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Robert Penn Warren was son to a banker Robert Franklin and a school teacher. His father Robert Franklin was aloof figure and was a special character in most of his writings that used to love poems so much in that after or before supper he would take time and read poems to the children. Since he was a free thinker, he allowed Warren to read books by Darwin at the tender age of fourteen. He spent most of the summers around Cerulean springs in his grandfather's farm during his adolescence. His childhood life revolved around books, he says that he once came across his father's picture and name from one of the old books that was entitled the poets of America. He showed the father the book and he never saw it again. Several years later, the episode haunted him including some poems that were being written though he was long dead.
It is like 30 years since I took some time in the afternoon to cut tobacco, spear the stalks onto wooden staves and hanging them into the curing barn. The smell of plant is still fresh, their stickiness of the resin, the glint of the spearing and the cutting tools, very nice memories. This tenuous link to an earlier time, a time when tobacco wars rocked rural Kentucky and Tennessee just before World War II gave me an insight of the hard and difficult times that Robert Penn Warren tries to describe in the novel night Rider (University of Texas 50). The main character Percy Munn is a pleasant and friendly person who is very flexible young lawyer. He is happily married and on the side has a growing law practice. He is drawn into supporting "The Association" a favorite band for most of the tobacco farmers in the area among them being politicians, doctors and other men in the society that Perse whom he admires a lot and in turn they admire him back because of his good oratory skills, status and leadership. Percy himself is a tobacco farmer and the objective of the association was to break the economic monopoly that was being exerted by the big tobacco companies. This is because the big tobacco companies were very evil even before they started cheating and lying to the public of how addictive tobacco is to somebody. It comes to a point when the ethical and legal means are not enough to deal with a situation thus collective responsibility and leadership starts down the slope by coercing and convincing non association members to join hands or else they would face the outcome or rather the consequences.
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A band of night riders fans came out across the country side and they first destroyed the crops of those who refused to join the association followed by their property. It was so serious that it went to the extent of taking human life which was justified as a means to their end once a decision was made to torch down the tobacco warehouses that were found in Bardsville and the surrounding towns. Percy Munn ends up finding himself at the center of the drama and as the other men whom he greatly admired peeled off from the association just because their moral bearing would not allow them to continue participating (Justus, 150). He ends up losing his wife. Some of the great people he admired were Captain Todd, Lucille Christian a woman who tried to save him from himself and lastly the leaders of the association who sacrificed him for something he did not do and neither does he have an idea of what was going on.
The story is characterized as a tragedy though Percy Munn is not a noble central figure as is expected. His major and great weakness is that he attaches himself so close to the causes without giving it a thought of what the outcome and consequences would be (Cronin, 192). To be precise he is a flawed idealist. His fall is highly caused by his several flaws and a series of betrayals within his environment although there were times he was the betrayer. As such, when loyalty becomes more of a currency than a principal then tragedy is inevitable and can't be avoided at all costs. In his book Robert Penn Warren captures the mannerisms and speech of his main characters adequately although he does not develop three characters as is expected. The setting and the landscape of the story seems more like those that are rendered by wood cuttings instead of photographs.
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Warren ends up with a fine reputation that is largely and highly based on the poem all the kings' men because he was in a position to explain some of the past virtues and sins done by his neighbors and ancestors. This first novel is somewhat promising though it is not compelling as such to read page by page. The only good thing about it is that it becomes good and improves with each coming chapter after starting on a low note. I strongly believe that Kentucky is full of backwoods dialogue with some uninteresting digressions and some failures here and there that help a great deal in the development of characters in a way that makes one to care deeply of their fates. Percy who is the lawyer happens to be the main figure in the story jumps into a tobacco growers union that is planning to fight the big corporate buyers so that at the end of the day they end up with a fairer price for their crop (Nakadate, 200).
The members of the association bit by bit begin to become coercive and later on they end up terrorizing those who won't join their association (Grimshaw, 110). A cause that was initially moral now ends up being an immoral enterprise towards the end of the book. During this time, lives are taken, others are ruined and the acts are justified, that the cause of the association has to be saved since a lot of energy has already been invested in it. In the mean time, Percy commits an act that is against the justice system as he tried to get a client free of the murder charges that he had been charged with. This was an act against his innocent wife's wish that lead to the destruction of his marriage thus murders his wife so as to preserve the cause of the association. He has no idea or does not seem to be aware of how to deal with the situation or how to recover from the situation. He goes ahead to have an affair after he separates with his wife that is loveless and lust less. This affair leads to the tragedy for the father of the girl he has an affair with. In one way or another, the book is only but replaying the lost confederate cause that the civil war had.
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Night Rider is a novel that fires several questions at the reader. For instance, the reader will often ask himself if there is any moral content that speaks in politics or is politics just the mute clash of deterministic economic forces that have ganged up. Another question that the reader might ask himself is that is free will an illusion that is easily dispelled by the age of the machine?
As is typical of Warren's later novels, Night Rider fires a barrage of implicit questions at the reader. Does a moral content speak in politics, or is politics the mute clash of deterministic economic forces? Is free will an illusion to be dispelled by the age of the machine? Does every impulse, however noble, carry within it the corrupting worm of its own self-destruction? Munn's tongue is set a blaze and he addresses the people with a heated address telling them that their hope lies in their individual faithfulness to each other as members of the body (Cronin, 192). He says that the loyalty they came with is their only hope and that is what is going to save them. After giving his speech, is introduced into the members of the association as a new member.
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Warren as the narrator is ambiguous in his own way because he does not give a straight forward solution to the issues that are rising. He does not endorse the concept of torching, barns and the corporate warehouses though he does not judge the Night Riders for their actions. Night Rider tries to defy the simple minded conventional wisdom of the modern time (Beck, 92). Warrens view of radicalism as a vice and the problem is solely not economical. Men who separated themselves from their origins often ended up being desperate and a desperate man ends up doing desperate deeds. Our opinion makers and rulers view this movement as a liberation movement. Instead they would claim that the problem lies within the potential lunatics like Munn who do not see the need and importance for a sense of belonging.
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The novel is all about the rise and fall of Percy Munn the country farmer and attorney. If I were asked to rate this book, I would give it three stars. This is because reading Night Rider has been and will always be a worthwhile experience to me especially during the winter. It is very insightful and well characterized. The novel shows us the tribulations and jubilations that the people of Kentucky went through in their quest for freedom. His existence is modernity in itself in a small version that is larger that has been highlighted in two starkly contrasting passages. In the beginning, Munn is seen riding aboard a steam locomotive that is bound for an association rally who finds himself being overpowered by the mob of his fellow passengers in the train. In my opinion, this is a wonderful book that I would read over and over again. I would also recommend the book to anyone who is willing to read it.