Robert Penn Warren Biography

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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.

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(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...

(The entire section is 3,959 words.)