Robert Penn Warren

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

Who were the Fugitives, and what was Robert Penn Warren’s contribution to their activities?

What generalizations can be made about the relationships of fathers and sons in Warren’s fiction?

What does Jack Burden learn from his association with Willie Stark in All the King’s Men?

Consider Brother to Dragons as a psychological study of guilt.

What is New Criticism? What roles did Warren play in this critical movement?

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his short fiction, Robert Penn Warren published ten novels, several volumes of poetry, a play, a biography, two collections of critical essays, three historical essays, three influential textbooks, several children’s books, two studies of race relations in America, one memoir, and several book-length treatises on literature. He won a host of distinguished awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes, two for poetry and one for fiction. Three of his novels have been filmed, and one of them, All the King’s Men (1946), has been presented in operatic form.


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Honored as a major American poet and novelist, Robert Penn Warren displayed uncommon versatility in significant contributions to almost every literary genre. His work has been translated worldwide, and his short stories are widely anthologized. While he is best known for his novel All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize, he was most prolific as a poet whose awards included two Pulitzer Prizes and an appointment as America’s first poet laureate.

The subject of Warren’s fiction, and much of his poetry, is southern rural life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He reveals a rootedness in his subject and its values, a concern for moral issues, and a gift for dialogue and environmental detail that lends distinctiveness to his work. His short stories, for example, are set down in rich, vigorous style, and they delineate the flow of time, the influence of past on present, and the painful necessity of self-knowledge.

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Robert Penn Warren wrote successfully in so many genres that Charles Bohner called him “the pentathlon champion of American literature.” In addition to his novels, he published short stories, numerous volumes of poetry, and a considerable amount of nonfiction. Warren’s fiction and his poetry often consider the same philosophical themes: the meaning of history, the loss of innocence and the recognition of evil in the fallen world, and the difficulty of finding a moral balance in a world in which traditional Christian values seem to be faltering. For example, in his book-length poem Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (1953), Warren begins with a historical event—a brutal murder of a slave by Thomas Jefferson’s nephew, Lilburne Lewis—and creates a philosophical examination of people’s fallen nature. Warren does something very similar in his novel World Enough and Time. The story is based on a murder that occurred in 1825, but the novel, like the poem, becomes an examination of people’s fall from innocence and the difficulty of establishing moral ideals in a fallen world.

Warren’s concerns over history and morality are also evident in his earliest, nonfiction works. In his first book, a biography, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr(1929), Warren contends that Brown did not tread the path of morality quite so righteously as Ralph Waldo Emerson had thought he had; in his fallen condition, Brown mistook his own egotism for pure idealism. Warren’s neo-orthodox insistence on people’s fallen nature and his skepticism about the possibilities of pure idealism, both of which are reflected in his novels, led him to accept the traditionalist attitudes of the southern intellectuals who made up the Fugitive Group, and he contributed to the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930). Warren did, however, espouse a more liberal attitude toward racial matters in his later nonfiction works Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965).

Warren’s social criticism ultimately proved less influential than his literary criticism. His Selected Essays (1958) contains perceptive studies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Katherine Anne Porter. These essays are important not only for what they say about these authors but also for what they reveal about Warren’s own work. Even more important than these essays, however, was Warren’s collaboration with Cleanth Brooks. Their textbooks, Understanding Fiction (1943) and Understanding Poetry (1938), helped to change substantially the way literature was taught in the United States.

Warren continued to publish literary criticism at intervals throughout his life; indeed, New and Selected Essays appeared in the year of his death, 1989. With a poetry-writing career that spanned fifty years, however, he was at least equally well known as a craftsman in that genre. His poems have been widely anthologized, and he is recognized as one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century.


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For most readers, Robert Penn Warren’s name is probably most associated with his novel All the King’s Men, for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award. He also won the Robert Meltzer Award from the Screen Writers Guild for the play based on that novel. Warren’s short story “Blackberry Winter” also has been highly acclaimed and widely anthologized. Other readers think of Warren primarily as a poet, and with good reason; he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice, first for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957), which also won the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize and the National Book Award for poetry, and a second time for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978 (1978). Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1966) won the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and Audubon: A Vision (1969) won the Van Wyck Brooks Award and the National Medal for Literature. Warren was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1952 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959. He was named first poet laureate of the United States in 1986.

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In an era when poets were often as renowned and influential as critics, Robert Penn Warren nevertheless stands out inasmuch as he achieved success on two creative fronts, having as great a critical reputation as a novelist as he had as a poet. This accomplishment is not limited to the production of one singular work or of a sporadic body of work; rather it is a sustained record of development and achievement spanning more than three decades. His fiction includes the novels Night Rider (1939), At Heaven’s Gate (1943), All the King’s Men (1946), World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel (1950), Band of Angels (1955), The Cave (1959), Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961), and Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964), and there is also a short-story collection, The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories (1947). There can be no doubt that All the King’s Men, a highly fictionalized and richly wrought retelling of the rise and fall, by assassination, of the demagogic Louisiana governor Huey Long, has justifiably attained the status of an American classic; it is not only Warren’s best novel but also his best-known work. The story of Willie Stark, the country-boy idealist who becomes far worse an exploiter of the public trust than the corrupt professional politicians he at first sets his heart and soul against, embodies many of Warren’s most persistent themes, in particular the fumbling process self-definition becomes in a universe awry with irony and a world alive with betrayal and mendacity. Made into an Oscar-winning film, the novel was also very successfully adapted as a play by Warren in the 1950’s.

Warren’s considerable influence on the life of letters in twentieth century America was also exercised in a series of textbooks that he edited jointly with the noted critic Cleanth Brooks. The first, An Approach to Literature (1936), coedited as well by John Thibault Purser, was followed by Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, edited by Warren and Brooks, in 1938, and Understanding Fiction, also edited by Warren and Brooks, in 1943. These texts utilized the practices (just then being formulated) of New Criticism, which encouraged a close attention to the literary text as a self-contained, self-referring statement. It is certain that several generations of readers have had their entire attitude toward literature and literary interpretation determined by Warren and Brooks’s effort, either directly or through the influence of teachers and critics whose values were shaped by these landmark works.


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Robert Penn Warren was undoubtedly one of the most honored men of letters in American history. Among his numerous awards and honors were a Houghton-Mifflin Literary Fellowship (1936) for his first novel, Night Rider, the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1936), Guggenheim Fellowships (1939-1940, 1947-1948), the Shelley Memorial Award (1943), the Pulitzer Prize in fiction (1947) for his novel All the King’s Men, and Pulitzer Prizes in poetry for Promises and Now and Then (1958 and 1979, respectively). He also won a Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize (1953), the National Book Award in Poetry (1958) for Promises, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1967), the National Medal for Literature (1970), the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize (1971) for Incarnations, the Copernicus Award (1976), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980), the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1985), the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America (1985), and the Ambassador Book Award (1999) for The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. He was one of the first recipients of a genius grant, a Prize Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, in 1981. He served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress from 1944 to 1945 and as poet laureate consultant in poetry from 1986 to 1987, when he resigned because of age and ill health. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1950 and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1972 to 1988.


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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 is the first of what will almost certainly be many biographies following Warren’s death in 1989. Blotner began his work while Warren was still alive and had the good fortune to have the cooperation not only of his subject but also of the larger Warren family. Blotner’s book is straightforward and chronological; it makes a good beginning.

Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. 1962. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This lucid survey encompasses details of Warren’s literary career and an analysis of his major themes. Also provides a study of the development of his art as evidenced in his novels and short fiction, his poetry (through Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980), and his major essays. The survey also includes a detailed chronology and a valuable select bibliography.

Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Burt describes his work as traversing “regions” of Warren’s work: the elegies, the narrative poems, and three major novels—Night Rider, All the King’s Men, and World Enough and Time. What unifies these works, Burt maintains, is Warren’s ambivalence about experience, an ambivalence endemic to American idealism.

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. A comprehensive collection of criticism by leading literary scholars of Warren’s major work as novelist, poet, biographer, and essayist. Among the contributors are Harold Bloom, Malcolm Cowley, Carlos Baker, John Crowe Ransom, and Randall Jarrell. The collection includes a valuable 1969 interview with Warren by Richard Sale.

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.

Dietrich, Bryan. “Christ or Antichrist: Understanding Eight Words in ‘Blackberry Winter.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Spring, 1992): 215-220. Discusses the final line of the story, “But I did follow him, all the years,” by analyzing and critiquing previous critical interpretations of the line and by providing a religious reading of the tramp as Antichrist; suggests that the young protagonist of the story follows in the footsteps of disillusionment.

Ferriss, Lucy. “Sleeping with the Boss: Female Subjectivity in Robert Penn Warren’s Fiction.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48 (Winter, 1994/1995): 147-167. Part of a special issue on Warren; suggests a feminist reading of Warren’s fiction, discussing significant women characters who have sexual liaisons with men of power and wealth; argues that Warren’s ability to risk the profound disruption of masculine authority either by admitting female “selves” or by exposing the self-other dialectic as unreliable demonstrates his faith in the continuing resilience of interpretation.

Gray, Richard, ed. Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. Many of the essays in this collection date from the 1960’s, and about two-thirds of them deal with Warren’s novels. Represented in the volume are a number of recognized Warren specialists, among them James Justus, Leonard Casper, and Victor Strandberg. A competent and comprehensive essay prefaces the volume, which contains a short bibliography helpful to the general student.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. An introduction to the novels, poems, and plays.

Guttenberg, Barnett. Web of Being: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1975. Guttenberg examines nine novels of Warren from Night Rider through Meet Me in the Green Glen with emphasis on the existential element. He advances the premise that through all the novels the individual struggles to attain the true being of selfhood through self-awareness.

Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. A cogent study of Warren’s work from the premise that the latter largely derives from the cultural circumstances of time and place in his career. The book is divided into four sections dealing, respectively, with Warren’s themes, poetry, nonfiction prose, and novels.

Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. A collection of critical and biographical essays on Warren’s life and work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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.

Millichap, Joseph R. “Robert Penn Warren and Regionalism.” The Mississippi Quarterly 48 (Winter, 1994/1995): 29-38. Discusses Warren’s insistence that regional writing should aim at meanings that transcend mere parochialism; notes Warren’s constant effort to reshape his relationship to his regional roots.

Nakadate, Neil. Robert Penn Warren: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977. This helpfully annotated reference guide to significant scholarship on Warren and his work encompasses writings by Warren from 1929 to 1977, and about him from 1925 to 1975. A checklist of doctoral dissertations and master’s theses on Warren is also included.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. Ruppersburg considers the Warren opus an attempt to define a national identity. He focuses, in particular, on Brother to Dragons, Audubon: A Vision, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé. Subscribing to Warren’s notion that he was not a historical writer, Ruppersburg also attempts to place Warren in a contemporary context, emphasizing such modern American concerns as civil rights and nuclear warfare.

Strandberg, Victor. The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977. A thorough and lively discussion of Warren’s poetry offering elucidation of major poems and an examination of the development of the poet’s three major themes: “Poems of passage, the undiscovered self, and mysticism.” The study supersedes Strandberg’s A Colder Fire (1965).

Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. Addresses Warren’s poetry in terms of his political views, especially those relating to race and civil rights. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Walker, Michael. Robert Penn Warren: A Vision Earned. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979. Walker’s thesis is that Warren is best understood when he is examined as a regionalist, a Southern writer with outside interests. The book deals with the prose as well as the poetry.

Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. A collection of twenty-four interviews, extending from 1953 to 1985, in which Warren talks about his work with characteristic honesty, openness, folksiness, and wit from the joint perspective of writer, interpreter, and critic. The group of interviewers includes Ralph Ellison, Marshall Walker, Bill Moyers, Edwin Harold Newman, Floyd C. Watkins, and Eleanor Clark.

Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men: Restored Edition. Edited by Noel Polk. New York: Harcourt, 2001. This version of Warren’s best known work contains original passages excised by Warren’s editors. The appendix and editorial notes make this a useful resource for studying this important American novel.

Warren, Robert Penn. Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950-1978. Edited by Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers. New York: Random House, 1980. A collection of eighteen interviews conducted in a variety of modes and settings over a period of nearly thirty years, ranging from a session with students at Vanderbilt to a Bill Moyers transcript. Gives insights not only into Warren’s thought and development during the period but also into the personality of the man as it emerges in the give-and-take of live discourse.

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.

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Critical Essays