If you step inside the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, you’ll want to stay for a while. Housed in one of the seven original campus residences – and beautifully refurbished – the Center exudes a warmth that promises wonderful conversation. I sat down recently with Mona Frederick, Executive Director, to learn more about the Center and what happens inside (and outside) its doors. More on that later. First, pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in. Mona knows a lot about Robert Penn Warren and one of his most significant works, Who Speaks for the Negro (1965), and she agreed to share her thoughts today…
Robert Penn Warren – poet, novelist, critic and teacher – was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905. A summa cum laude graduate of Vanderbilt University in 1925, Warren went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of California and later studied at Yale University and at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. A prolific writer, Warren published sixteen volumes of poetry, ten books of fiction, a book of short stories, twelve books of nonfiction (including Who Speaks for the Negro in 1965), several textbooks, and two selections of essays. He served as professor of English at Louisiana State University, at the University of Minnesota, and finally at Yale University, where he retired in 1973.
Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize three times. In 1946, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel All the King’s Men. He received his first Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1957 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 and his second Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978. To date, he is the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry. Warren was appointed the first Poet Laureate of the United States in 1985.
In 1965, Random House published Robert Penn Warren’s book titled Who Speaks for the Negro? In preparation for writing the volume, Warren traveled throughout the United States in early 1964 and spoke with large numbers of men and women who were involved in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. He interviewed nationally-known figures as well as people working in the trenches of the movement whose names might otherwise be lost to history. In each case, he recorded their conversations on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The published volume contains sections of transcripts from these conversations as well as Warren’s reflections on the individuals he interviewed and his thoughts on the state of the Civil Rights movement. The Who Speaks for the Negro? Archive, which I completed in 2012, contains digitized versions of the original reel-to-reel recordings, as well as copies of the correspondence, transcripts, and other print materials related to his research for the provocatively-titled book.
Some might ask why Robert Penn Warren, a professor of English at Yale University, decided to take on this project. Warren had several reasons for writing this book. In 1930, I’ll Take My Stand was published by writers who were part of the Fugitive and Agrarian movements at Vanderbilt. The volume, seen in many ways as a defense of the “Old South,” included an essay by Warren on race titled “The Briar Patch.” In it, he argued for separate but equal education for blacks and whites. Although at the time this was a somewhat progressive position, Warren later in life regretted having written the essay with its racist and separatist overtones. “I never read the essay after it was published,” he later wrote in the first few pages of Who Speaks for the Negro?, “and the reason was, I presume, that reading it would, I dimly sensed, make me uncomfortable. In fact, while writing it, I had experienced some vague discomfort….”
Prior to the publication of Who Speaks for the Negro?, Warren published a shorter volume in 1956 entitled Segregation. For this book, he traveled to his native South to write a report about Southerners’ responses to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Possibly these interviews gave him the initial idea to use the oral history technique that he also employed in Who Speaks for the Negro? In the foreword to Who Speaks for the Negro?, Warren notes “I have written this book because I wanted to find out something, first hand, about the people, some of them anyway, who are making the Negro Revolution what it is – one of the dramatic events of the American story.”
Warren spent countless hours carrying his heavy reel-to-reel recorder from place to place to conduct the interviews. In some areas of the country, a white man interviewing African Americans about issues related to the Civil Rights movement would have certainly been frowned upon. His daughter Rosanna Warren shared with me her childhood memories from the period when her father was conducting his research:
“That year, our father was absent from home for weeks on end, and by listening to adult conversations, my brother and I began to piece together some sense of what he was doing. We knew that he was often traveling ‘in the South,’ interviewing people involved in the struggle for civil rights. Stories emerged: how he and his hosts often had to travel on back country roads long distances at night in cars without headlights for fear of being shot. At least once, we learned, he had to crouch down in the back of car so that he – a white man – wouldn’t be seen riding in a car with black people. He attended meetings in remote farmhouses where all the blinds were down, and where at night almost no lights were lit. Our parents tried not to communicate too much of this fearsome material to us. But one day, it came home to me quite directly. I had walked out to the mailbox on our country road in Connecticut where we lived, and when I opened the mailbox, out fell a garish, large pamphlet from the KKK splattered in bright red paint. On the front was a crude cartoon drawing of a lynching. A scrawled message on the cover read, ‘Nigger Lover, Jew Lover, we know where you live and we will get you.’ I think, at that age (about ten) I didn’t know what the KKK was. I stood stunned in the gentle autumn sunlight, trying to make sense of this thing I held in my hands. Inside were more drawings of lynching and more abuse and threats. I remember running into the house, to find my parents, and show them and ask them what was happening. There followed anxious, whispered conversations between the grownups, where there was question of contacting the FBI and eventually a sense that that would be useless.”
As noted earlier, the digital archive contains not only the digitized interviews, but also digitized written materials such as transcripts, photographs, and correspondence related to the book. One of my favorite letters Warren received while working on the project was from Stokely Carmichael. Stokely Carmichael was born in Trinidad and moved to New York City (Harlem) with his family when he was 11. He became an activist with the Freedom Riders and, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spent time in the deep South of the U.S. working to register black voters. In his letter from 1964, Carmichael mentions Robert Penn Warren’s recently published novel Wilderness, which is a reflection on the significance of the Civil War and the variations of human experiences. Carmichael also mentions a woman named Mrs. Liuzzo. In March of 1965, Viola Gregg Liuzzo drove to Alabama from her home in Michigan to help Civil Rights workers in Selma, Alabama in the wake of the initial attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Liuzzo participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, she was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan. She was 39 years old. Now, for Carmichael’s letter:
Dear Mr. Warren,
I hope you are fine. Please excuse this note. I just got out of jail in Fort Deposit a little town in Lowndes County, Alabama, this is the county where Mrs. Luizzo was shot. I would like to describe some of the scenery. The entire white populace (at least it appeared that way) was armed as students began to picket. When a group was arrested they would surround the group holding loaded shot-guns in their stomachs, yelling and screaming. I did not demonstrate. The “officials” of the county know who I am. Since they could not arrest me for demonstrating they arrested me for reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. I wasn’t driving.
I have been arrested about 25 times. Jails are bad places. You may get along better in some. Sometimes you can read most of the time you can’t. They won’t let you read. There were about thirty of us in jail. Someone smuggled in two paperbacks.
Whenever I can afford the luxury of reading while in jail, I always think about the author. Most of the time I say if I knew him I would write and say I read your book while in jail. You read books very slowly in jail because there are never enough and when you finish a book there is nothing to do. So you are like a kid with an ice-cream cone, you don’t want to finish your cone. Since there were only two books and thirty people, after you read five pages you tore them from the book and passed it on to the next person. The book is usually torn to pieces.
One of the books was Black Boy, I have already read that, so I was out of the fight for that one. The other book was Wilderness, I was in the fight for that one.
Books become more real in jail. Characters become cell-mates, and the novel takes place within the confines of the steel bars.
I just wanted to say I read your book while I was in jail.
Who Speaks for the Negro was widely reviewed upon publication in 1965. Francis Coughlin of the Chicago Tribune wrote “This is superb documentation, possibly unique in historiography. It is as if the leaders of the French, or the American, or the Russian revolutions had undergone close questioning during the stress of events and their responses embalmed in formal studies before the outcomes were decided.” L.D. Reddick wrote in the Progressive: “Perhaps it is unfair to read through one man’s book wishing that another had written it. Still, as I turned the pages of Who Speaks for the Negro? by Robert Penn Warren, I kept saying to myself: ‘Bayard Rustin should have done this one.’ The idea of this book is a good one…. Robert Penn Warren is a distinguished writer but could scarcely claim to be sophisticated within the realm of civil rights.” The New York Times reviewer stated “’Who Speaks for the Negro?’ is a long book and a fascinating one. You must read it slowly and carefully to get the full values it offers, its brilliant play in contrasting lights, its developments, its searches for that elusive contemporary target: a national consensus. By any measure, it is one of the year’s outstanding books.” Noted African American writer and critic Albert Murray wrote in the New Leader “ROBERT PENN WARREN, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Southerner, a one-time apologist for segregation, a long-time colleague of the old agrarian romantics and a sometime friend of countless white supremacists and even Dixiecrats, has written a new book which is perhaps the very best inside report on the Negro civil rights movement by anyone so far. In spite of several ridiculous flaws, which are much more characteristic of certain New York indoor intellectuals than of the worldly, realistic and thoughtful son of a hard-headed old Kentucky dirt farmer, Who Speaks for the Negro? deserves the widest possible circulation.”
Clearly, Who Speaks for the Negro? was a groundbreaking volume in 1965; the book and its related materials remain a valuable resource for studying the history of race and of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Warren had hoped that his book would allow readers the opportunity to “see, hear, and feel as immediately as possible what I saw, heard, and felt.” The digital archive allows users an even greater opportunity to share in Warren’s experiences with the extraordinary men and women whom he interviewed during this turbulent time in United States history.
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Mona is a serious woman with a seriously great smile, her grey hair clipped short and her necklace worn long. She has great taste in educational institutions: she’s recently received a Distinguished Alumna Award from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also enjoyed center court as “Distinguished Faculty of the Game” at a Vanderbilt women’s basketball game this season.
The heart of Robert Penn Warren Center is its conference room, a large central table illuminated by the light streaming in from bay windows. Every day, every week, Vanderbilt professors, visiting scholars, and students gather for interdisciplinary conversations on a variety of subjects. Other conversations and events take place off campus and are open to the public, including a lecture on February 20th by Kristen Green on her book ‘Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County’: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle to be highlighted at Bacon tomorrow.
Vanderbilt University, Mona reminded me, was founded in 1875. In 1882, Professor William Vaughn was recruited away from the University of Alabama to be a Professor of Mathematics at Vanderbilt for an annual salary of $2,500 and free housing on campus – the home of today’s Warren Center.
The crescent of homes at the heart of the campus housed a lively mix of professors and their families, and Mona showed me family photos of the Vaughns and their five children from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the good Professor retired, the Vaughn home was put to other uses and eventually did hard time as a dorm. It fell into disrepair, even “advanced decay” according to the estimable John Beasley.
In the late 1980s, interdisciplinary conversations were flourishing at Vanderbilt, and two professors – Alisdair MacIntyre and Enrique Pupo-Walker – dreamed of a physical space where these conversations could be encouraged and enriched. Chancellor Joe Wyatt bought in. The result: the renovation of the old Vaughn residence with support from the grandsons of the original occupants. Programming began in 1988, and in 1989, the Vanderbilt Board of Trust voted to name the Center after Robert Penn Warren, one of Vanderbilt’s most distinguished graduates.
Click here to view an excellent short film on the Center’s founding and purpose, “Speaking for the Humanities,” produced by Mona in connection with the 25th anniversary of the Center in 2013 (film directed and edited by Rosevelt Noble of Vanderbilt’s Department of Sociology).
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Image of stamp: http://www.linns.com/news/us-stamps-postal-history/2016/april/born-april-24–robert-penn-warren.html#
Initial image of young Penn Warren (after stamp): http://library.blog.wku.edu/?author=69&paged=2
Last image of older Penn Warren: http://www.southerner.net/v1n2_99/contest2.html