Robert Penn Warren Biography

Robert Penn Warren Biography

Robert Penn Warren, a successful novelist and poet, has been primarily remembered for his political morality tale All the King’s Men. The book, written in the 1940s, was far ahead of its time in depicting the Machiavellian dealings of Southern politician Willie Stark. The novel was so successful it spawned two film versions—a 1949 adaptation that won an Academy Award and a 2006 remake that was met with scathing reviews. Still, neither the highs nor the lows of those adaptations could affect the achievement of Warren’s seminal book. Warren’s background as poet is evident throughout the novel and deepens its rich characterizations, making Willie Stark one of the most unforgettable characters in twentieth-century literature.

Facts and Trivia

  • Warren studied at some of the most highly regarded institutions of learning, including Vanderbilt, U.C. Berkeley, Yale, and most notably Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar.
  • Warren penned his most famous work, All the King’s Men, while teaching at the University of Minnesota.
  • In his youth, Warren was a member of two writers groups: The Fugitives and The Young Agrarians.
  • As a young man, Warren wrote in favor of segregation. He later changed his beliefs and wrote numerous pieces in favor of the Civil Rights movement, including Who Speaks for the Negro, a collection that contained an interview with Malcolm X.
  • Warren is the only writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and fiction.


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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,...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

A Southerner by birth and by nature, Robert Penn Warren was born in 1905 in Guthrie, Kentucky and died of cancer at his Vermont vacation home...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Warren, the first poet laureate of the United States, produced ten novels and eighteen books of poetry as well as short stories, plays, biography, social commentary, and literary criticism. His best novels are probably All the King’s Men and World Enough and Time; his best-known short story is “Blackberry Winter.” He won his third Pulitzer Prize when he was seventy-three years old for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978. At age seventy-eight, he produced his last book-length poem, Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé (1983). A colleague at Yale University once called Warren the “most complete man of letters we’ve ever had in this country.”

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Penn Warren was educated at Guthrie High School and was graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee (B.A., 1925), where he was associated with the Fugitive Group of poets; he did graduate work at the University of California (M.A., 1927), Yale University, and Oxford, and as a Rhodes scholar (D.Litt., 1930). In 1930, he contributed an essay, I’ll Take My Stand, to the Agrarian symposium. Between 1935 and 1942, he was an editor of the Southern Review and was influential in the articulation and practice of the New Criticism. After an active career as a professor of English at a number of American colleges and universities, he retired from Yale in 1973. His first marriage to Emma Brescia in...

(The entire section is 357 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Robert Penn Warren’s background and experience had a tremendous impact on the thematic concerns of his fiction. He demonstrated the need, common to so many southern writers, to cope with the burden of the past. He also wrote out of a scholar’s familiarity with and devotion to certain prominent literary artists, past and present, particularly the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists Conrad, Faulkner, and T. S. Eliot. Warren’s academic studies, pursued in a long career as an English professor, may have had a great deal to do with the structure of his works and their typically tragic mode. His recurring subject, however, was the peculiar experience of the South; a love-hate relationship with a dying heritage runs throughout his...

(The entire section is 1634 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Robert Penn Warren was born on April 24, 1905, amid the rolling hills of the tobacco country of southwestern Kentucky, in the town of Guthrie; he was the son of Robert Franklin Warren, a businessman, and Anna Ruth (Penn) Warren. He spent his boyhood there, and summers on his grandparents’ farm in nearby Trigg County. Both grandfathers were Confederate veterans of the Civil War, and he was often regaled with firsthand accounts of battles and skirmishes with Union forces. The young Warren grew up wanting to be a sea captain, and after completing his secondary education in neighboring Clarksville, Tennessee, he did obtain an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.

A serious eye injury prevented his...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Robert Penn Warren is the only American writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and poetry. Indeed, he won the award three times: for All the King’s Men, a novel inspired by the legend of Huey Long, the southern populist politician; for Promises, a midlife resurgence of poetic power; and again for Now and Then, a demonstration of undiminished poetic skill published in the eighth decade of his life. As a college professor who wrote textbooks, Warren contributed significantly to changes in the teaching of literature in the United States. Warren also wrote excellent literary criticism as well as social and historical commentary.

Warren was born in Guthrie, a tiny community in...

(The entire section is 783 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Robert Penn Warren enjoyed a distinguished career as a novelist, poet, scholar, university professor, and man of letters. His first widely...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Robert Penn Warren was born to Anne Ruth Penn Warren on April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, a tiny community of twelve hundred people in southwestern Kentucky. His father, Robert Franklin Warren, was a banker—according to Warren, a “misplaced” person who gave up early aspirations of a literary nature for more practical aims of making money. Warren’s relationship to his father was a subtle and important one for its impact on his fiction and poetry, which often dramatized father-son relationships. Warren had a deep admiration for his father’s rectitude, especially his humane resolution of the conflicts between personal desires and family duty. This admiration was coupled with a curious feeling of guilt because he, Robert Penn...

(The entire section is 973 words.)

Robert Penn Warren Biography

(Novels for Students)

Robert Penn Warren is best known for his 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men, chronicling the rise and fall of Willie...

(The entire section is 488 words.)