Mastern, a distant family relation, whose letters he had been sent, by a long-unknown family member, in several bound folios. Burden also possessed a gold ring, once Mastern’s as well, and a photograph of the man.
Cass Mastern becomes, in the telling of his story throughout this chapter, a foil for Burden—unlucky in love, torn between serving a man he adores (Duncan) and serving his own ideals—and therefore an interesting mirror effect is evident, for Penn Warren is writing a character like him, Burden, who is writing a character like him, Mastern.
The remainder of the chapter is Burden’s account of this family story, which was to form the basis of his dissertation. Cass Mastern was one of two maternal uncles of Ellis Burden, the Scholarly Attorney, Jack’s father. The other uncle—Cass’s brother Gilbert—died in 1914, at the age of 94, and had amassed a huge fortune derived from railroad interests. This is the money that trickled down to Jack’s mother, who still lives, at the time of Jack’s writing of the novel’s account, in the 1930s, in relative luxury in Burden’s Landing.
Jack’s family money is an interesting quandary in the text, for Jack is very rarely the beneficiary of this money—although his mother sends him funds from time to time—but Jack is able to take jobs paying very little because he knows he has a fallback in the Landing—a house that will be his one day, and his mother’s sizeable inheritance. Thus Jack is willing to take on tasks without concern for money, because his monetary needs are taken care of.
The grandson of Gilbert Mastern, whom Jack did not know personally, had decided that, since Jack had an interest in history and was a graduate student, he might want to examine these letters and personal effects—thus Jack gained possession of them, and they sat on his work-table in his squalid apartment at the State University. (Although it is not stated explicitly by Burden in the novel, Burden’s tenure in graduate school roughly spans the end of the nineteen-teens and the start of the 1920s).
Like Burden, Cass goes on to college because he loves reading—his brother Gilbert finds him lost in his books. And like Burden, Cass is a hopeless romantic, concerned with notions of love, time, and memory—and specifically, with how time and memory tend to wear away our loves, or change them, make them more difficult to see or to find in the present day.
The picture of Cass, an early and smudged photo, Jack finds haunting—it is Cass in his Confederate soldier’s uniform, with his eyes “burning black” in his head. Jack begins to relate what Cass has in his journal: Cass wrote his journal as a young man at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, after a period of “darkness and trouble” he experienced in his early years at the college, and after he (Cass) “found God” and the solace that God can bring. Cass says, in the first pages of his journal, that he was born in rural north Georgia in conditions of poverty, and that now he has attained some material comfort in life.
Cass’s turn toward religion is reminiscent of Jack’s father’s turn toward religion after he, the Scholarly Attorney, leaves the family when Jack is a young boy. Of course, Jack later finds out that the Scholarly Attorney is not his biological relative, and so Jack cannot say he “inherited” any trains from his father, nor that these trades are shared with Cass Mastern—but a family lineage between the three men is nevertheless drawn.
Cass’s brother, Gilbert, fifteen years older than Cass, walked from north Georgia as a boy (leaving both Cass and their sister Lavinia there), and went first to Mississippi, on foot, to make his fortune. Over the course of the next dozen years, Gilbert slowly made money through a variety of business interests, and when Cass and Lavinia’s parents died, Gilbert came back to Mississippi, building an estate he called Valhalla. There Gilbert served as a kind of surrogate father to Cass, and sent Lavinia away to a boarding school for girls in Atlanta.
Gilbert’s successes, largely in the realm of business, are contrasted with Cass’s desire not to be successful, but rather to live a life that is fulfilling. Jack is very much the same way—he seems to consider himself a failure, when compared to Willie, who is more or less entirely self-made. And yet Jack is very good at what he does—he is a gifted writer, researched, and political operative.
Gilbert taught Cass all the gentlemanly arts of riding and of managing a plantation for three years, but eventually, realizing that Cass wanted to be a scholar and was given to reading books, he paid to have Cass sent to Transylvania College, in Lexington, Kentucky, where he could study for a bachelor’s degree, as had the family friend Jefferson Davis, who would go on to be President of the Confederacy.
Here the story begins to intertwine with the story of the South, a region founded on black slavery but founded also on a code of white male “honor” and “gentlemanliness,” in which Gilbert hopes to initiate Cass as a young man.
But Burden discovers, again through Cass’s journal, that Cass also learned to live a life of vice and dissipation at Transylvania, though he kept up with his studies. Cass became friends with a man named Duncan Trice, and fell in love with Mrs. Annabelle Trice, Duncan’s wife. Over the course of Cass’s first year in school, Duncan showed Cass the worlds of horse-gambling, drinking, and whore-house-frequenting that he (Duncan) was accustomed to, and Cass did these things eagerly. Cass also realized, at the end of that first year, that Annabelle shared his affections for her, though the pair did not know what to do, nor how to consummate their relationship.
Duncan opens up a world for Cass—shows him things Cass could only dream of on the farm in Mississippi. Just as Jack seems to view knowledge, and aging, as a path toward corruption—just as Willie tends to grow more corrupt, more OK with bribery as he gets older—Cass finds himself willing to test the boundaries of his moral code when he is away at college, perhaps to see what happens when he breaks society’s rule. Cass then “returns” to a life of Christian propriety.
That summer after his first year, with Cass back at Valhalla to be with his brother, Cass received a note from Annabelle reading only “Oh, Cass,” and on a return to Transylvania at the start of the next school year, he went to the Trice house, found Duncan not at home, and embraced Annabelle for the first time. Thus, Jack notes, began the second part of Cass’s fall into dissipation, into “darkness and trouble.”
The affair lasted all of Cass’s second year, with Cass sneaking over to the Trice house when Duncan was away on business—sometimes the two even made love in the Trice’s marital bed. Then, in Cass’s third year, there is a note in the journal that Duncan Trice died of a gunshot wound in the chest in March of 1854, and that the cause of death had been an accidental discharge of a weapon. This marked the third stage of Cass’s darkness. It is implied by Cass that Duncan’s death was a suicide.
Although at first it seems to be implied in Cass’s letter that Cass might have accidentally shot Duncan, it is then revealed that Duncan was alone in the house when the bullet was fired, thus it could have only been a suicide—and a suicide intended to send a message to his wife and her lover, that Duncan knew of the affair happening behind his back.
The night after Duncan’s funeral, which was a public event in Lexington, drawing many prominent people, Cass went to visit Annabelle in a small back-house of the Trice plantation, and there, Annabelle, clearly upset, gave to Cass the ring Duncan once wore to celebrate his marriage to Annabelle. Annabelle told Cass that Duncan took the ring off his finger before shooting himself in his bedroom, and that Phebe, one of the black slaves in the manor house, found the ring and realized that Duncan was making a statement about the dissolution of his marriage.
An almost melodramatic tale which seems to elevate the nature of the Annabelle-Duncan-Cass story into a realm of fiction, of seeming fiction. But Jack operates on the assumption that what Cass says, and what Annabelle reports, are true. Here is the most an African American character is described in the novel—none of the servants in Jack’s mother’s house, nor Irwin’s, are given so much descriptive space.
Annabelle was greatly upset to realize that Duncan was aware of Annabelle’s affair (and that it was with Cass), and doubly upset that Phebe, one of the servants was aware too. Although Annabelle has no direct proof of any of this, she feels that the presence of the gold ring is enough to deduce these conclusions about Duncan’s and Phebe’s knowledge of the affair.
In addition, Phebe is included simply as a victim, an accidental one, too, as regards Cass’s and Annabelle’s affair. All Phebe did was indicate, in some slight way, that she knew Duncan’s implication—and this has damning consequences for Phebe in the future.
Cass then discovered, several days after Duncan’s funeral, that Annabelle had sold Phebe down the river at Paducah, where she would be taken into bondage in Louisiana and used as a forced sex worker—all because Annabelle could not bear the sight of “that look” in Phebe’s eyes, which indicated, to Annabelle, that Phebe knew of the pair’s adultery. Greatly upset that an innocent person had been harmed because of his own vice, Cass traveled down to Paducah and attempted to track down Phebe’s bill-of-sale from a man named Mr. Simms, a slave-trader in that region, but after a gruff conversation with Simms, who implied that Cass merely wanted to sleep with Phebe himself, Cass punched Simms, got into a small tussle, and finally made his way back to Lexington without having found Phebe.
Mr. Simms, here, resembles very nearly the cruel slave-trader and estate-manager Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a text which no incidentally takes places largely in Kentucky, with another plantation in Louisiana becoming the site of terrible cruelty for Tom. Jack, and Penn Warren, too, seem to be using this intertextual reference to “the Uncle Tom story” to underscore just how dramatically cruel Mr. Simms was—it was almost as though the Cass-Annabelle plot had turned to a kind of strange melodramatic fiction, without Cass’s even trying.
In Lexington, Cass realized that Annabelle had fled back to Washington, DC, where she was born and raised—at this, Cass fell into a delirious fever, and “hovered between life and death” in his lodgings at the College. He thought about killing himself, since Annabelle had abandoned him, but he did not because he feared retribution from God—Cass, in his fever, had undergone a kind of religious conversion, and now left Lexington to return to Mississippi and to work on the family plantation.
As above, Cass’s religious conversion is a more mellow version of the conversion the Scholarly Attorney undergoes. Both seem to have “smoldering eyes,” and both behave as though they have plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul. But Cass appears to retain his wits, whereas the Scholarly Attorney descends into a kind of religious madness.
Cass was granted another parcel of land from his brother Gilbert, and though he did not care to make money, Cass prospered anyway, making enough to pay back his brother for the land and, eventually, to free his slaves. Cass attempted to operate his plantation with the former slaves on a wage basis, but Gilbert warned him this would not be possible, since the slaves would simply want to be truly free and sent to the North—the experiment failed, the ex-slaves did not want to work for wages, and Cass eventually did send them up-river, and left his plantation altogether for Jackson, the state capital.
Here, Cass’s ill luck is that he can have no ill luck—he wishes to live a life of Christian abnegation, making no money, and benefiting not at all from the slave labor of those African Americans employed on the estate. But Cass realizes his brother’s business is so strong, so vibrant, that there is little he can do to ruin it. Thus ultimately he must find another line of work in which to “fail.”
There, Cass began a career in the law, which continued until 1861 and the start of the Civil War. Cass took up an infantryman position, one of the lowest ranks possible (despite his status as a wealthy landowner), in the Mississippi branch of the Confederate Army; his brother took a top officer’s post, because of Mastern family connections with Jefferson Davis, now President of the fledgling Confederate States of America. Although Cass vowed not to take any human life in battle, he survived against all odds through several major fights, eventually being wounded in Atlanta and dying of his wound in a hospital there in 1864. The journal ends with Mastern’s death.
After his brief legal career—much like Jack’s all-too-brief legal career as a law student—Cass enlists in another form of abnegation, refusing the officer’s commission he could have taken and instead putting himself in harm’s way. And once again, Cass cannot die quickly enough—he is miraculously spared during some of the most difficult and bloody fighting of the war, and ends up succumbing to his wound only because of terrible medical care in Atlanta, where there were unclean hospital and a shortage of doctors.
Such was the material Jack was to craft into a dissertation for his doctorate. But Jack realized that, despite knowing all the facts of Mastern’s life, and of the impact this life had on others, and on the way in which this life was emblematic of many lives in the South at that time, that he could not take these facts and weave them into any account of the “truth” of that time. This philosophical frustration with the facts, and their refusal to equate to “the truth,” caused Jack to abandon his project and to fall into a deep depression.
An important point. Jack here feels that, despite his best efforts, there is an enormous divide between the “truth” as he sees it and the collection of small details that people often think of as comprising the truth. Jack believes that, just as with historical research, the details or facts cannot encapsulate the truth of himself or of Willie—thus he uses his particular back-and-forth storytelling method throughout the novel.
This deep depression, similar to the “Big Sleep” Jack underwent just after being fired from the reporter job, and before being hired by Willie, ended finally when Jack was hired at the newspaper. His old landlady in the squalid apartment sent him his box of PhD materials, including the letters, the photo of Cass, and the ring, which have followed Jack from place to place, and which sit in his apartment in 1939, as he writes the account of his and Willie’s life.
In fact, Jack’s difficulty deciding what is fact and what is truth is so important to him that it prompts one of his periodic Great Sleeps—moments of major depression that appear to crop up every so often, during a major life change. Jack will have similar difficulty making sense of the “truth” of Irwin’s bribery and of Willie’s affair with Anne.