Famous Dead Person of the Week: Robert Penn Warren
Life: April 24, 1905 – Sept. 15, 1989
Occupation: Novelist and poet
Claim to Fame: Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner
Fun Fact: Undeniably, the most famous person to ever come from Guthrie, Kentucky
If you grew up in the Montgomery/Robertson county areas of Tennessee, at some point you drove through Guthrie, Kentucky. If you did so, you may have noticed a sign commemorating the birthplace of Robert Penn Warren. If you’re like me, you may have even wondered, “Who the hell is that guy?”
Today, you get to find out.
(Note: There’s no way I get through the next 500 or so words without numerous potshots and backhanded compliments to Guthrie, which resembles a town not so much as a village of despair. I will try to behave myself; no promises.)
Even though Warren has been dead for 23 years, I suspect he is still the most intelligent person to come out of Guthrie, and possibly the state of Kentucky itself: degrees were conferred on him from Vanderbilt, Cal, Oxford and Yale, along with a Guggenheim Fellowship in Italy. Cat was not messing around.
While at Vandy, Warren became associated with a group of poets that called themselves “The Fugitives” (seriously manly moniker for a group of poemers) and later became the Southern Agrarians. That was a group that defended racial segregation, a point Warren would renounce later in life. He became a serious advocate for civil rights in the 60s, interviewing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others.
His best-known work (even though I didn’t know it was his until I started this research) was All the King’s Men, which won him his first Pulitzer in 1947. It became an Academy Award-winning movie in 1949 and an absolute bomb of epic proportions when Hollywood tried a reboot featuring Sean Penn, Jude Law and Kate Winslet. It actually received an 11 percent at RottenTomatoes.com; to put that in perspective, Paul Blart: Mall Cop had a 33 percent favorable review. But I suppose we can’t blame Warren for that.
Warren went on to earn two more Pulitzer’s, in poetry, for 1958’s Promises and 1979’s Now and Then. He was the national Poet Laureate before there was such a thing (the National Poet Laureate didn’t become an official position until 1985; in fact, he was the first). And he’s easily Guthrie’s most famous native; contenders for that throne include an MLB pitcher from the 1920s and an editorial cartoonist and really, that’s everyone.
I know it’s probably only important to me, but it’s kind of nice to realize that an important writer and wordsmith came from Guthrie; it’s not like he came from the benefit of private schools and writing tutors growing up. He just liked words and was pretty good with them, so instead of becoming a sharecropper or a general store owner (or a meth kingpin or Justified villain in today’s terms) he became a Pulitzer Prize winner.