Life and Times
Most writers are satisfied if they are successful in one or two areas of just one literary genre. A few have been successful in two genres. In comparison with the usual career of a writer, however, Robert Penn Warren’s career is astounding. He is a prize-winning novelist who has written ten novels. He is also a prize-winning poet who has published thirteen collections of poetry. Indeed, he is the only American writer to have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry and fiction. In addition, he is one of the most important critical theorists in America in the twentieth century, and, with Cleanth Brooks, he has written and edited several textbooks for literature and rhetoric that have had a major impact on the way those subjects are taught. He has also written other literary criticism, a number of fine short stories, plus biography and drama, as well as authored several works that analyze and critique our social customs. Most of these accomplishments as a writer were achieved during a full career as a college teacher who was uniformly acclaimed by his students.
This amazing career began in Guthrie, Kentucky, where Robert Penn Warren was born on April 24,1905. His father, Robert Franklin Warren, was a businessman, and his mother, Anna Ruth Penn Warren, was a school teacher. Robert Penn Warren was their eldest son.
Warren attended school in Guthrie until 1920 when, at the age of fifteen, he began high school in Clarksville, Tennessee, just across the border from Guthrie. He graduated at the end of that year, and that fall, at the age of sixteen, he began college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. There he met a number of stimulating people. Although he had originally planned to become a scientist, he found his freshman science course rather boring. His freshman English course under John Crowe Ransom was, however, intensely interesting to him. Ransom’s invitation to take “English 9,” an advanced composition course, helped Warren to decide that he wanted to study literature instead of science. As a result, he took courses from Donald Davidson, who stimulated an interest in Beowulf, Chaucer, modern poetry, and writing, and he also took classes from Walter Clyde Curry, whose literary approach combined an interest in philosophy with an interest in history.
Ransom, Davidson, and Curry were all members of the Fugitives, a group of faculty and students interested in poetry. They gave great emphasis to a rigorous, careful examination of poetic structures. Poems, written by members of the group, were read aloud while others followed on mimeographed copies. A probing and frank discussion of the merits and of the weaknesses of the poem followed. Warren was brought into this group by two fellow students who were members, Allen Tate and Ridley Wills. They brought him to meetings as a sophomore, although Warren did not officially become a Fugitive until the spring of his junior year at Vanderbilt. Association with the Fugitives gave Warren a sense that poetry was a vital force that was important to the world of ideas and to life; it also laid the basis for his later work in literary criticism.
Allen Tate also helped Warren launch his career as a writer. While at Vanderbilt, Tate urged Warren to show his poetry to the editors of The Fugitive and The Double Dealer, and he was soon publishing them. For example, Warren had twenty-four poems in The Fugitive during his junior and senior years; the first, “Crusade,” was published in June 1923. Several years later, during the summer of 1928, Tate also helped Warren to get a commission to write a biography of John Brown. Appearing in November 1929, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr was Warren’s first published book.
Warren graduated summa cum laude in 1925. That fall he began graduate study in English at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a teaching fellow, and his major interests were Elizabethan tragedy and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poetry. Compared with the literary atmosphere that he had been involved in at Vanderbilt, where the major topics of discussion were poets such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the interests at California were, he thought, fifty years behind the times, with Marx and Engels central figures in the discussions.
Warren received his master’s degree from the University of California in 1927. He immediately began further graduate study at Yale. In 1928, he was named a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University; he was granted his B. Litt. from Oxford in 1930. His two years in England gave him a chance to look at his background from a distance and to gain a degree of detachment from it. While at Oxford, Warren got to know Cleanth Brooks, who was also a Rhodes Scholar and a Vanderbilt alumnus; this friendship led into an extremely successful collaboration on several textbooks. Before he left Oxford, Warren had written “The Briar Patch,” his contribution to the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, and had been commissioned to write a long story for American Caravan (his first published story, “Prime Leaf,” appeared in American Caravan in 1931).
When he returned from England, Warren began a forty-three-year teaching career. In the fall of 1930, Warren was made Assistant Professor of English at Southwestern College in Memphis. That same year, he married San Franciscan Emma Brescia, to whom he had become engaged in 1925. For the 1931 academic year, Warren moved to Vanderbilt, where he was Assistant Professor of English for three years. While at Vanderbilt, Warren wrote a novel that was rejected by several publishers; a second novel two years later met the same fate.
Another particularly important period in Warren’s career began in 1934, when he became Assistant Professor of English at Louisiana State University. His stay at LSU coincided with the height of Huey Long’s power, and Warren had a chance to watch, first-hand, Long’s political maneuverings. Critics have long tried to find the sources for Warren’s fiction in his experiences, a tendency that has been fueled by the similarities between Willie Stark and Huey Long. It is true that All the King’s Men seems to have had its genesis in 1937-38, while Warren was at LSU; his poetry certainly suggests that he was thinking seriously about decency, democracy, and power at the time.
Cleanth Brooks was also at Louisiana State at this time, and Warren’s collaboration with him produced several textbooks that had a major impact on literary study: An Approach to Literature (1936; edited by Brooks, Warren, and John T. Purser); Understanding Poetry (1938); Understanding Fiction (1943); and Modern Rhetoric, with Readings (1949; also published without readings as Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric). In 1935, Warren, with Brooks, Charles W. Pipkin, and Albert Erskine, founded The Southern Review. His first collection of poetry, Thirty-Six Poems, was published in 1935, and his first novel, Night Rider, was published in 1939. A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed Warren to spend the1939-40 academic year in Italy, where he wrote Proud Flesh, a verse drama that was the forerunner of All the King’s Men (the central character is very similar, at least in outline, to Willie Stark; the role of Jack Burden became essential to make the novel work). Warren also edited a collection of short stories by southern writers during this period.
In 1942, Warren left LSU to become Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Warren did not particularly want to leave Louisiana State, but opposition had indicated the demise of The Southern Review, and Louisiana State would not meet the salary offered by Minnesota. Warren took this as an invitation to leave, and he did so. He spent seven years at Minnesota, leaving there to become Professor of Playwriting at the Yale Drama School in 1950; in 1961, he became Professor of English at Yale, and in 1973, he became Professor Emeritus at Yale.
During his years at Minnesota and at Yale, Warren continued to produce high-quality material in a variety of genres, both as a writer and as an editor. He also continued to win awards for his writing. He was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1944; he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for All the King’s Men) in 1946 and for poetry (for Promises: Poems 1954-1956) in 1957. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959, and he was awarded the National Medal for Literature in 1970, in recognition of his total contribution to literature.
After his retirement in 1973, Warren did not stop writing; indeed, he had at least one volume published in each year (through 1980.) He also continued to gather awards, including the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in America; it was presented in the Rose Garden of the White House in June 1980. Warren died in 1989.
Works by Robert Penn Warren
1929 John Brown: The Making of A Martyr.
1935 Thirty-Six Poems.
1936 An Approach to Literature (edited, with Cleanth Brooks and John T. Purser).
1937 A Southern Harvest: Short Stories by Southern Writers (edited).
1938 Understanding Poetry (edited, with Cleanth Brooks).
1939 Night Rider.
1942 Eleven Poems on the Same Theme.
1943 At Heaven’s Gate.
Understanding Fiction (edited, with Cleanth Brooks).
1944 Selected Poems 1923-1943.
1946 All the King’s Men.
1947 The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories.
1949 Modern Rhetoric, with Readings (edited, with Cleanth Brooks); also published, without readings, as Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric.
1950 World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel.
1953 Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices.
The Southern Review (edited, with Cleanth Brooks, an anthology).
1954 Short Story Masterpieces (edited, with Albert Erskine).
1955 Band of Angels.
Six Centuries of Great Poetry (edited, with Albert Erskine).
1956 Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South.
1957 Promises: Poems 1954-1956.
A New Southern Harvest (edited, with Albert Erskine).
1958 Selected Essays. Remember the Alamo! (a children’s book).
1959 The Cave. The Gods of Mount Olympus (a children’s book).
1960 You, Emperors and Others: Poems 1957-1960.
All the King’s Men (play).
1961 Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War.
The Legacy of the Civil War.
1964 Flood: A Romance of Our Time.
1965 Who Speaks for the Negro?
1966 Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966.
Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays (edited).
1968 Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968.
1969 Audubon: A Vision.
1970 Selected Poems of Herman Melville (edited).
1971 Meet Me in the Green Glen.
Homage to Theodore Dreiser on the Centennial of His Birth.
John Greenleaf Whittier: An Appraisal and a Selection (edited).
1973 American Literature: The Makers and the Making (edited, with Cleanth Brooks and R. W. B.
1974 Or Else: Poems 1968-1974.
1975 Democracy and Poetry (Jefferson Lecture).
1976 Selected Poems: 1923-1975.
1977 A Place to Come To.
1978 Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978.
1979 Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (a new version of the 1953 poem).
Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays (edited).
1980 Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980.
1981 Rumor Verified.
1982 Chief Joseph.
1985 New and Selected Poems, 1923-1985.
Awards and Honors
1928 Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University
1936 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship
1939 Guggenheim Fellowship
1944 Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress
1947 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for All the King’s Men)
1949 First honorary degree, University of Louisville (other honorary degrees are not listed here)
1952 Elected to the American Philosophical Society
1958 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize of the Poetry
Society of America National Book Award (All were given for Promises: Poems 1954-1956.)
1959 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
1967 Bollingen Prize in Poetry (for Selected Poems: New and Old 1923-1966)
1968 Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts
1970 Van Wyck Brooks Award (for Audubon: A Vision)
National Medal for Literature (for total contribution)
1974 Delivered the third annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities for the National Endowment for the Humanities
1975 Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Emerson-Thoreau Award
1976 Copernicus Award for the Academy of American Poets (for general achievement, but with special recognition of Or Else)
1980 Medal of Freedom(America’s highest award presented to a civilian)