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Kentucky by Heart: Rediscovering the works of iconic writer and Kentucky native Robert Penn Warren

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Although I possess a dozen or so books written by or about Robert Penn Warren, a Kentucky native, from Guthrie who became America’s first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 1986, I’ve read only one in its entirety, the iconic All the King’s Men.

It tells of the rise of Willie Stark to the corrupt governorship of a Deep South state during the Depression period of American history. The story is told from the perspective of Stark’s top political aide, Jack Burden, who uses his investigative skills to dig up dirt on Stark’s political opponents.

Robert Penn Warren Warren in 1968 (By permission of Oscar White, Pach Brothers Studio, Creative Commons)

Stark and Burden’s stories are co-mingled, and it’s a mental challenge to read (at least for me) because it’s such an “interior read” rather than action-packed. It’s considered Warren’s greatest novel, and he certainly ranks as one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th Century. Though I’ve read it only once, I’d recommend another complete read or more to gain a serious understanding.

That said, I recently read one of Warren’s best-known short stories, “Blackberry Winter,” which appeared in 1946. And though I probably missed on some of the deepest intellectual messages in the story, I found it quite interesting and much easier to read than King’s.

Especially intriguing for me is that I discovered that Blackberry Winter is based on a setting much like Warren’s grandfather’s place in Cerlulean, Kentucky, where Warren spent summers as a boy. The rural land descriptions and situations make that very possible, though Warren sets the narrative in Tennessee in the early 1900s.

His title comes from the oft-used term “blackberry winter,” meaning that a colder than normal temperature occurs late (in this case, in June) in spring. Nine-year-old Seth, whose story is told thirty-five years later by him as an adult, is ordered by his mother to not go outside in his bare feet because of the cold, though he resists, not unlike others at his age might do.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

The series of recollections in Blackberry Winter take place on one day, and they are eye-opening and obviously memorable for the young boy because they are new to developing experiences. Before stepping outside the family home barefooted, Seth sees through a window that a strange-looking man, appearing to be a tramp, is walking toward their house. Seth sees the tramp’s appearance as “wrong about everything he wore.” He also noticed he was carrying a knife. The boy was both somewhat scared and yet quite a bit curious about the stranger.

On arrival at the house, the man—not in a friendly manner—made it known to Seth’s mother he needed something to eat and some money. After he agreed for pay to bury some of the young chickens that died in the recent flood, she gave him some food to eat. Seth saw the unpleasant manner of the man, something unfamiliar to him from his relatively few years on earth, and this was certainly a coming-of-age moment for him. More of those moments would follow.

Seth departed the house after remembering that “the creek was in flood over the bridge, and that people were down there watching it.” At the bridge, the boy saw his father who was sitting on a horse amongst others who gazed intently at the flooding creek. Seeing his dad, Seth described being “proud . . . (with) the warm feeling I always had when I saw him up on a horse, just sitting.” His dad invited him to join him on the horse to have a better view of the flooding creek.

Soon, Seth and all the spectators noticed a near surreal sight—that of a dead cow floating in the moving water, sometimes disappearing under the muddy waves and then reappearing. One person in the gathering wonders out loud whether anyone might be hungry enough to eat a drowned cow while young Seth absorbs the scene into his innocent psyche.

He then moves on to see his black playmate, Jebb, at sharecropper Dellie’s and Old Jebb’s place. There, Seth is astounded when Dellie, sick and in bed, forcefully slaps young Jebb for disturbing her while she is not feeling well. Seth also has an interesting talk with Old Jebb about blackberry winter. Old Jebb claims it is caused by an angry God for the sins of mankind, and he also shows little interest when Seth tells him about the tramp.

Back at home, Seth sees the tramp and his father have a scary confrontation. The father pays him for a half day’s work but informs him he will not be hiring him for more. The tramp’s reaction is somewhat threatening, but Seth’s father keeps his composure to avoid escalation. Clearly, Seth has an odd fascination with the tramp and follows him and tries to talk with him. The tramp tells him not to follow him, calls him a foul name, and threatens to cut his throat if he continues doing so.

Writing from a perspective of thirty-five years later, Seth closes by explaining to readers what happened to many of the individuals in his story, and the news about them was mostly bad. He declined to reveal what happened to himself other than — somewhat strangely — that regarding the tramp, he “did follow him, all the years.”

The lure of experiencing writing craftsmanship and learning from the great intuitive sense of the human condition that Robert Penn Warren exhibits is all the reason I needed to read Blackberry Winter. I found the short story in the collection, Kentucky Story: a Collection of Short Stories, edited by Hollis Summers. It can also be found in Warren’s own Circus in the Attic and Other Stories.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story, too. Email sflairty2001@yahoo.com.

Sources: encyclopedia.com; enotes.com; supersummary.com; The Kentucky Encyclopedia; A Literary History of Kentucky, by William S. Ward

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