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...
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