Robert Penn Warren

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Warren, Robert Penn 1905–

An American poet, novelist, playwright, critic, and man of letters, Warren has won two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award. His best-known novel is All the King's Men. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Warren … is that very rare phenomenon among American writers, a successful novelist who is also a sophisticated, self-conscious, all-round man of letters…. But Warren, for all his qualities, falls considerably short of greatness. Here is a man whose talent leaps out at the reader from every page that he writes, who truly commands the English language, who has mastered the novelist's craft, and who can create characters. And yet we come to the end of his books with a feeling that somehow we have just missed having that superlative reading experience which a genuinely superior novel provides. Why?

Surely the answer does not lie in Warren's material—the kind of people and the kind of life he writes about—for great novels have been made of material of all kinds. Nor does it lie in a simple failure of technique. I suspect, rather, that the difficulty comes from Warren's basic attitude toward his material, which forces him to put more strain on his technical ability than it can bear without giving off, at inopportune moments, a very audible creak. The test of any technique is whether or not it gives the illusion of life. Creaking dissipates this illusion….

Obviously the world of Warren's novels is an extremely horrid one. It is dominated by the agrarian conflict. The conflict forces upon the hero a choice between alternatives either of which must bring him ill. He faces a gamut of crime, imprisonment, reprobation, flight, and probable destruction. He finds himself impotent and surrounded by treachery. He also finds himself both betrayer and betrayed; and furthermore, those whom he betrays and who betray him are those who have turned to him in need and whom he has needed.

But a dark and repulsive world is not necessarily the cause of a novel's weakness—as the works of William Faulkner, with which Warren's have inevitably to be compared, testify with great eloquence. Thus we have to look elsewhere for the answer to our question, and it is here that a recurrent characteristic of Warren's people which has no direct and immediately visible connection with the agrarian conflict acquires a certain importance. This characteristic is that frequently they are psychological enigmas…. Of the two options open to the novelist—to explain the characters by speaking in his own person, or to allow us to understand them through their action—Warren exercises neither….

Actually, their motives have to be kept secret…. Warren's kind of novel requires an enigmatic character in its center because the frustrated, criminal, fugitive hero, moving through a world where no man including himself can be trusted, cannot be conceived as completely purposeful and completely aware of the meaning of his acts. If he were, the whole structure of his fictional world would fly apart….

In a sense. Warren's trouble stems from the fact that he is a "southern regionalist." The particularly exacerbated form of regionalism which developed among southern intellectuals during the depression was as curiously unrealistic a resistance to events as American cultural history has seen in a long time…. The agrarian daydream of the early thirties was just such a fantasy as a man creates when, because he is unable to cope with reality otherwise, he fashions a fiction which settles his problem effectively enough to let him go on living.

One would have to be highly unobservant not to recognize this fantasy as it appears in Warren's novels. The essential pattern of his stories repeats itself with a regularity which is almost obsessive: a young man assimilates his fortunes to those of the culture which produced him, and is destroyed by the same forces which are destroying the culture.

Agrarian regionalism as literal fact is on its way out…. What is left of the old regional differences is the psychological reality; the region is a state of mind. And the state of mind that Warren's novels reflect is a singularly unchanging one….

There are southerners who wear the South about their necks like the albatross. They assume all the "weaknesses" and "faults" and "guilt" of the South that we hear so much about. They brood and worry…. Warren will cease to be merely very good, and become excellent, when and if he decides to get rid of the carcass of a dead bird.

W. M. Frohock, "Mr. Warren's Albatross," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 86-105 (in the Beacon Press paperbound edition, 1964).

Opening a book of poems by Robert Penn Warren is like putting out the light of the sun, or like plunging into the labyrinth and feeling the thread break after the first corner is passed. One will never come out in the same Self as that in which one entered. When he is good, and often even when he is bad, you had as soon read Warren as live. He gives you the sense of poetry as a thing of final importance to life: as a way or form of life. In his practice it is a tortured, painful, sometimes rhetorical means of exploring man's fate, often nearer to tragic melodrama than to tragedy, but never anything less than fully engaged in its problems, never inconsequential. Like any human poet, Warren has his failings: his are a liking for the over-inflated, or "bombast" as Longinus defines it; he indulges frequently in examples of pathetic fallacy so outrageous that they should, certainly, become classic instances of the misuse of this device….

Warren's verse is so deeply and compellingly linked to man's ageless, age-old drive toward self-discovery, self-determination, that it makes all discussion of line endings, metrical variants, and the rest of poetry's paraphernalia appear hopelessly beside the point.

James Dickey, "Robert Penn Warren" (1958), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 75-7.

An active sense of disillusionment, an insistence that human nature is flawed, endlessly paradoxical, and in a very real sense untrustworthy, recurs rather insistently in Robert Penn Warren's novels and poems and essays. Both in the character and in the political philosophy of Willie Stark, governor of a state very much like Louisiana, it became the theme and furnished the plot of Warren's best-known work, All the King's Men; even the title, Brother to Dragons, of Warren's book in verse about the sickening butchery of a slave by a Virginian related to Thomas Jefferson told of his quarrel with Jefferson's eighteenth-century "illusions" about human nature. To judge from the recurring scene in Warren's novels of lovers quiltily expecting to be discovered, his harsh concern with guilt seems to be psychological as well as historical—and in fact Warren's more recent novels have replaced with "Freudian" explanations what in his first and perhaps best novel, Night Rider, was presented in theological terms.

But whatever changes of philosophical emphasis Warren has made over the years … the theme of his work always comes to me as a complaint against human nature. So much do I hear it as a complaint rather than as a positive point of view that I associate it with some cherished innocence that has been destroyed. Just as Warren has written one of his most famous poems directly about original sin, so all his work seems to deal with the Fall of Man. And if in reading Warren's books I have come to be more and more wary of his handling of this theme, it is because of the nostalgia that it conveys, the strident impatient language with which it is expressed, the abstract use to which it is put. To complain in every book that man is a brother to dragons, that "it's human to be split up," that human nature is full of "bitter paradoxes"—this, though not for me to disprove in our baleful times, seems to me not the attitude of an imaginative artist. My objection is that Warren tends to make rhetoric of his philosophy, as in Governor Willie Stark's well-known saying, so much admired by American undergraduates, that "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." Whatever human nature may or may not be, Warren tends more and more merely to say these things about it, often in bombastic language. The effect of these hotly charged statements is curiously to make him sound sentimental about his own theories and impatient in applying them to his analysis of events.

Alfred Kazin, "The Southern 'City of the Soul'," in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 178-83.

All the King's Men has had continuing success, both popular and critical. The reader of Warren returns to it again and again—and so for that matter has Warren, who has used the plot situation for three plays, the most recent of which received off-Broadway production. Warren describes the novel's widespread popular appeal to its "journalistic relevance"—its pertinence to public interest in the late Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana, whose career bears strong resemblances to that of Willie Stark in All the King's Men. This is no doubt true in part, but I am not so sure that "journalistic" is the right word to use. It is not so much that Willie Stark's personality and career topically remind the reader of Long's, as that the careers of both Willie Stark and Huey Long exemplify a problem of continuing concern to all of us. Warren, by dealing in the way that he does with the fortunes of a political demagogue, touches on one of the most provocative and fateful questions of American experience—the sources, uses, and abuses of great political power in a democratic society, and the individual's responsibility to that society and to himself.

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "Burden's Landing: All the King's Men and the Modern South," in his Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, University of Washington Press, 1963, pp. 105-30.

The novels of Robert Penn Warren are more ambitious, wider in the scope of their materials, and less limited in purview by recent or immediate concerns. The novels are concerned largely with the progress of the individual conscience in a world and society which both disillusions and corrupts. His protagonists or narrators generally begin with a simple, abstract view of virtue and of soul. Their experiences tax that view heavily, if they do not entirely discredit it; and it is not unlikely that the view will eventually serve not as a deterrent to but as a rationalization of evil.

Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, p. 217.

[Warren's] essays witness to his belief that a work of art creates its own terms and must be taken on them: its fullness, its mercuriality and complexity, its inclusion of "impure" figures such as irony and paradox, are its own form of power; and this power has nothing to do with the unequivocal, generally serviceable propositions and facts on which everyday life has to be based to work at all. (p. 6)

[Respect] for individual dignity underlies all Warren's incursions into the privilege, responsibility, and pain of self-knowledge. Identity, for him, is a religious condition: one of the rites of passage through life. (p. 7)

[No] writer has worked harder than Warren to substantiate narrative through close, doting observation of the physical, emotional world. He sees it, captures it, makes the page tremble with it. His homework is always done, and not by his mind alone: there is little of his writing that will not pass the test of empirical exactness, and few of his intellectual characters reach a conclusion without being sidetracked by a clamant sense of something rich in the memory or miraculously at hand…. His "texture of relations"—to his past, to his work, to familiars and strangers—is something he fingers endlessly; and in the long run it is the feel, not the feel's meaning, that he communicates, although many meanings are tried on for size on the way. (pp. 8-10)

Many of the poems in [Thirty-Six Poems, his] first collection are little cascades of worry: Warren muses on vicissitude and the seasons, deciding the only peace is to be as stone, but gaining no pleasure or comfort from his stylish affirmation. The question "Why live?" recurs, but the copperheads, rocks, harvests, cardinals, jays, and the dead from the Civil War, have no answer. Mute life-forces compel man onward according to no ascertainable syllabus…. Tout passe is the leitmotiv, and Warren senses terrors in the earth's very familiarity. One choice—that between being someone and being at peace—is unavoidable: to be someone demands sacrifice and should instill responsibility; to try to efface oneself for the sake of peace is to ape the rocks vainly. (pp. 10-11)

[Warren's early work is] a poetry of conundrums, hard-edged in phrase but sometimes flatulent…. Warren would [in his later work] write just as vividly without being as melodramatic, just as poignantly without the verbal diluteness, but the antitheses—idea and fact, word and flesh, inorganic and human, process and identity—survived to be the polarities of all his work to come. (pp. 11-12)

[The] fondness for minor pageantry [exhibited in the poems] sometimes impedes the novels while the idea behind it all, like a snubbed survivor, waits at a distance. Hence Warren's strength and weakness: he never neglects the surfaces of life and he sometimes fails to retrieve his interpretation or his point before it vanishes beneath a clutter of instances. (p. 14)

We have only to read a random page of Warren's prose to see that experience "enchants" him in the same measure as his desire to find meanings is urgent. (p. 23)

Night Rider is full of violent events counterpointed by Munn's self-probings. It is an exciting, thought-compelling book, but somehow lacks a dimension. All Warren's favorite concepts—will, identity, time, power, violence, escapism, guilt, and responsibility—get their turn in a vivid demonstration; but Willie Proudfit, as an instance of self-rehabilitation, seems ancillary and rudely imported. His self-communing pales beside the spectacular action, depriving the reader of the full meditative torment which brought such a character as Munn into being. (p. 26)

A single volume, The Circus in the Attic … contains all of Warren's short stories, of which Blackberry Winter … is outstanding in the history of the genre as well as the most compact epitome of Warren's output…. Nothing of Warren's more convincingly demonstrates how complex his traditionalism is. The inevitability of change is a southern fact too, even though, as he is always saying, the supposed and usually mythical stability of the past is succeeded only by the instability of an unknown future. Man makes uneasy truces with nature which is reliable only because, in the mass, it never dies.

Predictably, then, Warren's favorite images express both an entranced horror with nature and horrified relief at man's power to control. Submerged in nature, man can know a vegetable peace; against it he can achieve a sterile safety. But he cannot safely ally himself with it, for it is inscrutable. Images of flood depict the odds. (pp. 34-5)

Warren shows what mind and heart can do with the unthinkable and, without pretending to understand, makes it thinkable-about, daring and exhorting others to approach it. That is the self-expending generosity of his achievement, the grandeur of its indignant impersonality, and also, in two senses, its only hope. (p. 45)

Paul West, in his Robert Penn Warren ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 44), University of Minnesota Press, © 1964 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

No other American literary figure of the twentieth century has exhibited greater versatility than Robert Penn Warren. In commenting on Warren's place in the world of letters, a reviewer once called him the "pentathlon champion" of American literature, for he has made a distinguished contribution to fiction, poetry, drama, criticism, and biography. While arguments about his preeminence in any one field would be ultimately inconclusive, his total accomplishment in all five surpasses that of any other living writer. (p. 17)

It has not been sufficiently noted that Warren's work forms a history from the early nineteenth century to the present of the South he has known best. While it has neither the geographical nor the genealogical coherence of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha or of Ellen Glasgow's Queensborough—and there is no indication that Warren ever intended to create an American Wessex—his work nevertheless forms a panorama of a usable past covering more than one hundred and fifty years of Southern history…. Warren fully shares the Southern feeling for family, the sense of the continuity of generations; for his own roots in Southern history and experience are deep. (p. 21)

In terms of his own definition, Warren's poetry is decidedly impure. From his first verses, written while still an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, he has readily introduced into his poetry all of the elements so troubling to the pure poet. Warren employs, for example, a remarkable variety of metrical forms, often in startling combinations. Sudden contrasts between elegance and earthiness abound in his verse—the coupling of a Latinic adjective and an Anglo-Saxon noun and the mixing of esoteric diction with slang. The folk speech of his native Kentucky and Tennessee is a Warren hallmark, his ear for dialect going beyond mere quirks of vocabulary or oddities of syntax. In its system of tensions, his poetry harks back to the elaborately fashioned and intellectually rigorous verse of the decidedly impure Metaphysicals. The result is a poetry of tartness and astringency. (p. 41)

Night Rider is a remarkably mature and polished first novel. In it Warren has created a complete fictional world, a world of substance and texture which is peculiarly coherent and self-contained. Warren's delight in action and suspense, his variety and depth of characterization, and his exuberant and imaginative use of language are already clearly apparent. Also, there is manifest in this first novel the same feeling for form, the insistence on design, which characterizes his poetry. Like Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, novelists to whom he had obviously apprenticed himself, Warren has a firm grasp of the architectonics of his craft. (p. 69)

[Warren and Faulkner have] much in common: the lush rhetoric, the brooding meditations on the past, the exploitation of the traditional order for its symbolic value in the present. In philosophical weight and tragic intensity Faulkner goes beyond Warren, just as he goes beyond all other American writers of this century, but Warren has created a broader range of characters than Faulkner and is considerably superior in his handling of urbane, sophisticated people. And Warren's knowledge of the variety of contemporary life, particularly his knowledge of regions outside the South, has given his work a broader scope than Faulkner allowed himself. (p. 80)

As Francis Fergusson remarked, All the King's Men is constantly threatening to become "a panorama of man-in-society in the grand manner, something comparable to one of Shakespeare's histories." It is one of those rare books that appeal equally to the literary intelligentsia and to the so-called common readers. It shows every sign of possessing remarkable staying power, for it continues to generate intellectual excitement and passionate identification. Certainly no novel written since World War II has surpassed it in technical virtuosity and in philosophic depth. (p. 98)

The quantity of his production is itself impressive. But despite the amount and variety of his work, he has held himself to a consistently high level of craftsmanship. From the beginning of his career, his analytical power and creative force have been disciplined by his critical intelligence and tempered by his formidable erudition. Warren's concern with literature is fundamental and inclusive. His discussions of other writers reveal this deeply serious commitment, for his criticism is warm in its enthusiasm and generous in its judgments, neither excessively formal nor overly intellectual. Nor are Warren's fiction and poetry rigidly formalistic. In fact, as Eric Bentley once observed, Warren very nearly fulfills our idea of the romantic genius. There is about his art the prodigality of the writer who exercises his verbal gifts for the sheer magic of the effects he can produce. Warren's language is robust and rhetorical. He likes his adjectives and nouns to go in pairs, reinforcing one another, begetting rhythm and resonance. When a comparison catches his fancy, his first metaphor is likely to suggest another, and he piles image on image as he warms to his task. As a result, he is led by his own ingenuity into the excesses of language which mar many otherwise fine passages. About all of Warren's work there is a gusto and masculine force, a willingness to risk bathos and absurdity, reminiscent of the writer who, Warren has said, has had the greatest influence on his own work-Shakespeare…. He has always seemed driven to explore the boundaries of his art, to push the possibilities of his form to its outer limits.

Charles H. Bohner, in his Robert Penn Warren, Twayne, 1964.

For all the illustrative imagery, it is very doubtful whether anyone has ever read All the King's Men … as primarily a novel of redemption and rebirth. Primarily, it is a novel about the nature of politics, rooted in a traditional and pessimistic view of man. All action, Warren suggests, is flawed because of the natural corruption of man. Politics is the art of the possible; and in a state not unlike Louisiana Warren shows us politics, the struggle for and control of power in a state, as it might have existed in any Italian principality throughout the middle ages until a century and a half ago….

Pretentiousness is essentially a failure in self-criticism, in self-knowledge. It has been, it seems to me, Warren's besetting sin. It seriously mars All the King's Men; it ruins World Enough and Time.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 128-30.

Robert Penn Warren … is technically a post-Second-World-War novelist. That is, the larger body of his fiction, including his major novel All the King's Men, has been published since 1945. Though a valuable novelist, Warren is also notably a playwright, poet, teacher, scholar, and critic—a man of letters in the best sense. The problem is, how does a man write a novel unself-consciously, when he is aware just how the critic, created perhaps in his own image, is likely to read it? The answer is, he doesn't. At least Warren doesn't.

Almost all of Warren's fiction suffers somewhat from the determined this-marriage-can-be-saved compatibility between Warren the novelist and Warren the explicator. The harder he tries to fuse the two selves, the farther apart they spring, as if resistant to the meddling of an outsider.

Jonathan Baumbach, "The Metaphysics of Demagoguery: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren," in his The Landscape in Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 16-34.

Now that Faulkner and Hemingway are gone, Robert Penn Warren is clearly America's most distinguished man of letters, especially so if the term is used in the European sense of a person established in significant literary genres and easily at home in the various philosophical fashions that come and go. The bare record of Mr. Warren's literary achievement is more than adequate to establish the contention. There is first of all his dazzling virtuosity: in an age of one-book, middle-aged enfants terribles, he has published eight novels, a body of short fiction, lyric poetry, major criticism, drama, and one of the more important book-length poems of the twentieth century. His work is philosophic, which is to say that, beyond the brilliance of surface and the tortured unwinding of motive and consequence, the major concern is with whatever is grave and constant in the human condition. In this late period of our waist-high culture, Mr. Warren's personal style has been a shining exception, being lofty, noble, jazzy, or colloquial as occasion requires.

John Lewis Longley, Jr., "Introduction," in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, Edited by John Lewis Longley, Jr., New York University Press, 1965, p. ix.

Warren's South is a complex of involvements that goes beyond the regional and denies to all men the possibility of the vacuum. Neither action nor inaction, neither good nor evil, can be pure. In order to know yourself, it is necessary to know others, for what a man becomes is in part what others are and have been.

Max Westbrook, in The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism, edited by Max Westbrook (© 1966 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1966, p. 195.

[Warren's poetical] limitations are hard for me to specify; I find his attitudes and themes—moral, psychological, and religious—so congenial that it is difficult for me to regard the poetry with proper detachment. Sometimes the themes are perhaps a little too explicit, not very fully dramatized; and there is a danger in the fact that they are basically few, though combined and varied in many ways. But Warren's later poetry seems to me to embody most of the special virtues of "open" poetry—accessibility, immediate emotional involvement, wide appeal—and to resist the temptations to formlessness and to moral exhibitionism, self-absorption, and sentimentality that are the chief liabilities of that school…. Happily … Warren continues to grow and to change with undiminished vigor….

Monroe K. Spears, "The Latest Poetry of Robert Penn Warren" (© 1970 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Spring, 1970, pp. 348-57.

Warren's novels sometimes fail in part, it seems, for one of two reasons: because the polarities are over-elaborated or clumsily established, or because they are so convincingly stated that they resist the concluding reconciliation….

Warren's world view may be characterized as tragic-ironic, the emphasis in the hyphenated adjective about equally divided. Man is an ironic creature because he forgets who he is, because he denies his own identity as both creature and creator. He denies the mixed nature of reality in his unending attempt to disentangle the indefinitely extending relatedness of all he knows or can know. From good comes evil, from evil, good. Yet man's situation is tragic in that evil and destructiveness seem the almost inevitable consequences of his creativity. The great evils of history, his own and the world's, seem inherent in his pretensions, which are the result or concomitant of his freedom.

Allen Shepherd, "Robert Penn Warren as a Philosophical Novelist," in Western Humanities Review, Spring, 1970, pp. 157-68.

Robert Penn Warren's Meet Me in the Green Glen seems certain to be recognized as one of his most distinguished novels since All the King's Men. The new work is far more tightly structured than its immediate predecessors, Wilderness and Flood; the rhetorical fattiness that has always been characteristic of Warren's fiction has been replaced by a hard texture of language very like his poetry. Yet the book is complex enough to sustain the illusion that there are several kinds of narrative form through which the action is simultaneously developed, each providing a view of the action both complete in itself and indispensable to the completion of the whole. As in most of Warren's novels, the central dramatic situation is that of the murder mystery, although this work can also be seen as a romantic parable existing with perfect rightness on the levels of melodrama and moral philosophy; a love story that, contrary to current fashions, is finally neither sentimental nor narcissistic; a prose poem remarkable for its lyric intensity; a Southern novel in which the characters are both realistically depicted cultural types and personifications of forces so violent and destructive that they seem almost more Elizabethan than contemporary.

John W. Aldridge, "The Enormous Spider Web of Warren's World," in Saturday Review, October 9, 1971, pp. 31-2, 35-7.

For me, reading a new book by … Warren … is like encountering once again a stout-hearted father-figure as dependable (which is not to say predictable) as the day is long. I know ahead of time that the book—whether novel, poems, stories or essays—will be authentic, gritty with felt life. Approaching a new novel, I know, or think I know, it will have some of the virtues of the conventional popular novel—recognizable and accessible plot and shape, for instance. The setting will be rural, the action tangled and bloody, the characters country people. The tone of the prose used to dramatize their lives might be in turn lyrical, elegiac, satirical. In that prose, that narrative, will float certain obsessive images, certain brooding abstractions which will, in the fullness of time, meld, pay off, sweep the table.

James Boatwright, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1971, p. 6.

Stripped to bare bone, Robert Penn Warren's Meet Me in the Green Glen looks familiar enough, another variant on the perennial Southern love-and-murder tale in which the outsider is sacrificed to (or saved from) the social and psychological conventions implicit in the setting…. [But plot] becomes as secondary as milieu, as social implication. The quarry that Warren is after in the novel is man himself, his attempt to ground himself in a world that keeps slipping away and that, as the novel itself says, is an uncatchable beast.

Gerald Weales, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 720-21.

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Warren, Robert Penn


Warren, Robert Penn (Vol. 10)