While attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1920s, Robert Penn Warren joined a group of Southern poets called the Fugitives, which included John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who strove to preserve formal poetic techniques and rural agrarian social values. Warren received critical acclaim for his writing, eventually becoming the first poet laureate of the United States and winning three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for fiction, for his novel All the King’s Men.
Though Warren spent much of his adult life outside of the South—living in California, England, Connecticut, and Vermont, where he died in 1989—his language and imagination were deeply rooted in the South. His writing was both expansive and inclusive, and often included reminiscences about his childhood. In his poem “Audubon," he reflects on an early realization of the mysteries of the world. He stands in the dark and hears geese somewhere above him; they are invisible, yet he knows they are there. The poem begins:
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
The small brick railroad cottage in Guthrie, Kentucky, where Warren was born in 1905 was saved from dilapidation by a group of local residents named the Committee for the Preservation of the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace in Todd County. Now a museum, the house is complete with period furnishings reflecting Warren’s turn-of-the-century childhood. Among the antiques donated to furnish the house is a secretary desk that once belonged to Warren’s mother. Years earlier, she had donated the desk to a local church, and they returned it to the house when it became a museum.
A complete set of books by Warren is available for visitors to read in the library. In addition, the house also maintains a private collection, purchased from Emory University, of rare first editions and signed copies of Warren’s books. The museum also displays family photographs, artifacts relating the history of the town, and many of Warren’s childhood possessions, including his multi-volume set of books on electricity, reflecting his early passion for science. For more information, visit the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace Museum website.