Meanness in this World

20 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2009 Last revised: 6 Nov 2009

Garrett Epps

University of Baltimore School of Law

Date Written: April 6, 2009


As part of a symposium on Bruce Springsteen and American law, this essay considers the themes explored by Springsteen in his song "Nebraska," which was inspired by the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Anne Fugate, two young "lovers" who indulged in a remarkable course of violence in Nebraska during the 1950s. The essay asks to what extent the song, and the story, echo the themes of emigration and displacement that are key elements in the history and current reality of the American West. The essay compares the story of Starkweather and Fugate with the current case of Christian Longo, convicted and sentenced to death in Oregon for murdering his wife and three children and disposing of their bodies in a shallow watercourse on the Pacific Coast. The crime of "family annihilation" seems as unfathomable as do the random murders committed by Starkweather and Fugate; but the author considers an episode from his own emigration from East to West, and the searing and peculiar pain caused by an injury to his daughter, as a means of considering the basic narcissism of parenthood, exacerbated by the separation from extended family and community occasioned by the trek west, which is a fearsome one even in the era of airliners and automobiles. It concludes that only the imagination of the artist can lead us to confront the darkness that lies inside us -- what Ernest Hemingway in his story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," called "the nada." If a mild-mannered law professor can glimpse the nada inside himself from the small traumas and partial, inevitable dissolution of his family, then perhaps even a killer like Longto, and by extension, Starkweather, is not beyond the realm of human solidarity and even understanding.

Suggested Citation

Epps, Garrett, Meanness in this World (April 6, 2009). Widener Law Journal, Vol. 14, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Garrett Epps (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

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