The Professor and the Profession

By Robert Bechtold Heilman | Go to book overview

6
Robert Penn Warren

When I began to put these notes together,1 I was struck by a geographical irony. Here was I, a native Pennsylvanian, writing literally on an island shore in Puget Sound, about a Kentuckian whose colleague I was forty years ago in Louisiana and who has long lived in Connecticut. What we had shared, for a few years, was a Deep South which we had both left in the 1940s, and which no longer is what it was then. Yet that past still asserts its vitality for me in our now-distant present.

My glancing back, in a Kentucky scene, to that old Louisiana reality reminds me, if only faintly, of Red Warren’s going back to Todd County to see again the Jefferson Davis monument, begun long before, finished much later, and then in 1979 a key point in a Davis commemoration. It should be amply clear that I am not a Warren—that most of us here are not Warrens— and that he is not a Jefferson Davis. Granted that, rough parallels between the backward looks, or the absence of them, will come to mind. I can start with no childhood images to be partly unlearned and partly confirmed later on, though I might seek a parallel by claiming that my first images of Red, forty-five years ago, were products of my professional childhood. But my early images came, of course, not through a grandfather, but directly from the subject; they were tentative rather than decisive; they were to be added to rather than revised or justified. And the native Kentuckian who is the center of our rites is happily not at the stage at which stone monuments are the required idiom. Or better still, he has been building his own monument, not quite so localized as the Davis one, a little longer in construction, and visible in all scenes and at all distances. So in our present

1. The sketch of Robert Penn Warren was originally a talk delivered on the morning of October 29, 1980, in the Department of Special Collections, King Library North, at the University of Kentucky’s Robert Penn Warren seventy-fifth birthday symposium.

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