Robert Penn Warren
Illustrated by P. John Burden
One of the most significant early works of Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)—the American writer and literary critic who is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry—The Ballad of Billie Potts has, in the decades since it was released in Warren’s 1943 volume Selected Poems, proven far more universal than its setting of the “land between the rivers” (a marshy, dense, almost primeval bottomland between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in western Kentucky) might suggest.
Inspired by the folk tales of Warren’s native state The Ballad of Billie Potts is, on its face, a simple, if unsettling, story: A murderous innkeeper, named Billie Potts, and his wife have a son—Little Billie—whom they both adore. In an attempt to impress his parents, Little Billie attempts to rob and kill a passing traveller… but, in his fumbling inexperience, botches the job and returns home in humiliation. In anger, his father turns him away to make his fortune on his own. Years later, having prospered out West, Little Billie returns to the land between rivers—only to be killed for a bag of gold by his own parents, who mistook him for a wealthy traveller before realizing, through an identifying birthmark, that they have killed the only person they ever loved.
Bunim & Bannigan, Ltd. has released a new edition of The Ballad of Billie Potts featuring a new introduction from John Burt and illustrations by Prince Edward Island illustrator P. John Burden.