Glimpses of Seasons: A Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Robert Penn Warren

By Funk, William H. | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Glimpses of Seasons: A Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Robert Penn Warren


Funk, William H., Southern Quarterly


As the traveler nears the Tennessee line southwest of Russellville, the green rolling landscape of tilled fields and cattle pasture that one has been traversing since Bowling Green abruptly flattens out, signaling the crossing of that ancient divide where earthmoving glaciers ground to a monumental halt sometime in the late Pleistocene. Cast suddenly out of the hills by the highway's impetus the motorist achieves a sense of being heaved up onto some final shore after miles of soothingly oceanic dips and curves. Far into the distance stretches a low and level plain of field and woodlot, farmhouse and silo.

A few years ago, during a wild April rainstorm, I drove down the winding narrow concrete strip of Kentucky State Highway 79 through a smoky seascape of grays and blues, bound for the hamlet of Guthrie. The early spring foliage was being battered by opaque sheets of rain hammering the pastures and woods on either side of the road. To the northwest and southeast were spread the handsome vistas of a still-functioning rural economy, thick brushy fence lines bordering broad expanses of winter wheat. Last summer's tobacco stalks, awaiting the tiller, jutted despondently from fallow fields of goldenrod. Thick white petals knocked from roadside dogwoods floated on the stormwater down the road's eroded shoulder. American kestrels, small and vibrant falcons, were occasionally seen hunkered on the power lines strung overhead, glaring hungrily out into the murk.

I was entering Robert Penn Warren country, the formative geography of America's first poet laureate and arguably our finest poet during the latter half of the twentieth century. The only writer to win Pulitzers for both fiction (All the King 's Men) and poetry (Promises: Poems, 1954-1956, and Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978), a playwright, teacher, and the author of critical essays, children's books, a biography, short stories and influential academic texts, Warren (1905-1989) was, according to the literary scholar R.W.B. Lewis, "the most complete man of letters in our time."1

Born in the formerly vigorous railroad town of Guthrie, Kentucky, Warren would show his intellectual precocity at an early age, graduating from high school at sixteen and from Vanderbilt University (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) at twenty. While at Vanderbilt, Warren helped initiate the Fugitive movement with John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, thereby creating a revolutionary approach to literary interpretation that helped to usher in New Criticism, an analytical style which emphasizes fiction's textual substance rather than the author's sociocultural background. As interested in history and politics as in literature, Warren later became a founding member of the Agrarians, a prescient group of Southern thinkers which urged the retention of agriculture, pastoral landscapes and native tradition in defiance of the accelerating mechanization and urbanization that was, and is, taking place in the "New South." Warren went on to achieve in graduate studies at the University of California, on a fellowship at Yale, and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

Warren's chief literary milestones include the novels All the King's Men (1946) and World Enough and Time (1950), and perhaps most importantly his Collected Poems (1998), recently assembled by John Burt and published by Louisiana State University Press.2 Warren had taught at LSU in the 1930s where he developed a close relationship with Cleanth Brooks, with whom he wrote groundbreaking textbooks and founded the Southern Review. Warren's literary interests were profoundly classical - he spent several years in Italy where he learned to read Dante in the original - and it is his juxtaposition of the epic Miltonian theme with his native Southern soil that makes Warren's work highly accessible to the common reader, yet the profound continuation of a grand inherited tradition.

A native Kentuckian myself, I had first come across Warren's work through extraneous reading in college and was immediately impressed with his multidisciplinary approach to literature and life. …

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