Robert Penn Warren

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Robert Penn Warren rests in the remote Willis Cemetery in Vermont

The sun was beginning to set when I arrived at the collection of buildings known as West Wardsboro, deep in the Green Mountain National Forest. Following the Stratton Arlington Road westward, I traveled a couple of miles before turning onto the Willis Cemetery Road that tunneled through the forest.

“Are you sure this is the road?” my mother asked hesitantly.

“Willis Cemetery is our destination,” I replied. Despite the name of the road being the same as the cemetery I sought, I answered in a less than confident voice. The dirt road narrowed and widened as it pleased for seemingly no reason and in the narrowest of places I considered turning around, convinced I had the wrong road. I finally arrived at the end of the road, where a small cemetery sat surrounded by a crumpling stone wall. A sign near the entrance announced this was the Willis Cemetery. For the first time since turning onto this road, I was relieved to find that I was on the correct road.

I stepped out of the vehicle and studied the small cemetery. As I listened to the crickets singing and watched as the shadows lengthened to cover the small plot of land, I saw my destination before me. The sacred piece of land had approximately fifty stones, but from where I stood at the cemetery’s entrance, I could see the grave of the authors for which I had made the journey to pay my respects. I stepped through the opening in the stone wall and carefully made my way among the old stones to the rear of the cemetery. In the silence of the rural cemetery I stood before the grave of Robert Penn, who rests next to his wife, Eleanor Clark Warren.

Born in Guthrie, Kentucky on April 24, 1905, Robert was the oldest of three children to Robert and Anna. Robert graduated school at the age of fifteen, but did not enter college, because his mother thought he was too young. In 1921 Robert was hit by a rock thrown by his younger brother that injured his left eye, which would eventually be removed in 1934.

Also, in 1921 Robert spent six weeks as a part of the Citizens Military Training Corp in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Robert had been accepted into the United States Naval Academy but because of the eye injury he was unable to attend and in the fall of 1921 he entered Vanderbilt University. While attending the Citizens Military Training Corp, he published his first poem, “Prophecy” in the camp newsletter The Messkit.

After graduating in 1925, Robert entered the University of California, where he met his first wife, Emma “Cinina” Brescia. In 1927 he graduated and entered Yale University that autumn, graduating in 1930. Robert married Emma secretly in 1929 and their marriage lasted until 1951. The following year he married Eleanor Clark, which produced two children.

Warren was a poet, critic, novelist, and teacher. While teaching a Louisiana State University, he co-founded and edited the literary quarterly, The Southern Review. In 1934, Warren, with another LSU faculty member, Cleanth Brooks, began writing a number of influential textbooks, including Understanding Literature and Understanding Poetry. These textbooks would promote the idea of New Criticism.

Note: New Criticism is a literary analysis that focuses upon the written piece itself rather than outside influences to determine what the piece is trying to say. In basic terms: “If it’s not in the written work, you can’t use it as part of your analysis.”

Warren published ten novels — his first was Night Rider, about Kentucky tobacco farmers and their war with the larger tobacco companies. His best known, All the King’s Men, based on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long, won a Pulitzer Prize.

In his life time, Warren published sixteen volumes of poetry. Two of them – Promises: Poems and Now and Then: Poems – won Pulitzer Prizes. He was appointed the nation’s first Poet Laureate on February 26, 1986. Robert is the only author to have won the Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry.

Warren moved to Connecticut in the 1950s, where he remained until his death on September 15, 1989. Note: Although he was buried in near Stratton, at his request, a centograph – or memorial marker – was placed in the Warren family plot in his hometown of Guthrie, Kentucky.

Although I had come to pay my respects to Robert Penn Warren, I did not realize as I stood there that his wife had also written a number of works. Eleanor was born July 6, 1913, in Los Angeles, California, but grew up in Connecticut. During her lifetime, she wrote five fiction novels and five non-fiction books. Some of her notable works include the non-fiction works The Oysters of Locmariaquer, Rome and a Villa, Eyes, Etc., and the novels The Bitter Box and Baldur’s Gate. She passed on February 16, 1996 and was laid to rest next to her husband.

A cool breeze whistled through the woods and crossed the field of stone. Despite the warmth of the day, I shivered as the breeze swirled around, kicking up leaves. I turned toward the vehicle and walked respectively among the older stones. I paused at the opening in the stone wall and took one last look over the sacred grounds. The words from Warren’s “Tell Me A Story” entered my mind as I stood there: “Tell me a story, / Make it a story of great distances.” I journeyed a long way to pay my respects and I still had a long way to go, but the story I had – that was my story to share.

Note: When I had ventured into New England to tour the “Covered Bridges and Burial Grounds,” I was unsure why Robert Penn Warren was buried near Stratton. I knew he had lived in Connecticut, but the cemetery where he and Eleanor rest is tucked far away from the crowds — back a long dirt road in a small family cemetery. While I have not found a reason for this particular cemetery, the Warrens had a summer home in the area – the remote, peacefulness of this location may have been enough to make him want to stay.

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