Robert Penn Warren (Magill's Literary Annual 1998)
Robert Penn Warren’s was a remarkable life, no matter how one looks at it. He produced more than three dozen books in a career that spanned six decades, from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. As a fiction writer he published eleven works, including All the King’s Men (1946), which not only earned for him his first Pulitzer Prize but also has long stood as one of the finest political novels produced in the United States. He also published sixteen collections of poetry, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes among numerous other awards, thus making Warren the only American writer to win the Pulitzer in two different categories. Finally, as a teacher and critic, he helped to shape the terms for the discussions of literature and literary study in America after World War II in a series of important textbooks and critical works.
Warren’s personal life was not always a happy one. Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, Warren would always consider the South his home, even though he would rarely live there after childhood. Blinded in one eye in adolescence, he attempted suicide in college when he thought he was losing the sight in the other. Later, his twenty- year marriage to the unstable but demanding Emma Cinina Brescia caused him periods of deep anguish. In spite of these and other problems in the first half of his life, he built a literary career of remarkable distinction and productivity. During his freshman year at Vanderbilt, he was fortunate to have the poet John Crowe Ransom as his English professor, and Warren’s career as a writer and teacher was almost foretold in that encounter.
Warren soon joined a group of other bright and talented southern writers, such as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, and was publishing poetry in their journal, The Fugitive, by the early 1920’s. Some of these same writers, collectively known as the Southern Agrarians, would produce I’ll Take My Stand, an important declaration of southern intellectual independence, a few years later. As Blotner explains,
The basic idea that united the group’s core members was clear: the agrarian values of the Old South were the best hope not only for the South in resisting the effects of northern industrialism but also for the rest of America as well.
After graduate work at Berkeley, Yale, and New College, Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar, Warren settled into his life as a teacher, critic, and writer. He taught, among other colleges, at Louisiana State University, the University of Minnesota, and Yale. At Louisiana State, he and his colleague Cleanth Brooks edited The Southern Review, one of the most important literary journals to come out of the 1930’s, a journal that Time magazine in 1940 would call “superior to any other in the English language.” He and Brooks then began on a collaboration of some years to correct what they believed were the deficiencies in the field of literary study, and in the next decade produced three of the most important literature textbooks in America: Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Modern Rhetoric (1949). These texts became part of the theoretical underpinning for the New Criticism, which would come to dominate the teaching and analysis of literature for the next thirty years. The New Criticism essentially broke away from earlier historical and impressionistic literary criticism, demanding close textual analysis before any interpretation or judgment. What Brooks and Warren first did in Understanding Poetry, Blotner shows, was to create
a text that would translate sophisticated poetic theory into practical application. It would teach a student how to differentiate poetry from prose not only by rhyme and metrics but also by the function of the narrative and descriptive elements, and to go beyond the poet’s explicit statement of crucial ideas to apprehend tone and attitude, to follow the function of imagery, and—for the brightest—to savor the operation of ambiguity and irony.
Meanwhile, in addition to his critical texts, Warren had begun writing and publishing not only poetry such as Thirty-Six Poems (1936) and Selected Poems: 1923-1943 (1944) but also novels such as Night Rider (1939) and World Enough and Time (1949).
The second half of Warren’s life would be equally productive but much happier. After his divorce from Cinina in 1951, he married Eleanor Clark, a writer (her Oysters of Lacmariaquer would be a...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)
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Robert Penn Warren (Magill Book Reviews)
Robert Penn Warren’s was a remarkable life, no matter how one looks at it. He produced more than three dozen books in a career that spanned six decades. His ten novels included ALL THE KING’S MEN (1946), which not only won his first Pulitzer Prize in fiction, but is one of the finest political novels produced in America. He also published sixteen collections of poetry, two of which won Pulitzers, thus making Warren the only American writer to win the prize in two different categories. Finally, as a critic, he helped to shape the terms for the discussion of literary study in America after World War II.
Joseph Blotner’s biography is detailed and comprehensive, and maintains the necessary balance between the personal and the literary. He provides a valuable five-page chronology at the very beginning of the book, and fifty pages of notes and genealogy at the end, and this framework is extremely helpful in describing such a long and productive life.
Warren will probably be best remembered as a poet and critic. His poetic career almost spans the century, from the Modernist concerns of T. S. Eliot in the 1920’s, through the more confessional poetry after World War II. Warren was always a master craftsman, but his later poetry, while it retained his intellectual and moral concerns, also became more personal.
Warren’s textbooks revolutionized the study of literature in the United States, helping to make literary criticism more of an art and a science. In analyses that ranged widely over English and American literature, Warren broke through the limitations of the New Criticism he had helped create and modeled for readers an intelligent writer reading other writers. Not a system, he wrote, but “intelligence, tact, discipline, honesty, sensitivity—those are the things we have to depend on, after all, to give us what we prize in criticism, the insight.”
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXVI, March 22, 1997, p. 33.
Booklist. XCIII, November, 1996, p. 474.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, January 15, 1997, p. 112.
The New Leader. LXXX, April 21, 1997, p. 19.
The New Republic. CCXVII, October 20, 1997, p. 43.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 9, 1997, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, November 11, 1996, p. 61.
The Times Literary Supplement. February 28, 1997, p. 5.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 729.
The Wall Street Journal. February 27, 1997, p. A15.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, February 23, 1997, p. 5.