Dr. Wes Berry, Coordinator of the Robert Penn Warren Center at WKU, gives us details about the Robert Penn Warren room.
Wes Berry teaches American literature, specializing in Southern studies, Kentucky literature, and environmental humanities. In spring 2012 he finished researching and writing a comprehensive book about Kentucky barbecue while eating at over 140 barbecue places in the Commonwealth and interviewing the pitmasters and patrons met during his travels. The book, “Sweet Dreams of Kentucky Barbecue,” will be published in spring 2013 by the University Press of Kentucky. This year he’ll settle into a new role as Graduate Advisor in English at WKU.
On April 19-21, 2012, the Robert Penn Warren Circle—a group of scholars devoted to studying the literary legacy of this famous writer born and raised in Todd Co., Kentucky—once again made the pilgrimage to cave country for a weekend of celebration and book discussions. They came fromTexas, Massachusetts, Washington,D.C., and elsewhere as they’ve done every April since 1991 when the first Robert Penn Warren Circle meeting was held at Western Kentucky University.
It’s a good time for a symposium in south centralKentucky. T. S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month” in his famous modernist poem “The Waste Land.” Perhaps Eliot would have changed his tune if he’d been dwelling in the land of redbud and dogwood, when baby bluebirds and robins are hatching and the colors burst from the hillsides, everything waking up after the long nap. Of course Eliot, scribbling his melodic verse, could have even made Derby Day—full of loud hats, roses, and mint juleps–sound depressing.
The theme for this year’s symposium was “Robert Penn Warren and Politics, History, and the Politics of History.” Much of Warren’s prodigious literary output dwells on historical events, and his most famous work, All the King’s Men (1946), still ranks as a 20th century masterpiece and one of our best political novels.
Scholars at the symposium discussed Warren’s book-length poem Brother to Dragons (structured as a dialogue between the poet and Thomas Jefferson); Warren’s literary portrayals of Abraham Lincoln; the long poem Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (a critical treatment of the U. S. government’s violent campaign against the Nez Perce Indians); and the novels The Cave (grotesque psychological fiction centered around a man who gets trapped in a cave in a small Tennessee hillbilly town) and A Place to Come To (Warren’s last novel, dealing with a man from Alabama who leaves his homeland for an academic life in the Midwest, who tries to escape his past but can never quite shake it).
And speaking of shaking it, this last novel begins with the narrator, Jed Tewksbury, telling the story of his father who died while taking a leak off a wagon pulled by a team of mules. Drunken, the father pitched forth from the wagon and the mules pulled the wagon right over his neck. When Jed’s father is later found stiffened by rigor mortis, he’s still holding on to his, ahem, dong (Jed’s words). That’s quite a past to shake off, as you can see.