Birthplace of Greatness
If Vanderbilt inspired the craft of Robert Penn Warren, then Guthrie inspired the images.Two places shaped Robert Penn Warren, the man who became a Rhodes Scholar, the first poet laureate of the United States and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner: Vanderbilt University and Guthrie, Ky.
Vanderbilt honors him with its Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and Fugitive and Agrarian Collection; Guthrie has the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace House…although it nearly lost that.
In spring 1986, Guthrie resident Jeane Moore read a newspaper article reporting that Western Kentucky University wanted to buy the small home where Warren had been born in 1905 and move it to the university’s campus.
Moore immediately called the person quoted in the article. “We had quite a conversation,” Moore recalls. “I’ll never forget her last words…she said to me, ‘Well, you know, Mrs. Moore, that Guthrie isn’t a proper place to have the Robert Penn Warren house.’ I said, ‘Well, it was good enough for him to be born here,’ and I hung up the phone.”
The fight was on.
Moore, Guthrie native Melba Smith and a handful of other residents set out to prevent the relocation of the brick bungalow on Third Street.
“Our mayor said, ‘Well, now, you know we can put up a little monument there on the site,’ and I said, ‘No, Mr. Mayor. We’re not going to be putting up any monument.’ I was ready to lie down out there in the street,” Smith says. “It was like, if you’re going to come and take this house away, you’re going to have to do it over my dead body.”
Moore says her opposition was based on historic legacy. “He was one of the most famous writers in the world, and I just didn’t want them to take the house. You can’t change history,” she says. “The man was born here; you can’t move it somewhere else and have it have meaning.”
That Guthrie had meaning for Warren is unmistakable. Although he left in his teens for Vanderbilt and came back only for visits, the people, places, experiences and memories of Guthrie remained with him.
“But as far as writing is concerned, the basic images that every man has, I suppose, go back to those of his childhood. He has to live on that capital all his life,” Warren told an editor of Studies in the Novel at Yale University in 1969.
The acclaimed poet and novelist returned to that theme often in his writing. He wrote the poem “True Love” when he was 83 about a beautiful girl he saw when he was a boy in Guthrie. “It seems to me that all your vital images are ones you get before you’re seven, eight, nine years old,” Warren told The New England Review in 1978. “That’s true for my life anyway.”
The Battle Won—Now What?
With so much of Guthrie having shaped Warren, it was important for the Kentucky town of approximately 1,500 to keep ties to its most famous citizen. By the mid-1980s, the community was changed from the one Warren knew. His parents, siblings and many friends were gone. The railroad presence was a shadow of what it had been. Places he recalled and the houses his family lived in were in private hands. The town didn’t have anything to honor its native son.
“First we got the townspeople and the county people all riled up,” Smith recalls. Then the small group called politicians. They wrote Warren scholars. They alerted the media. The media turned the tide, the women say. “The Atlanta Constitution came up and did a two-page story on us,” Smith says. Then newspapers all over the country took up the story.
In a few weeks, the battle was over. The sale to the university didn’t go through and the 17 members of the Committee for the Preservation of the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace found themselves called upon to sign a legal agreement making them personally responsible for the house’s mortgage.“That was one of the things that hit us,” Moore recalls. “We’ve made all this fuss—now it was ours. We’ve got it and we’ve got to do something with it, or we’d have egg all over our faces. So we had to go on. We couldn’t stop.”
The house had had several owners since the Warrens moved to another Guthrie house during Warren’s boyhood. Most recently, it had been rental property owned by two Air Force colonels at nearby Fort Campbell. It would require renovation, collections and period-appropriate furnishings to make it a proper museum. And funds.
Grassroots and Gumption
The committee registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and raised the money needed to purchase, repair and run the house. “We actually paid for the house with grassroots fundraising, mostly luncheons that we catered in the house,” Moore says of the group that continues to oversee the birthplace. “That was over a long period of time. We had yard sales, we had auctions, we had walks, everything we could think of.
“But as far as writing is concerned, the basic images that every man has, I suppose, go back to those of his childhood. He has to live on that capital all his life.”
—Robert Penn Warren
“At the same time we were doing that, we were making people aware of Warren, going to schools, giving programs, having schoolchildren here—once the house was to a point that we could have people inside,” she says. “We wanted the schoolchildren to know that this man had made it to the top of his profession and he was from Guthrie, Ky.—so they could do it, too.”
Today, the meticulously restored house is furnished with antiques and Warren materials. Visitors can stand in the room where Warren was born and view memorabilia, books and photos, including a portrait created for Life magazine and donated by Annie Leibovitz. They can learn how Guthrie shaped him and his work.
Moore, Smith and others on the committee tell personal stories, tales handed down from people who knew the Warren family. They share wonderful anecdotes, ranging from how childhood bullies tried to hang Warren in a nearby barn to the opinion most locals had of the family (“Everybody in town knew that Thomas was the successful Warren boy. The other one had gone off and he was making a job out of going to school. He was continually going to school,” Moore relates dryly.).
It was that going to school that brought him to Vanderbilt, where Warren found where his true interests lay: in poetry, writing, literature and teaching.
The women say that when they read Warren’s work, they find Guthrie. “Warren drew on everything around us,” Smith says. “The woods, the railroad, the bullbats and the cinders. The people, the characters…Unless you’re from here, and knew of some of those people, you don’t even realize he’s writing about Guthrie. I think his whole life here spoke to him and he just valued it so much. It’s just amazing.”
photo credit: John Russell