Last reviewed: June 2017
American poet and novelist
April 24, 1905
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. ROBERT PENN WARREN BIRTHPLACE MUSEUM HISTORIC MARKER
ROBERT PENN WARREN BIRTHPLACE MUSEUM HISTORIC MARKER
Robert Penn Warren
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.