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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1961
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.
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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, careful reading of the works themselves. While he was at LSU, Warren also published his first novel, Night Rider (1939), a dark, violent story about the tobacco war between big companies and independent tobacco growers in Kentucky in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Although he became a visiting professor at the University of Iowa in 1941, the state of Louisiana provided him with the inspiration for his best-known and most widely praised novel. Warren had been in Louisiana during the time that Huey P. Long was governor, senator, and the most powerful man in the state. Long, who was assassinated in 1936, provided Warren with many of the ideas for All the King’s Men (1946), a novel about an idealistic politician who becomes corrupted by the pursuit of political power. Chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1946, All the King’s Men was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947 and was then made into a film, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1949.
Warren’s other novels included At Heaven’s Gate (1943), a complex story of corruption and murder in Tennessee; World Enough and Time (1950), based on a murder trial in nineteenth century Kentucky; Band of Angels (1955), about a mixed-race woman at the time of the Civil War who had grown up believing herself to be white; The Cave (1959), about events surrounding a young Korean War veteran trapped in a Tennessee cave; Wilderness (1961), a novel of the Civil War; Flood (1964), the story of the obliteration of a Tennessee town by a flood; and Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), a dramatic tale of love, betrayal, and murder. These novels were set in the South and showed deep knowledge of the people of the Kentucky-Tennessee region and a command of the local dialect. All of Warren’s novels showed the same central concern with the painful and imperfect choices made by people who are faced with difficult moral dilemmas and who are trapped in conflicting desires and goals.
Changes in Warren’s personal life accompanied success in his professional life. After a divorce from his first wife, Warren married a fellow writer, Eleanor Clark, in 1952. They had two children, and family became a frequent subject in Warren’s poetry.
Although he achieved his greatest popular recognition as a novelist, Warren primarily regarded himself as a poet. He published numerous volumes of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice, in 1958 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957) and in 1979 for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978 (1978). The 1958 prize made him the first person to win the Pulitzer Prize in both poetry and fiction. In addition to collections of relatively short poems, he also published Brother to Dragons (1953), a long narrative poem about the brutal murder of a slave by two nephews of Thomas Jefferson.
Although the young Warren and his fellow southern agrarians had idealized the pre-Civil War South, by the 1950’s Warren became a staunch supporter of racial integration. His interest in the Civil Rights movement led him to write Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956). After intensive interviews with individuals involved in the civil rights struggle, he published another nonfiction book on African American efforts to achieve equal rights, Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965).
From 1963 to 1973, Warren taught at Yale University. He also traveled extensively and kept a vacation home in West Wardsboro, Vermont. He continued writing and publishing until near the end of his life, concentrating on his poetry in his later years. In 1986, he was selected as poet laureate by the U.S. Library of Congress.
The year before he died, Warren published a reminiscence of his father entitled Portrait of a Father (1988). As he was dying of cancer, he produced a new volume of critical writings, New and Selected Essays (1989). In his final days, he had friends and relatives read poetry to him. He died in his rural home in West Wardsboro and was buried in a graveyard by a small church in the nearby town of Stratton, Vermont.
Robert Penn Warren made an enormous impact on several fields of American literature, including literary criticism, fiction, and poetry. Many teachers and literary historians have claimed that works such as Understanding Poetry revolutionized the teaching of literature. Before the time of Warren and colleagues such as Cleanth Brooks, teachers normally approached poems and other literary works by discussing events in a writer’s personal life, political occurrences, or other matters outside the literary work itself. Warren and his colleagues maintained that any study of a poem or other literary work should begin with the words and images of the work itself rather than with questions of history or psychology surrounding the work. This type of approach, often labeled New Criticism, came to dominate American academic approaches to literature through the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
As a novelist, Warren advanced the concept of the “philosophical novel,” fiction as a way of exploring the human condition. He was particularly effective in exploring the gap between political and moral ideals and human desires and ambitions. All the King’s Men was an especially influential work. It was translated into many languages and was widely read outside the United States. It also became an established part of the American literary canon and required reading for many high school and college students. As a poet, Warren explored the relationship of human beings to the life around them, mixing personal and historical memories with meditations. Warren’s long narrative poems, such as Brother to Dragons, Audubon (1969), and Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé (1983), are generally considered some of the finest poetic treatments of moral dilemmas in American history.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Penn Warren. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This collection of essays on Warren’s work considers both the poetry and the fiction.
Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997. Blotner’s book, the most comprehensive biography of Warren available, is based on Warren’s letters and papers and on extensive interviews with the writer’s friends and family members.
Cutrer, Thomas W. Parnassus on the Mississippi: The Southern Review and the Baton Rouge Literary Community. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Cutrer provides a history of the literary circle around the influential Southern Review at the time that Warren and Cleanth were the journal’s editors.
Guttenberg, Barnett. Web of Being: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1975. This is a study of Warren’s novels as expressions of philosophical ideas.
Millichap, Joseph R. Robert Penn Warren: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. Millichap examines fourteen stories and two essays by Warren and maintains that the short works provide a window into Warren’s longer and better-known writings.
Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Lou Weaks. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1990. This collection of interviews with Warren covers literary and social topics.
Yarborough, Jane, and Robert Penn Warren. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. New York: Barron’s Educational Books, 1985. This guide to reading Warren’s best-known work contains analyses of the novel’s plot, style, form, and structure, and information about the author and his times.