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.
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.
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...
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.
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...
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...
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.