This past week I have had the chance to listen to a few interviews on a website that I came across a couple of months ago. It’s a site that hosts the archived interviews that Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) did in the early 1960s for a book entitled Who Speaks for the Negro?
Warren to me is a fascinating man. A native of Kentucky who grew up hearing stories about the civil war from his grandfather, a confederate veteran. Warren grew up wanting to go to sea, to the Naval Academy in fact,and was on his until the summer before he was to attend lost one eye in a hunting accident. With that incident he instead went to Vanderbilt University and afterwards launch his prolific writing career. One of his first pieces to gather attention was published in a volume called I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a collection of essays written by him an other southern writers, it is a defense of the Jim Crow south, Warren contributed “In the Briar Patch”, a defense of segregation in the South and an essay Warren would renounce later in his life.
Warren would begin to reassess his views in the 1950s as the Civil Rights Movement commenced. The past is a subject that runs throughout his work. He is perhaps today best well-know for his novel All the King’s Men, a book about political corruption, but that also has a main character dealing hard to come to grips with his own family history. Warren during his life was mostly a poet, in fact he was the first Poet Laureate of the United States in the 1980s. Many of his poems deal with the problems of history and the power it maintains as time goes on.
The site that hosts his recordings is from his Vanderbilt alma mater. He interviewed a who’s who of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. These interviews combined with his writings give excellent documentation of one of the finest American writers of the twentieth century working through his thoughts and feelings about race in America.