A few years ago, on my way home after giving a reading at Murray State University, at the invitation of writers and friends Allen Wier and Dale Ray Phillips, I stopped in Guthrie, Kentucky, for some lunch. If I spot a Cracker Barrel, it’s hard for me not to stop. (And no, Cracker Barrel isn’t paying me to say that. I’m just offering a little free advertising because of my generous nature.) Allen knew I’d be going through Guthrie, and he’d reminded me that Robert Penn Warren was from there, and added that the home of his birth was open for tours.
So after finishing my meal, I asked my waiter if he knew where Robert Penn Warren’s house was. He didn’t, and, as you might be guessing right about now, he didn’t know who Penn Warren was. And that was okay. Not everyone’s a reader, and it’s not all that unusual for a native of a place to not know some famous person is from there. It’s not like Penn Warren had been on America’s Got Talent. Luckily, a waitress overheard me asking and was able to be more helpful. I have to add here that earlier I’d overheard her talking to two diners as she told them about her four-year-old granddaughter picking up something in the yard and saying, “Look, Grandmama!” What she held up and was proudly displaying (here comes one of those snake stories-like you didn’t know it already) was a baby copperhead, that miraculously didn’t bite her. Grandmama still sounded somewhat shaken by the event, though not so shaken that she wasn’t able to give me directions to Penn Warren’s house.
Which I found without too much trouble. I parked in front, saw no other cars, and walked through the drizzle to the front porch of the redbrick home. The tour hours were posted, and I should have been in luck, but the door was locked, and when I politely tapped, no one came forth. I stood there like an idiot for a few minutes, waiting for the door to somehow magically open. Then I noticed that a car had stopped at the side of the house (it sits on a corner lot) and the driver’s side window was slowly opening. “Honey, she’s not there,” the woman said. “It’s my daughter-in-law that gives the tours. She had to take her father to the doctor. Let me see if she’s home yet.” I thanked her, and she dialed her cell phone. A short conversation ensued, of which I could hear neither part. The nice lady then said, “She says she can be here in 15 minutes.”
She was-well, maybe twenty. And for the next hour or so this young woman, who was most knowledgeable about both Penn Warren’s life and work, gave me the grand tour. I was a crowd of one, but she was so thorough it was as if there must have been 10 others.
All of which leads me to say (you knew this had to be headed somewhere, and probably toward a book) that I recently read, for the first time, Penn Warren’s first novel, Night Rider, about the tobacco wars in western Kentucky when Penn Warren was a child. First published in 1939, it was reprinted by J.S. Sanders & Company in their Southern Classics Series, and in his introduction, George Core, former editor of The Sewanee Review, claims it is one of the finest first novels ever written by an American writer, a bold statement. I don’t know that I would go that far, but it is a fine novel that follows the downfall of Percy Munn, who at first glance is a good and decent man, though maybe not so good and decent at second glance. Once he becomes enmeshed in the battle between tobacco growers and those who set the prices for tobacco, he makes a series of choices that set him on the path that you know will have to lead to his destruction. I’m not giving anything away. You’ll sense this from early on, and you will be right.
You’ll also need to be a patient reader. The novel has a kind of density to it, though the prose is not difficult to read. The style is of its time, but the rewards are still there. I’m a patient reader myself, and hope I’m not the only one out there still.
If you haven’t read Penn Warren yet, or have only read the one book, and we all know which book I mean, you might try his one and only collection, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories. It contains his classic story, “Blackberry Winter,” and another I love called “The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger” (and let me tell you, that is one mean-ass hamburger). There are also two novellas. One gives the collection its title; the other is “Prime Leaf,” about the tobacco wars in western Kentucky. It’s a real primer (no pun intended, or maybe it is) for Night Rider, but is about a completely different set of characters. I admire it greatly.
Now, if you haven’t read the one book, All the King’s Men, then you must begin with it, the novel based loosely on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long. The final 75-100 pages are an absolute tour de force. I promise.
Of course, it occurs to me that, like Cracker Barrel, Robert Penn Warren doesn’t need me to give him free advertising. Still, sometimes we don’t get to some of those classic works and writers we intend to get to. A little nudge can help.
Oh, and if you find yourself at the door to Penn Warren’s birthplace and no one answers, just wait a minute.