Tom Thurman had two-time United States poet laureate Natasha Trethewey booked to come from Chicago to Lexington to do an interview for the new documentary he was making for KET.
When he contacted her to see if all of the travel arrangements were in order, she replied, “yes, I am actually going to come.” Her response struck Thurman as an odd way to put it.
Then Trethewey volunteered that her house had burned down that week, and she and her family were essentially homeless. At one point, she was wandering around a CVS looking for toiletries and clothes. But she was determined to still make the trip.
“During all this chaos and upheaval she came down here anyway, because it was that important to her to be in the documentary, because she loves Robert Penn Warren and admires him that much. It was a testament to how much she believes in his work and how much he contributed to American letters,” Thurman recalls.
In a state that has produced dozens of literary lions past and present, the Western Kentucky native is at a level all his own.
“When it comes to Kentucky authors, it’s really hard to argue against Robert Penn Warren being at the top of the mountain,” Thurman says. “He’s the only writer in American history to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and poetry, and he won two in poetry. You can certainly say he is the most acclaimed Kentucky writer.”
And Thurman knows from Kentucky artists, having produced short- and full-length documentaries about a wide variety of Kentuckians, including actor Harry Dean Stanton, Centre College glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell and the Louisville-based musical hybrid band Appalatin.
Thurman’s latest project was born out of a re-read of a timeless classic, “All the King’s Men,” Warren’s novel about populist Southern Governor Willie Stark.
“The sheer force of the language prompted me more than anything else,” Thurman said. “Naturally, when people talk about ‘All the King’s Men,’ they gravitate toward talking about the plot. But when you distance yourself from the actual story and just look at the elevation of the language combined with the very earthy nature of the characters and the dialogue, that combination is what prompted me to pursue this project further.”
For an example, during a recent interview, Thurman recites a line: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
So, he pitched the idea of Warren documentary to KET, and the network said yes. It premieres Monday night on KET.
The film lead to a deep dive into Warren that went well beyond the iconic novel, which became an almost equally acclaimed 1949 movie that won three Oscars including best picture and best actor for Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark.
After all, the title, “Robert Penn Warren: A Vision” is borrowed from Warren’s book-length poem about naturist, artist and fellow Kentuckian John James Audubon.
Warren started writing poetry as a teenager in Guthrie, near the Tennessee border and went on to study at Vanderbilt, the University of California at Berkeley, Yale and ultimately Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Exploring his career, Thurman started down many paths he did not anticipate.
“He wrote very eloquently on race in this country,” Thurman says of Warren. “That was a focus I didn’t think initially I would be exploring, but as I dug deeper into his work and read books like ‘The Legacy of the Civil War,’ ‘Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South,’ and then the book ‘Who Speaks for the Negro,’ that became more and more important to me to explore those works.”
And he found a distinct evolution from Warren’s early essay, “The Briar Patch,” which defended racial segregation in the 1930s agrarian collection “I’ll Take My Stand,” to later works that recanted those views and soberly considered “the burden of the past on the present,” as TV producer and former Warren student David Milch puts it in the film.
In addition to gathering voices such as Trethewey and Milch, as well as Kentucky figures such as poet Frank X Walker, the film lead Thurman to nuggets such as 41 reels of home movies from the 1940s and ‘50s at Western Kentucky University’s Robert Penn Warren Center and interviews Warren did on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
The latter was extremely valuable for getting Warren’s own voice in the film, a bit of a trick as Thurman notes Warren wasn’t talk show hopping like contemporaries such as Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“The lack of pretense in his presentation on ‘Dick Cavett’ was striking,” Thurman said. “He was also very eloquent in talking about his upbringing in Western Kentucky and how he was so fond of his grandfather, who fought in the Civil War and would explain military strategies in the dirt with a stick, whether it was Civil War strategy or ancient Roman times.”
One of Thurman’s discoveries was his ambition was to be a Pacific fleet admiral, but he was blinded in one eye in an accident, which disqualified him for military service.
“So Robert Penn Warren read those thousands of books and wrote those books with one eye,” Thurman said.
Of course, the most famous of those books has come up many times in discussions of the current political landscape, though Thurman says the film was not intended to push any particular agendas. The themes of “All the King’s Men” are timeless, he says. Whether it’s a coincidence or planned, the KET premiere Monday will come right after KET’s forum with 6th Congressional District candidates Republican incumbent Andy Barr and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath.
“People have described ‘All the King’s Men’ as the great American political novel, and in that regard, I think it will remain relevant permanently when we discuss the American political landscape,” Thurman says.
And Thurman wants his film to be timeless as well.
“My job is to tell a story about Robert Penn Warren’s life and his work in the hope that it will inspire people to read or reread his work and draw their own conclusions. “
‘Robert Penn Warren: A Vision’
Premieres 9 p.m. Oct. 29 on KET (Ch. 46, Spectrum Ch. 12). Repeats numerous times after, see ket.org for schedule.