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Figure 1.

In 1987 William R. Ferris (left) met with famed poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (right). The result was a memorable interview. Photograph by Moira Egan, courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Robert Penn Warren is one of the unquestioned giants of twentieth-century southern culture. Poet, novelist, and reporter, he emerged as a younger member of the "Fugitive" group at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, who did much to introduce America to modernist literature and became renowned leaders of the "southern renaissance" in American letters. We are deeply fortunate that William R. Ferris interviewed "Red" Warren before his death in 1989 and shares the transcript of that conversation in this issue.

Like the rest of Bill's work, it is a charming, wide-ranging conversation, moving broadly over Warren's life, his early years as a poet, his decision to try fiction, the people he knew, including other giants like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. One of the few subjects he does not mention is All the King's Men, his best known novel, which chronicles the career of Willie Stark, the fictional counterpart of Louisiana's notorious governor, Huey [End Page 1] Long. As Bill notes in his introduction, though, Warren felt he already had covered that terrain in other conversations over the years.


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Figure 2.

Like any good southerner, Robert Penn Warren began the story of his own life by telling about his family, especially his maternal grandfather, Gabriel Telemachus Penn, a Kentuckian who served the Confederacy in General Nathan Bedford Forrest's renowned and glamorous cavalry. Robert Penn Warren, courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Out of all this wealth of anecdote and recollection, one of Warren's remarks stuck with me the longest, more from its familiarity than its uniqueness. Like any good southerner, Warren began the story of his own life by telling about his family, especially his maternal grandfather, Gabriel Telemachus Penn, a Kentuckian who served the Confederacy in General Nathan Bedford Forrest's renowned and glamorous cavalry. As a slaveholder who rose from private to captain by raising his own company, Penn might have emphasized his own initiative as he told the story of his experience in the Civil War. Or, as a self-described opponent of slavery and secession from a divided border state, he might have been tempted by the Union cause, admitting that he had a choice in which side he would serve. Instead, he told his own Civil War story by emphasizing how much his loyalty was chosen for him. "When the war came on," he remembered, "I went with my people."

Much like Gabriel Penn, many southern participants recalled the Civil War as a kind of natural catastrophe, a moral calamity they disapproved of and did nothing to create, which they would have avoided if they could have, but which sucked them in through bonds of blood and family rather than conviction. As Warren relates, [End Page 2] the most famous was Robert E. Lee, who was still serving in the Union army when Fort Sumter fell and "went with his state" when the time for ambivalence evaporated. Zebulon Vance, battlefield hero and North Carolina's wartime governor, likewise remembered that "if war must come I preferred to be with my own people." In my own lifetime, I remember an old-fashioned and high-toned lady who insisted that her own grandfather had always opposed secession but fought bravely when it came. "But why?" I demanded, remembering another war in which dissent and resistance had been more fashionable. Her answer was simple: "What else was a gentleman to do?"

The notion that the obligations of kinship or even social rank dragged thousands of reluctant southerners into war has a powerful appeal, resonant with all the overtones of profound tragedy and ineluctable loss that tinge our memories of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 1-7
Launched on MUSE
2004-11-18
Open Access
No
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