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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: Guthrie and Knifley, Warren and Giles

Another angle, the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor: Two historic sites, two extraordinary lives, one shared centenary

By Rev. Joey N. Welsh

This column appeared in The Hart County News-Herald on April 10, 2005, marking the birth centenaries of Janice Holt Giles and Robert Penn Warren, two authors well worth remembering during this spring of 2007, at their 102nd birthdays.

The Gospel of John records that when Nathaniel first was told about Jesus of Nazareth his immediate response was, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathaniel became a disciple, but first he needed to push aside the prejudgment he had made because of the Jesus' hometown. People tend to make the same kinds of judgments in our own age, presuming how worthy a person is based on place of birth or residence.

The place names of Guthrie and Knifley, Kentucky may not make many waves with most people, even people from Kentucky, but in the spring of 2005 both locales share a spotlight in the literary world. Located in the southern part of the state about 120 miles apart, Guthrie and Knifley remind us of two amazing authors, both of whom were born in 1905.

Janice Holt Giles was born in Arkansas on March 28, 1905. Her teacher parents moved to Indian Territory - now the state of Oklahoma - where she had her childhood. After a divorce and feeling a strong calling to church work, Janice came to Kentucky and worked on a church staff, but she felt little affirmation there. She also worked for a while as secretary to the dean of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.

Perceiving a call to write, she completed her first novel, The Enduring Hills, in a few months during evenings after her secretarial work was complete. Though that book was completed in 1946, it was four years before publication. She kept to a disciplined schedule of writing, and after her first publication she followed it with several more books in regular succession. The public devoured her vivid stories. By the time her seventh book, Hannah Fowler, appeared in 1956, she had sold over two million books.

Having met a soldier, Henry Giles, on a bus journey in 1943, she had kept up correspondence with him during the war. He had proposed by mail, and they married when he came out of the service. They settled in Knifley, in Adair County, on Henry's home place. Both their wartime correspondence and their descriptions of life in their Knifley log home have been published, and the University of Kentucky Press has issued new editions of many of her 24 books in recent years. Many papers in the Giles archive are preserved at Western Kentucky University.

The home in Knifley remains, which is appropriate, since Janice wrote about it in the book A Little Better than Plumb saying, "We mean to leave it an epitaph." The house is partially restored, but much more work remains to be funded and completed. Centennial observances included a March 20 celebration at the public library in Columbia (the Janice Holt Giles Library) and a symposium on March 21 at Campbellsville University.

Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie on April 24, 1905, in a house at Third and Cherry Streets that is now open as a museum. Giles made her mark in Kentucky after being born elsewhere; Warren made his mark elsewhere after his Guthrie childhood, though his collection of papers at Western Kentucky University and the house in Guthrie remain as sentinels of his brilliance back in his home state.

Having done his undergraduate work at Vanderbilt, Warren was among the writers who reveled in the heritage of the agrarian culture of the South, a literary movement that blossomed between the world wars. A Rhodes Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow, he was one of Americas most prominent men of letters for three generations. His landmark 1946 novel, All the Kings Men, won a Pulitzer Prize, becoming the basis for an Oscar-winning film. The plot of this book, clearly portraying the life of Huey Long, had first taken shape as a play. It was appropriate, therefore, that Horse Cave Theatre marked the 50th anniversary of the book with an outstanding stage presentation of Warrens story of Willie Stark, a southern political reformer who turned into a corrupt rascal.

Two of his volumes of poetry were also awarded the Pulitzer Prize: Promises (1958) and Now and Then (1979). Warren is one of only three people to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in different categories; Thornton Wilder won for a novel and two plays, while Norman Mailer won for a novel and for non-fiction. Robert Penn Warren closed his career by serving as the first person to carry the title of Poet Laureate of the United States, a designation he attained in 1986. Warren died in 1989 in Vermont, where he is buried.

Guthrie is celebrating his centennial in style, even receiving a resolution from the state legislature marking the occasion. The Postal Service is issuing a Robert Penn Warren first-class stamp; first-day cancellations will be done at the Guthrie Post Office on April 22. After that date you will be able to purchase the stamps at your own local post office and send your letters out with stamps bearing the image of Robert Penn Warren set against a background portraying a Willie Stark campaign rally right out of All the Kings Men. Western Kentucky University will host its annual Robert Penn Warren Symposium April 21-24.

2005 is a wonderful time to recall with thanks these two great people with connections in small town southern Kentucky.

Please bear with me while I update Nathaniels question from the Gospel of John: "Little places in Kentucky! Can anything good come from there?" Well, considering the contributions of Janice Holt Giles and Robert Penn Warren, I believe the appropriate answer is a resounding, YES! QUITE A LOT OF GOOD, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!"
For more information about Janice and Henry Giles and their home: Click Here

For more information about Warren, and his birthplace: Click Here

For more Another Angle columns, enter "Another Angle," or "Rev. Joey N. Welsh" in the searchbox.

This story was posted on 2007-04-22 11:38:06
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The Giles House: Meant to be, and is, an epitaph

2007-04-22 - Spout Springs, Knifley, KY - Photo By Linda Waggener.
Rev. Joey N. Welsh writes in the accompany column: The home in Knifley remains, which is appropriate, since Janice wrote about it in the book A Little Better than Plumb saying, "We mean to leave it an epitaph.". The photo above, taken decades after the words were written, shows crowds of people enjoying their living epitaph.

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