Among the dominant themes in the novels of Robert Penn Warren are the search for self-identity, the isolation of the individual in society, and the opposition of violence and order in the development of modern America. All three themes appear in Warren’s first published novel, Night Rider. The principal action of Night Rider is based on events that occurred in Kentucky between the years 1905 and 1908. The growers of dark tobacco in Kentucky and Tennessee formed a protective association to combat the tobacco companies and to try to force them to pay higher prices for tobacco. When the companies countered with small increases offered to all who would sell to them, some planters turned to violent action executed by bands of “night riders.” This included the destruction of the plant beds of those who refused to join the fight against the companies and finally led to the dynamiting of company warehouses in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The action of the lawless bands was finally stopped by sending troops into the area.
Though most of the events in Night Rider are related to the battle of the tobacco planters against the companies and the farmers who refused to join or cooperate with the protective association, the book is not, as Warren warns the reader in a prefatory note, a historical novel. The tobacco war provides the framework for the story of a young lawyer, Percy Munn (Mr. Munn), and his degeneration from a man of principle to a man of violence. It is a story of self-realization that comes too late to a man who, though intelligent, lacks the will, moral strength, or clarity of vision to make the right decisions when faced by crises in his life. From...
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