Authors: Robert Penn Warren

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet and novelist

April 24, 1905

Guthrie, Kentucky

September 15, 1989

West Wardsboro, near Stratton, Vermont


Robert Penn Warren is the only American writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and poetry. Indeed, he won the award three times: for All the King’s Men, a novel inspired by the legend of Huey Long, the southern populist politician; for Promises, a midlife resurgence of poetic power; and again for Now and Then, a demonstration of undiminished poetic skill published in the eighth decade of his life. As a college professor who wrote textbooks, Warren contributed significantly to changes in the teaching of literature in the United States. Warren also wrote excellent literary criticism as well as social and historical commentary.

Warren was born in Guthrie, a tiny community in southwestern Kentucky. As a young man, Warren’s father had aspired to become a poet and a lawyer, but he became a small-town banker instead. With three children of his own and a family of young half brothers and sisters inherited when his father died, he had no time to develop his taste for poetry. Robert Penn Warren said he felt as if he had stolen his father’s life, since he realized the literary ambitions of which his father had only dreamed.




By RANDY PRITCHETT (MY OWN PICTURES) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Penn Warren



By Ephemera [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Warren’s relationship with his father had a profound effect on his fiction, which often concerns a young man with ambivalent feelings for a real or surrogate father. However, his early poetry, as well as his much later biographical narrative of Jefferson Davis, reflected the influence of his beloved maternal grandfather, Gabriel Thomas Penn, a onetime Confederate cavalryman who had lived on a tobacco farm and had been an ardent reader of poetry and military history. On his grandfather’s farm in the summertime, the young Robert was steeped in stories of the Civil War and the local tobacco wars, both of which would find their way into his fiction. His first novel, Night Rider, dramatized the Kentucky tobacco war between growers and the monopolistic tyranny of the tobacco company. By the time Warren wrote Wilderness, he had a much less romantic view of that conflict than he had had as a child, when he believed that the Civil War was the great American epic.

Warren’s talent for writing was discovered and fostered in his college years at Vanderbilt University by the poet John Crowe Ransom, who was teaching English there. Ransom encouraged him to write poetry, and Donald Davidson, who was teaching English literature, let Warren write imitations of Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer instead of the usual term papers. In 1924 Warren became the youngest member of a local literary society who called themselves the Fugitives and included Ransom, Davidson, and Allen Tate, who roomed with Warren.

After graduation from Vanderbilt, Warren earned a master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley in 1927. The next year, he was doing postgraduate work at Yale University, and the following year he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. In 1929 he published his first book, the biography John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, written with a distinctly southern perception of that fanatic abolitionist.

At Louisiana State University (LSU), where Warren taught from 1934 to 1936, he absorbed the legends and the spectacle of Huey Long, who provided the germ of the character Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. This novel displays themes that appear throughout the Warren canon: the quest for identity and personal responsibility, the relation of son to father, the conflict between idealism and practical circumstances, the use of the past and the problems inherent in the writing of history. In 1947 All the King’s Men won for Warren his first Pulitzer Prize, and two years later the novel was made into an Academy Award-winning film.

At LSU Warren also made the acquaintance of Cleanth Brooks, which resulted in one of the most fruitful partnerships in American letters. They cooperated at first to create and edit an excellent literary magazine, The Southern Review, but went on to produce literature textbooks such as Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and Modern Rhetoric, which did more than anything else to propagate the methods of the New Criticism.

In 1930, Warren married Emma Brescia, whom he divorced in 1951, shortly after accepting a position at Yale University. In 1952, he married the writer Eleanor Clark. They had two children: Rosanna and Gabriel. Warren left Yale in 1956 but returned to the faculty from 1961 to 1973 and as professor emeritus from 1973 to 1989. He continued his distinguished career as a teacher, poet, novelist, critic, editor, and lecturer virtually to the end of his long life. In February, 1986, the Librarian of Congress named him the first official poet laureate of the United States. Warren died at his summer home in West Wardsboro on September 15, 1989.

Author Works Poetry: Thirty-Six Poems, 1936 Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, 1942 Selected Poems, 1923–1943, 1944 Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, 1953 Promises: Poems, 1954–1956, 1957 You, Emperors, and Others: Poems, 1957–1960, 1960 Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923–1966, 1966 Incarnations: Poems, 1966–1968, 1968 Audubon: A Vision, 1969 Or Else: Poem/Poems, 1968–1974, 1974 Selected Poems, 1923–1975, 1976 Now and Then: Poems, 1976–1978, 1978 Being Here: Poetry, 1977–1980, 1980 Rumor Verified: Poems, 1979–1980, 1981 Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, 1983 New and Selected Poems, 1923–1985, 1985 The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 1998 (John Burt, editor) Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 2001 (John Burt, editor) Long Fiction: 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 Flood: A Romance of Our Time, 1964 Meet Me in the Green Glen, 1971 A Place to Come To, 1977 Short Fiction: Blackberry Winter, 1946 The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories, 1947 Nonfiction: John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, 1929 Modern Rhetoric, 1949 (with Cleanth Brooks) Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, 1956 Selected Essays, 1958 The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial, 1961 Who Speaks for the Negro?, 1965 Homage to Theodore Dreiser, On the Centennial of His Birth, 1971 Democracy and Poetry, 1975 Portrait of a Father, 1988 New and Selected Essays, 1989 Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, 1998 (James A. Grimshaw, Jr., editor) Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, 2000-2001 (2 volumes; William Bedford Clark, editor) Drama: Proud Flesh, pr. 1947 All the King’s Men, pr. 1958 (adaptation of his novel) Edited Texts: An Approach to Literature, 1936 (with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibault Purser) Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, 1938 (with Brooks) Understanding Fiction, 1943 (with Brooks) Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1966 Randall Jarrell, 1914–1965, 1967 (with Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor) American Literature: The Makers and the Making, 1973 (with R. W. B. Lewis) Bibliography 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 1960s, 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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