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Bunim & Bannigan Books

There's a crack in everything,
That's what lets the light in.
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The Ballad of Billie Potts

$14.50 CAD
  • Product Code: 022

The Ballad of Billie Potts

By Robert Penn Warren

Illustrations by P. John Burden

Introduction by John Burt




“There is always another country and always another place.

There is always another name and another face.”


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 – “When I was a child I heard this story from an old lady who was a relative of mine,” he wrote in the original preface – 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.

         With thematic and moral keynotes that would concern Warren for a lifetime – the passage from childhood innocence into guilt, the journey that ends with a return to the father or to the place of origin, the undiscovered self, and a certain mysticism that unites each individual with humankind and with nature – The Ballad of Billie Potts is a haunting tale that is firmly rooted in its time and place of origin, and also deeply relevant to contemporary concerns, such as capitalism and the destruction of our planet.

        This classic of mid-century American literature is now available to the modern reader with the release of a new edition of The Ballad of Billie Potts on XXX, 2017 – featuring a thought-provoking new introduction from John Burt and powerful, fantastic-realist illustrations by artist P. John Burden.

“Even the briefest retelling of the story cannot fail to render its harsh ironic force,” writes Burt – who is a Professor of English at Brandeis University, and the literary executor for Robert Penn Warren – in the new edition’s foreword. “The land between the rivers is a place where life and death run together, a place in which even mere physical nature, never mind symbolic nature, equates the ripe and the rotten, life in its swarming foulness with life descending past rankness into rot.

“It is perhaps not unusual to see the world of modernity as rootless,” he continues, “this has been modernity’s complaint about itself since it first began to be conceived as modernity, and it is perhaps its identifying characteristic. But it is unusual to see the rooted alternative to modernity in such dark terms, as if the ultimate focus of longing is not, say, a traditional ideal of knowing and being so much as a devastating experience of dark transcendence which affirms and annihilates at the same moment. The poem leaves the reader with the choice Nietzsche once articulated: the choice between being void of purpose and having the void itself as purpose.”


About John Burt:


John Burt is Professor of English at Brandeis University. He is the author of Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism, and the editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. He is also the literary executor for Robert Penn Warren. In addition, he is the author of Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism, and three volumes of poetry.


About P. John Burden:


Visual artist P. John Burden is a classically trained Canadian and British subject. Burden’s work includes original acrylic paintings, watercolour paintings, and traditional and modern artist’s prints. His art is symbolic or surrealist, using representational skills from a lifetime of drawing, painting, and design. Burden also illustrates books for all ages, and has work in collections worldwide.