Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Robert Penn Warren: Interview With Justice Bill Cunningham

What makes a good story? For me it is one that begets many more. Tomorrow, Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham & Governor Beshear will be in Todd County to dedicate the new signs which promote the childhood home of Robert Penn Warren.

The Warren house is in the small town of Guthrie, KY which sits along the Kentucky-Tennessee line south of Elkton. It's not an easy find even if your looking for it. I have travelled to Guthrie many times and have gotten turned around. Tiny Town which sits down the road is an intersection of Highways 41,79, and 181. I can remember a few years ago I had to fill the pulpit at Gurthie & Elkton Christian Church and bout not made it.

Robert Penn Warren was America's first poet laureate and that should be a big deal to Kentuckians. He was from Guthrie by the way not Louisville or Lexington. (Sorry, could not help myself). I asked Justice Cunningham to share with me some of his thoughts about the subject and he seemed to feel strongly that the missed storyline is about the community of Guthrie. " I can't wait to be there", said Justice Cunningham who spoke of how this small community non-profit organization has worked tirelessly to preserve the Warren home and legacy. "They have struggled, preserved it and restored it on a tight budget," said Cunningham. At one time there was consideration to moving the house to Western Kentucky University Cunningham pointed out. We talked about how we (the communities)had to give something up for the sake of progress with the new four lane 68/80. We both agreed that something was lost now since the road bypasses all the small towns between Hopkinsville and Bowling Green. Cunningham commented, "I really appreciate being able to get to Bowling Green faster but I miss the history and beautiful scenery driving through places like Fairview, Elkton, Auburn.We need to get people off the highways and I think this signage will help."

In 1965 Robert Penn Warren conducted numerous reel-to-reel interviews for his book Who Speaks for the Negro? My research for this post led me to an article from the Fall 2008 Edition of "arts AND SCIENCE", the magazine for Vanderbilt University's College of Arts and Science. The article written by Sandy Smith tells the story of how Mona Fredrick and Sarah Nobles found the semi-lost reel-to-reel interviews by Robert Penn Warren. Smith shares with us how Fredrick, the executive director of the RPW Center for Humanities and staff associate Sarah Nobles track down these interviews. The Journey led them to the library at Yale University where they found some of them. They had apparently never been catalogued. The remaining interviews were found at the University of Kentucky. Neither school knew what they had in their possession. The article is a good read and I would suggest it. The great thing is that Fredrick and Nobles were able to reunite the collection and move it all to digital recordings.

Robert Penn Warren had collected and what is now considered a treasure chest of interviews with civil rights leaders and activist. This list includes interviews with Stokley Carmichael, Charles Evers, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr, Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr, Carl T. Rowan, Malcolm X, Andrew Young and many more.

Link to listen to Robert Penn Warren interviews- http://whospeaks.library.vanderbilt.edu/

This archival collection is available to listen to for free. I have included a link. I want to thank Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham for sharing some time with me. Justice Cunningham has written a number of books about places and events in Western Kentucky and I have included a link to his website. A good story leads to many more and this one did for me. I did not share everything but I believe if you take some time to follow the bread crumbs I have left for you then you will be rewarded with more stories not yet told.
Link to Justice Bill Cunningham- http://www.billcunninghamonline.com/

1 comment:

Jim said...

Recently I was on a vacation and took a short drive over to The R. P. Warren house in Guthrie, KY. Again the sense of place was brought to mind walking about there. The location so few miles from the massacre over at Hopkinsville caused me to speculate that the boy
who became the poet/writer must have been impressed when young by this tragedy. AK'sM is also a work that is enduring. The Ballad of Billy Potts is a poem that is another favorite of mine by RPW
that again underscores place. Yet distance also was part of Warren. James Camp