The Day I “Met” Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren--I doubt that many folks know his name. He was born April 24, 1905 and died September 15, 1989 at the age of 84.


When I was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, everyone knew his name.  He was the man who wrote All the King’s MenAll the King’s Men was a novel based on the life of Huey P. Long.  I guess everyone remembers Long.  In case you don’t, he was the fortieth governor of Louisiana from 1928-1932 and a US Senator from 1932 to 1935.  This was, of course, the period of the Great Depression.  As governor he created the “Share Our Wealth” program which had the motto “Every Man a King.”  I suppose he earned the moniker “Kingfish” because of his dictatorial tendencies.  He proposed a wealth redistribution program which called for a tax on corporations and the rich.   Huey was an ambitious man who planned to run for the presidency in 1936.    Dr. Carl Weiss, son-in-law of Judge Pavy whom Huey was trying to have removed from office, shot and killed Huey in the lobby of the then new state capitol.  I recall visiting the capitol and rubbing my hands over the scars left in the granite walls by the gunshots of Huey’s  bodyguards.

 

He was viewed by the poor as their savior.  When I was a kid, I recall visiting a rural home years after his death.  On one wall there was a print of a painting of Jesus, and on the opposite wall was an old political poster picturing the “Kingfish.”


Huey’s influence didn’t die in ‘36.  Although there was only one political party which meant anything, the Democrats, it was really a two-party system: the Longs and anti-Longs.


Warren taught at Louisiana State University from 1933 to 1942.  He had a front row seat to the saga of Huey Long, the radical populist.  His novel All the Kings Men was published in 1946.  By then he had moved on to the University of Minnesota.  In 1947, it won the Pulitzer Prize.  In 1949, a film based on the novel won the Academy Award for best picture.  There was a film remake in 2006 and an opera in 1981. 


Willie Stark is the fictitious name Warren chose for his Huey Long character, and the title All the King’s Men was drawn from the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.”


                              Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

                              Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

                              All the king's horses and all the king's men

                              Couldn't put Humpty together again.


Warren received many honors in his lifetime.  He was selected for the Jefferson Lecture, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the MacArthur Fellowship, and the National Medal of Honor.   In 2005, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.


He was always a poet, a prolific poet, before and after his great novel. In fact he won two Pulitzer Prizes in Poetry: in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956 and again in 1979 for Now and Then.  He was named as the first U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 1986.


I met Robert Penn Warren in 1964.  Well, I didn’t really meet him.  I was surprised to find him in one of my advanced English classes at LSU.  He was introduced by the professor and gave a lengthy lecture on Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim.  It really didn’t fit the scope of the class, but it was an honor to be in the same room with him.  I don’t really recall what he had to say about Lord Jim, but I suspect it had something to do with honor lost and the search for salvation. But, more importantly, I still have a strong image in my mind of his face, particularly his eyes.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen eyes like his before or since.  They reminded me of the eyes of an ancient tortoise.  I went on that evening to listen to his lecture, I suppose the main reason he was on campus, which he gave in a great hall.  Once again I don’t recall the main thrust of his speech, but I do recall his reaction to a student in the audience who interrupted him.  He paused and his great tortoise eyes fell upon the interloper and he calmly responded, “There is an example of self-importance.”  He concluded his lecture without further interruptions.


He wrote other novels: Night Rider (1939), At Heaven’s Gate  (1943), World Enough and Time (1950), Band of Angels (1955), The Cave (1959), Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961), Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964), Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), A Place to Come to (1977).  He wrote several children’s books, numerous works on literature, on history, and volumes of poetry; however, he is not remembered in the popular mind for these.  He is remembered for All the King’s Men published when he was 41.


Of course, Warren has passed away, and my time too is now limited, but I look back on the day I “met” Robert Penn Warren as a significant day in my life.  I wish I could remember the content of his lectures.

enough

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