A half-century ago, Robert Penn Warren, the man who would become the nation's first poet laureate and one of its most honored writers, returned to visit the brick bungalow in Guthrie, Ky. (pop. 1,469), where he was born.
Warren left Kentucky as a young man, but his worldview was indelibly colored by his childhood and teenage years in the Bluegrass State. "Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood / By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard / The great geese hoot northward," he wrote in Audubon: A Vision, a 1969 poem considered among his best.
Guthrie resident Jeane Moore never met Warren, but she has dedicated two decades to restoring and preserving his childhood home and transforming it into the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace Museum. "The poet always wanted to see the home after it had been turned into a museum filled with his writings, relics and remembrances of his life," says Moore, 77. But declining health in his later years kept him away from his home place, preserved by Moore and other like-minded volunteers.
Warren, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel All the King's Men, plus two additional Pulitzers for poetry, was born April 24, 1905, in the home's only bedroom. That bedroom now contains a portrait of a shirtless, elderly Warren that was donated by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz.
"She took that picture of him without a shirt on to get as close to his heart as possible, since it was where his writing came from," says Moore of the man who was honored by the U.S. Congress as America's first poet laureate three years before his death in 1989.
The home is filled with other items from Warren's life, including drawings and paintings that inspired his short story "Circus in the Attic"; 35 different editions of his published works in a variety of languages, including a copy of All The King's Men in Chinese; books that belonged to Warren as a little boy; and photos of his childhood.
Warren left the railroad town of Guthrie at age 16 to begin his literary career. His parents, Ruth, who tutored children in her home, and Robert, who ran a downtown store and worked in a bank, lived the rest of their lives in the Guthrie area.
The town and its textures appear often in the 10 novels and 16 poetry collections that Warren produced during his 60-year literary career.
When he was 83, he wrote True Love, Moore says, noting his poem about a wedding set in a home just outside of Guthrie.
"Warren's younger brother, Thomas, ran the grain elevator in downtown Guthrie. I met Robert Penn a few times when he was in town to see Thomas," says Bill Longhurst Jr., 69, who runs the Guthrie general store that his father opened in 1937.
Markers for Robert Penn, Thomas and their parents dot the Warren family plot at Highland Cemetery on the edge of town. Robert Penn was interred in Stratton, Vt., but he told his heirs he wanted a marker in his family plot. With Thomas death in 1985, the family's lineage died out in Guthrie. When Warren visited his birthplace 50 years ago, it was rental property and another family was living there.
"He asked if he could see the bathroom," says Moore, relating the details that were passed down to her. "He remembered his mother bathing him there. He remembered seeing the dappled sunlight on the bathroom floor. He wanted to see it again."
That was Warren's last visit to the house, according to Moore. But literary enthusiasts, scholars and everyday visitors can walk the floors that helped launch one of America's greatest writers.
"One of his last books was A Place to Come To," Moore says. "I think the title truly fits the house."