By JAMES L. NICHOLSON
12:23 PM PST, January 6, 2013
Editor’s note: “Night Rider,” 1939, by Robert Penn Warren, is the fifth in a series of book reviews about works of Kentucky fiction.
No Kentucky author has been recognized by the awarding of more prestigious literary prizes than Robert Penn Warren, native of Guthrie in Todd County. Moreover, he is the only American writer to receive Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. Another distinction is his being named in 1986 first poet laureate of the United States.
His initial Pulitzer came in the year 1947 for the novel “All the King’s Men.” The following year it was made into a film that won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mercedes McCambridge) and Best Motion Picture. His two Pulitzers for poetry were for “Promises” in 1958 and “Now and Then” in 1979.
Earning “Red” Warren distinction as “all-round man of letters” is his production of widely influential textbooks — “Understanding Fiction,” “Understanding Poetry” and “Modern Rhetoric.” These were written in collaboration with another Kentucky critic, Cleanth Brooks, of Murray.
“Night Rider” was the first of Warren’s nine novels. It draws upon the “tobacco wars” of his native western Kentucky early in the 20th century. Coincidentally, the first meeting of the dark-fired tobacco association’s “silent brigade” was held in Guthrie near the time of Warren’s birth.
Forming this band of “night riders” was an act of desperation on the part of growers seeking what they considered a fair price from the American Tobacco Co., which controlled the market. Previous steps, such as withholding their harvest and acts of violence directed at growers who declined to join them, had failed.
The protagonist of Warren’s story is lawyer and farmer Percy Munn. As the novel opens, he is a passenger on a crowded train bound for Bardville (HopkinsvilIe), where a rally is scheduled. The beginning paragraph prefigures this man’s tragic fall: “Percy Munn, feeling the first pressure as the man behind him lurched into contact, arched his back and tried to brace himself to receive the full impact which, instinctively, he knew would come. But he was not braced right. The gathering force ... took him.”
Another man whose momentum he proves unable to withstand greets Percy as he leaves the depot. He is Bill Christian, big grower and influential member of the association board. Christian is determined Percy speak at the rally, certain he’ll have a favorable influence.
At first, Munn says no, but eventually his latent ambition persuades him to agree. The moment he mounts the platform, addresses the throng, sees people moved by the power of his words (“give your full loyalty to this association”), all of Percy Munn’s prior allegiances dissolve. No longer is he committed, first, to wife May, to their farm, and to his law practice; more and more, he is driven by the will of the organization. Thus, he is launched along the path followed by the tragic figure.
The fatality of ambition again is the theme of Warren’s second novel, the hugely successful “All the King’s Men.” The scene, however, has been moved from Kentucky to Louisiana. Also, the story has nothing to do with an agrarian uprising but with a notorious political figure. Warren freely confessed that he based his character Willie Stark on Huey P. Long, who saw himself rising from governor and senator of Louisiana to president of the United States. At age 42, his rise was halted by an assassin’s bullet.
The drama of “Night Rider” reaches its height in the raid of the tobacco association’s silent brigade. It is carried out so quietly and proficiently as to have been modeled on the tactics of the famous Civil War “wizard of the saddle” Nathan Bedford Forrest. The raiders slip into town, sever telegraph and telephone service, torch warehouses and disappear.
In actuality, this occurred in Hopkinsville the night of Dec. 6-7, 1907. Not until four years later was one of their number, Dr. David Amoss, arrested and tried. Though alleged to be an instrumental perpetrator, Amoss was acquitted by a Christian County jury.
Warren casts Percy Munn as one of the raiders, but his personal fate is not settled that night. His life remains entangled with issues resulting from his tragic involvement with the growers association. Sure enough, its “gathering force took him; he was not braced right.”
The fiction of Robert Penn Warren (1905-89), and others of his works, may be found in Boyle County and Centre libraries.
Nicholson lives in Danville.