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Robert Penn Warren's Life and Career


Charles Bohner

WARREN, Robert Penn (24 Apr. 1905-15 Sept. 1989), author and educator, was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, the son of Robert Franklin Warren, a businessman, and Anna Ruth Penn, a schoolteacher. Throughout Warren's childhood on a Kentucky tobacco farm he heard tales of the Civil War from his grandfathers, both of whom had fought for the Confederacy. These stories provided a rich source of memories and images that, he later remarked, nurtured his art. The shaping influence of this southern heritage is inescapable in any consideration of Warren's life. Although he left the South for good when he was thirty-seven years old, he never left it in spirit, and much of his artistic energy was expended in an effort to reconcile his loyalty to the region with the claims of modernism.

During the summer of 1920, while waiting to take up an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, Warren lost the sight of one eye when he was accidentally hit by a stone carelessly thrown by his younger brother Thomas. As crucial as his southern upbringing, this event determined the direction of his life. Only in late middle age could he bring himself to discuss its devastating consequences. "I felt," he wrote, "a kind of shame--shame is not the word--but disqualification for life ... some sense of being maimed " (Watkins, p. 55). In a century that offered young men unparalleled opportunities for action, he was destined to play the role of observer and commentator. Forced to abandon a naval career, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, intending to study engineering.

Warren's matriculation at Vanderbilt coincided with a gathering of young writers in Nashville, men brought together by an interest in writing poetry and a nostalgia for the culture of the agrarian South. Although they seem never to have aspired to be an intellectual movement, they have been linked ever since by the title of the magazine they published, The Fugitive. Warren's college roommate, Allen Tate, and one of his teachers, John Crowe Ransom, were at the beginning of their distinguished literary careers. Prominent among the Fugitives, they exerted a strong influence upon the impressionable Warren and found a place in their magazine for his first efforts at verse. By the time he graduated from Vanderbilt in 1925, he had determined on a career as a writer.

Following the example of his Vanderbilt teachers who had supported their literary ambitions by college teaching, Warren pursued graduate study at the University of California and Yale University and in 1928 entered Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1930 he returned from England with a degree in English literature, married Emma Brescia, and took up a position as instructor of English at Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee.

Warren's career as a university teacher was a model of upward mobility. After a year at Southwestern, he accepted an offer from his alma mater Vanderbilt and three years later moved to Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. During the following eight years, 1934-1942, he established a reputation as one of the most influential academics of his generation.

At Oxford Warren had been drawn to the ideas of a new generation of literary critics. Reacting to the charge that the study of English literature was a soft option, they wished to introduce a greater rigor into their classrooms. Insisting on the sanctity of the text and encouraging an increased awareness of tropes such as irony and paradox, these "close readers," as they came to be called, found themselves grouped together as practitioners of a New Criticism. In 1938 Warren and a colleague at Louisiana State University, Cleanth Brooks, published a textbook, Understanding Poetry, which codified many of the so-called New Critical ideas into a coherent approach to literary study. Their book, and its companion volume, Understanding Fiction (1943), revolutionized the teaching of literature in the universities and spawned a host of imitators who dominated English departments well into the 1960s.

While a faculty member at Louisiana State University, Warren was also instrumental in founding the Southem Review. Its title was, as its editors said, an expression of their "regional and sectional piety." The magazine quickly became one of the foremost literary and cultural quarterlies in the nation, and eventually it had a list of contributors and a circulation that belied any charge of provincialism. It did not, however, survive the urgencies and economies of World War II. After its suspension by the university administration in 1942, Warren left the South to take up a position at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as director of creative writing.

Warren's new post called his attention to a concern that had preoccupied him during his years teaching in the South; as he put it, "my deep and abiding desire was to write poetry and fiction, and even though I felt no competition between this desire and the profession I enjoyed, I turned most of my energies, when I left the classroom and the obligations of the classroom, toward writing poems and stories and novels." A man of remarkable energy and discipline, he managed to find time from his teaching and editing to write three novels. Two of these were never published, but the third, Night Rider, appeared in 1939. It was the first of ten, and its success with readers established his reputation well beyond the walls of the academy.

Warren's ten novels are unified in both locale and theme. They are works about the South and southerners and, while aspiring to transcend their time and place, are nonetheless marked by a southern particularity that is deliberate, insistent, and unmistakable. They fall into two groups: the first group is historical and evokes a lost world recaptured through the imaginative use of documentary evidence; the second group is contemporary and constitutes a history of Warren's own times.

The novels in the first group--World Enough and Time (1950), Band of Angels (1955), and Wilderness (1961)--were the result of three decades in which Warren said he "soaked" himself in American history. A biography published when he was twenty-five years old, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929), had signaled Warren's interest in the half-century leading to the Civil War. The three historical novels, set in that period, are marked by the judicious handling of evidence and the attention to detail characteristic of the scholarly historian.

The seven novels of the second group span Warren's own lifetime and follow one another in roughly chronological order. Night Rider is the world of his boyhood; At Heaven's Gate (1943) is the Nashville of his college years; All the King's Men (1946) is the Louisiana he knew as a young university teacher at Baton Rouge. The next three novels--The Cave (1959), Flood (1964), and Meet Me in the Green Glen (197l)--cover the years in his section of the South from just before World War II through the 1960s. His last novel, A Place to Come To (1976), is written in a spirit of summary. As he approaches old age, the hero, a professor of English, looks back with nostalgia over a career that spans three-quarters of a century, a period paralleling Warren's own life.

Among these works, All the King's Men was the most widely read and generated the strongest critical and popular reception. The novel chronicles the rise and fall of a homegrown fascist, Willie Stark, as told by one of his henchmen, Jack Burden. Its first readers praised its treatment of the political processes of democracy as practiced in the South of the 1930s. More recent studies have stressed its innovative structure and its philosophical subtlety. It is the novel in which Warren's special gifts are most in evidence--his sense of history, his inventive language, and his ability to dramatize a large cast of characters against a vividly realized background. Generally considered his masterpiece, All the King's Men won Warren the first of three Pulitzer prizes. Made into a play, a motion picture, and an opera, the novel was eventually translated into twenty languages.

In 1950 Warren radically redirected his life. He left the University of Minnesota to take up a professorship of playwriting at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The following year his marriage to Emma Brescia Warren ended in divorce, and in 1952 he married Eleanor Clark, with whom he had two children. One consequence of this upheaval in his personal life was his return to the writing of poetry.

After collecting his early work in Selected Poems, 1923-1943 (1944), Warren found himself unable to write poetry. He published a long, autobiographical narrative in verse, Brother to Dragons (1953), but for a decade he did not finish a lyric poem. The appearance of Promises, Poems 1954-1956 (1957), a group of interrelated lyrics in which his new family figured prominently, introduced a new phase. Readers who had found the early work derivative and academic were delighted by the freshness and energy of the new volume. The qualities so conspicuous in his novels, the compelling narrative line and the racy use of the vernacular, were present but in more concentrated form. He had found a new voice and a new direction, and the outpouring of verse that followed eventually filled a dozen volumes. The experimental nature of the later work is emphasized by the radical revisions of poems in subsequent collections. The poetry is in a sense a work-in-progress, and Warren later remarked that his poetry was his "autobiography."

As Warren's reputation grew, he was invited to contribute his opinions on the social issues of the day. In 1956 he published Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, an analysis of the dilemma Southerners faced in dealing with entrenched attitudes toward race. This essay was followed in 1965 by Who Speaks for the Negro?, a volume of interviews conducted with leaders of the civil rights movement.

Like any successful writer who lives to a great age, Warren became an institution, a reputation, and a presence. He carried off most of the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees and memberships in intellectual societies inevitably followed. His productivity was equal to his versatility, and he made a distinguished contribution to fiction, poetry, history, literary criticism, and social commentary. Shunning the glare of publicity, he was content to be a man of letters in an age of celebrity. In a century when art has often been enlisted in the service of one cause or another, Warren spoke his mind freely on the questions of the day yet managed to retain the respect of all parties. His preeminent rank among the writers of his time was recognized by the universal acclaim that greeted his appointment, three years before his death at his vacation home in Vermont, to be the first poet laureate of the United States.

Robert Penn Warren's papers are in the Beinecke Library, Yale University. For manuscripts in other depositories see James A. Grimshaw, Jr., Robert Penn Warren: A Descriptive Bibliography 1922-79 (1981). An autobiographical essay, Portrait of a Father (1988), covers the author's early years in Kentucky, and there is much personal information in Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers, eds. Robert Penn Warren

Talking: Intervews 1950-1978 (1980). Floyd C. Watkins, Then and Now (1982), written with Warren's cooperation, is accurately described by its subtitle, The Personal Past in the Poetry of Robert Penn Warren. For a review of Warren scholarship and a sampling of criticism see William Bedford Clark, Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren (1981). An obituary is in the New York Times, 16 Sept. 1989.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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