Article abstract: Warren, one of the foremost figures in twentieth century American literature, was widely admired for his novels, poetry, literary criticism, and writings on history and current events.
Robert Penn Warren was the oldest of three children born to Robert Franklin Warren and Anna Ruth Warren. As a young man, Robert Franklin had written poetry, but he had been forced to abandon his literary ambitions in order to work as a banker and shopkeeper to support his family. Still, the Warren household was filled with books, particularly books of poetry.
Guthrie, Kentucky, Warren’s birthplace and childhood home, was a rough railroad town where acts of violence and bloodshed were common, as they would later be in Warren’s fiction and poetry. The future writer was also influenced by his grandfather, Gabriel Thomas Penn, who owned a farm about 35 miles from Guthrie. Gabriel loved to tell stories, especially about his own exploits as a Confederate infantryman and cavalryman during the Civil War. Perhaps as a result of his grandfather’s war stories, Warren’s own early ambitions were military rather than literary. His goal in high school was to enter the U.S. Naval Academy and become an officer in the Navy. This dream was shattered in the spring of 1921 when his younger brother, Thomas, accidentally threw a piece of coal into his left eye. Although the tall, angular, red-haired Warren enjoyed generally good health through most of his long life, his eye was permanently damaged, and he eventually lost it altogether. No longer able to pass the physical for the Naval Academy, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to study chemical engineering.
At Vanderbilt, he met teachers and friends who led him to decide on literature as his life’s work. Allen Tate, later an eminent American poet, was one of his fellow students and a close friend. The poet John Crowe Ransom was one of Warren’s professors. Warren and his fellow students and teachers formed a group known as the Fugitives, who founded a literary journal entitled The Fugitive: A Journal of Poetry in 1922. The Fugitives were dedicated to a social philosophy of southern agrarianism, a belief that the traditional values of the rural South could provide a way of life preferable to either communism or capitalism.
Concern over his future as a poet, anxiety over the worsening condition of his eye, and general depression pushed Warren to attempt suicide in the spring of 1924. However, he was still able to graduate from Vanderbilt with highest honors in 1925.
Warren became known as both an academic commentator on literature and a writer. He prepared himself for his academic work through his graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a master of arts degree in English in 1927. He pursued further graduate study at Yale University and attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship in 1928. He never completed a doctorate degree, a fact that kept him from getting a steady university job for a number of years. While at Oxford, Warren wrote his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929), a biography of the antislavery crusader who died while trying to provoke a slave uprising just before the Civil War. Warren’s analysis of the violence arising from conflicts between Brown’s high ideals and psychological faults foreshadowed many of the themes in his later writings.
The year 1930 saw the publication of Warren’s essay “The Briar Patch” in I’ll Take My Stand, a collection of writings by the Fugitives from Vanderbilt and other southern writers. In that same year, he accepted a position as assistant professor at Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee, beginning two decades of wandering from one college teaching job to another. At this time, he also married a woman he had met in California, Emma “Cinina” Brescia. This proved to be a difficult marriage that would end in divorce in 1951.
After leaving Southwestern College, Warren taught at Vanderbilt and then, in 1935, became an assistant professor of English at Louisiana State University (LSU). In Louisiana, his reputation as a scholar and a writer grew, and he gathered material for some of his best-known works. Together with another LSU professor, Cleanth Brooks, he edited The Southern Review, which became an influential literary journal. His also established himself as a literary critic by writing An Approach to Literature (1936) and Understanding Poetry (1938). These works attempted to move the study of literature away from the examination of historical influences and toward an emphasis on the importance of the close,...
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