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Rheta Johnson: Willie, Red, Jack and the boys


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



GUTHRIE, Ky. -- When determined women form a committee, move out of the way and take cover. Something's going to happen.  


What happened here was the salvation of a so-called railroad bungalow on a corner lot. It was about to be sold and moved, red brick by red brick, to the university over in Bowling Green, but the ladies of Guthrie galvanized and said: "Wait just a minute. This is ours." 


In the late 1980s, Jeane (cq) Moore and others with a literary conscience bought, restored and saved for their town the birthplace of writer Robert Penn Warren. They were right to do so. You wouldn't move Shakespeare to Liverpool or Faulkner to Tupelo. And nothing is more significant than birth. 


Today the house where Warren remembered seeing sunlight embellished by a parlor piece of stained glass is a tidy little museum with period furnishings and first editions and movie posters and, best of all, the ghost of Willie Stark. 


Room by room, Jeane's husband, Dean Moore, shares the exciting if esoteric treasures. There are the photos of this area's 1904 tobacco wars, when 20,000 struggling farmers showed up in Guthrie to stand up against the big tobacco companies. Warren wrote "Night Rider" based on that bit of history. 


On another wall is a young sportswriter's story about major-leaguer Kent Greenfield, Warren's neighbor, school chum and lifelong friend. The byline is "Ed Sullivan," who was promised a newspaper job if he could get the interview. Sullivan, most know, didn't stick with newspapers. 


There is a movie poster from the 1949 version of "All the King's Men" that starred Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark and won Best Picture. There's also one from 2006, with Sean Penn as Willie, a Hollywood contortion that makes Dean Moore shudder. 


The house also celebrates Warren's poetry, the second part of his one-two literary punch. He was the nation's first Poet Laureate and won two Pulitzer prizes for poetry, as well as one for his most famous novel with the Humpty Dumpty title. 


An intellectual prodigy, Warren graduated from Guthrie School at age 15, then went to nearby Clarksville, Tenn., for a second diploma. His plans to study engineering at Annapolis were destroyed by fate -- and a rock thrown by his brother that hit Robert Penn in the eye. A blind eye ended his dreams of an Annapolis appointment but landed him at Vanderbilt University by age 16. The rest is literary history. 


While teaching at LSU, Warren got a close look at the legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long, champion of the people who gave him so much power he was corrupted. From his front-row seat in Baton Rouge, "Red" Warren, as friends called him, saw enough to imagine Willie Stark, whose star in American fiction shines brightly as Jay Gatsby's or Tom Joad's. "All the King's Men" is arguably the best American political novel, unless you understandably lump preachers in with politicians and make "Elmer Gantry" a contender. 


I, like every old reporter I know, identified with the idealistic young Jack Burden, who took an immersion course in life through his association with Willie Stark. At least two of my reporter friends have sons named Jack. 


It means a lot, then, to stand here in the house where in 1905 Robert Penn Warren was born to intellectual parents and made his first few memories before moving up the street. Thanks to a few stubborn Guthrie ladies, this remains a place for pilgrims to ponder. 




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