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 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 1930 ended in divorce in 1950. He and his second wife, the writer Eleanor Clark, herself a National Book Award winner, had one son and one daughter.
Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979, and the National Book Award in 1958. From 1944 to 1945, he was the second occupant of the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress. In 1952 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society; in 1959 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and in 1972 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1967, he received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, and in 1970 the National Medal for Literature and the Van Wyck Brooks Award. In 1974, he was chosen to deliver the third Annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In 1975 he received the Emerson-Thoreau Award of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the next year the Copernicus Award from the Academy of American Poets; and in 1977 the Harriet Monroe Prize for Poetry. Other awards included the Shelley Memorial Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1986, Warren achieved the unique distinction of becoming the first poet laureate (by act of Congress) of the United States. Warren’s life spanned almost the whole twentieth century. After producing a rich final harvest of work from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s, he died in 1989 at age eighty-four at his summer residence in Vermont. He left to posterity a canon of outstanding creative effort.
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 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 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 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.)