Clarksville, TN – Robert Penn Warren is the only writer to date with three Pulitzer Prizes, two in poetry and one in fiction. In 1980, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter, and in 1986, Warren was named the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the Library of Congress.
His senior year was spent at Clarksville High School prior to his attending Vanderbilt University. Although he had been appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, he was unable to enter school there because during the summer, his brother had tossed either a stone or piece of coal that landed in Robert Penn’s eye; this eventually resulted in blindness and the removal of his left eye. While at Vanderbilt, Warren became a member of a writers’ group known as The Fugitives and the rest is history.
Once a year the Robert Penn Warren Circle holds its annual meeting. This year’s meeting attracted scholars from Connecticut to California and featured not only speeches but a tree dedication across the street from the Robert Penn Warren birthplace in Guthrie and a reception on Saturday evening at Emerald Hill at Austin Peay State University. A tour of the birthplace followed a luncheon at First Christian Church, Guthrie, sponsored by the Birthplace Committee. Saturday afternoon attendees made a pilgrimage to the Guthrie Cemetery.
Saturday morning’s highlight was the lecture of Dr. David Blight of Yale University in Gentry Auditorium, Kimbrough Building at APSU. Dr. Blight is author of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. His lecture, “Robert Penn Warren and the Civil Rights Era,” was based on Dr. Blight’s access to the Warren letters in the Yale library.
He emphasized the influence of Robert Penn Warren’s grandfather, Gabriel Thomas Penn, who had served as a captain under General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. Robert sat with his grandfather on many summer days as his grandfather, a master storyteller, opened the child’s sense of history that influenced Robert Penn Warren’s illustrious writing career.
Dr. Blight gave a description of Wilderness, written in 1961, by Warren and the unusual subject of the book as the United States celebrated the centennial of the Civil War (also known as “the recent unpleasantness” for some in the South). The book is about a German Jew who comes to America to fight in the Civil War on the side of the North.
It was not a book that was well-received by critics at that time because it was not the tragic view of the Civil War most Americans wanted at the time. Blight’s opinion of the book is that it is a well-crafted story and shows Warren’s careful knowledge of the War.
Blight also discussed his classroom teaching of All the King’s Men, Warren’s most famous book. The movie is what most contemporary youth are familiar with if they know Warren’s work at all. Blight said that the book is far superior to the movie and havaing had an extremely positive experience in teaching the book, plans to do so again. Blight said that Warren, who was called “Red” by his friends since his hair was red, insisted that he was not writing about Huey Long in All the King’s Men, but was instead, writing about Julius Caesar.
Another speaker of note is Professor William Bedford Clark of Texas A & M University. Author of The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren, Editor of the Robert Penn Warren Correspondence Project and author of a number of other books, he has completed five volumes of the Warren letters and expects the sixth to be published within the year by Louisiana State University Press.
Professor Clark appeared on a panel in the Iris Room of the Morgan Center at APSU with John Burt of Brandeis University, Randy Runyon of Miami University, and Victor Strandberg of Duke University. Professor Burt is the author of Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (2012, Harvard University Press), and two books on Warren’s poetry.
Other speakers include Ryan Wilson, Joan Romano Shifflett, Brooks Lampe, Joseph Boyne and Noah Jampol, all of the Catholic University of America, Aimee Berger of the University of Texas at Arlington, Cecilia Donohue of Madonna University, Khristeena Lute of Middle Tennessee State University, Rodney Vliet of Biola University, Dr. Meredith Martin of Princeton University, Randy Hendricks of the University of West Georgia, Leverett Butts of Gainesville State College, Keri Overall of Texas Woman’s University, and Charlotte Beck of the University of South Carolina at Beaufort.
The Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts under the direction of Chris Burawa, the members of the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace Committee, and The Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies at Western Kentucky University under the direction of Coordinator Wes Berry were hosts for various activities for the weekend.