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Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)


American novelist, poet, critic, teacher, who became the first poet laureate of the United States in 1986. Warren's best-known novel is All the King's Men (1946), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. His poetic style was, at the beginning, tightly controlled in form, but later Warren wrote often in free verse. Warren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice, in 1957 for Promises, and 1979 for Now and Then.

"We live in time so little time
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour's term
To practice for eternity."

(from 'Bearded Oaks')

Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky. Warren's childhood house was full of books. His mother was a school teacher and father, Robert Franklin, a banker, a poetry-loving but aloof figure, whose character appeared in several of Warren's poems. Before dinner, or after, he used to read poems or history to his children. A free thinker, he also encouraged Warren to read Darwin at the age of fourteen.

During his boyhood and adolescence, Warren spent summers around Cerulean Springs on the farm of his grandfather, a Confederate veteran, "the living symbol of the wild action and romance of the past." ('A Self-Interview,' New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 11 October 1953). In his teens Warren's ambition was to become an officer in the Unites States Navy.

In an article (The New York Times, May 12, 1985) Warren tells that once he found his father's name and picture from an old book entitled Poets of America. "I showed him the book. He took it - what must have been an old vanity publication of some kind - and turned away. I never saw it again. But years later the episode became haunting for me, even in poems, including one long poem about the man, then long dead. By then I had found his old Greek lexicon and his grammar, dating back to his youth when he, having his first job, had hired a professor at the university in Clarksville, Tenn., to tutor him. That, too, got into poetry."

At the age of 17 Warren lost his change for naval career at Annapolis, when his younger brother, William Thomas, throw over a hedge a piece coal. It hit him in the left eye, which he lost to surgery. "There is irony in this," said the novelist William Styron, who became his friend, "for it always has seemed to me that Red at least looks like a sailor. . . . that seamed and craggy face which has gazed, like Melville's into the briny abyss, that weather-wise expression and salty presence which have made him physically the very model of a sea dog . . ." (William Styron, This Quiet Dust, 1983, p. 245)

In 1921 Warren entered Vanderbilt University to study electrical engineering, but soon joined the literary group Fugitives (later the Agrarians), named after the poetry magazine they published in the mid-1920s. Among its members were John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate. In 1930 Warren contributed their manifesto I'll Take My Stand, a plea for the agrarian way of life in the South. Warren attacked on northern industrialism of America - he saw that black workers from the land were exploited in factories.

In 1924 Warren attempted suicide. He had fallen far behind his studies and he had an unsuccessful love affair. Warren's first book, John Brown, about the abolitionist's life and politics, came out when he was 24. Following graduation in 1925, Warren pursued studies at Berkeley, Yale, and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, earning his B.Litt in 1930. During this period Warren met such writers as Hart Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Katherine Anne Porter was his fellow protester during the famous Sacco-Vanzetti trial. As a professor of literature, Warren edited the literary quarterly The Southern Review, one of the most noteworthy magazines of its time, which he had founded with Cleanth Brook and Charles W. Pipkin. It published stories and poems by Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, Ford Madox Ford, and W.H. Auden, among others. The magazine was disbanded in 1942.

From 1930 Warren held a succession of academic positions. He worked as a teacher at Yale, Vanderbilt University, Southwestern College, Memphis, Louisiana State University. He was professor at the University of Minnesota (1942-1950),  and from 1950 at Yale, where his friend Cleanth Brooks was employed too, becoming professor emeritus in 1973. Although Warren did not live during the last decades of his life in the South, its history and culture remained central in his works. "The place I wanted to live, the place I thought was heaven to me after my years of wandering," he later said in an interview, "was middle Tennessee." Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965) was based on his interview about the civil rights movement. He had defended segregation in his early essay, 'The Briar Patch,' but later Warren said that he had been wrong. Citing Erik Erikson's essay 'Identity and the Life Cycle' (1959), Warren argued that slavery had robbed African black both their individual and cultural identity. Other works of non-fictional prose include Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956) and Remember the Alamo! (1958).

Warren's first novel, Night Rider (1939), was a story about tobacco war (1905-1908) between the independent growers in Kentucky and large tobacco companies. All the King's Men, narrated by a reporter, Jack Burden, was based on the Louisiana politician and demagogue Huey "the Kingfish" Long, whose career Warren had observed from a distance at Louisiana State University. Warren wrote the work first as a verse play, called Proud Flesh. Warren's examination of Machiavellian politics and idealism corrupted by power was a critical and popular success. It gained fame also as a play and film, and was translated into some twenty languages. The novel was reputedly to have sold to Columbia Pictures for $200,000. Promises (1957) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1958. Warren's other novels include At Heaven's Gate (1943), World Enough and Time (1950), a historical novel about a murder trial in Kentucky in the 1820s, Flood: A Romance of Our Times (1964), the story of a Tennessee Valley Authority dam project, and A Place to Come to (1977).

Though Warren published ten novels, he regarded himself as a poet first and a novelist and critic second. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), "the apotheosis of modernity", as John Crowe Ransom characterized it, influenced Warren deeply. He recalled in 1972 in an interview, that "it was certainly a watershed in my life and the lives of many of my friends." Warren's early career as a poet attracted little public attention, and for many years his fame as a writer rested chiefly upon his philosophical novels. He wrote literary criticism about such writers as Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Coleridge and Melville. His first book of verse, Thirty-Six Poems (1935) showed the influence of Ransom, Thomas Hardy, and the 17th-century metaphysical poets, whom he specialized in teaching. In 1939 he argued that American poetry had very little to offer the modern writer. Whitman's influence, on the technical side, he considered "destructive."

Warren's experimental tendency, partly inspired by T.S. Eliot's works, marked the collection Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942), and culminated in one of his very finest poems, 'The Ballad of Billie Potts,' in Selected Poems, 1923-1943 (1944). The volumes of poetry after Brother to Dragons (1953), which centered upon a killing of a slave committed by Thomas Jefferson's nephew, feature a number of forms and styles, and range through various subject matter. Warren has told that there has been periods when he just stared "the empty space on a sheet of paper which the right word would not come to fill."  Incarnations: Poems, 1966-1968 (1968) signaled Warren's break with Eliot.

Between 1956 and 1962 Warren took a break from teaching at Yale. To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress (1957) came out after his divorce and a new marriage. It was inspired by Mediterranean scenes, and started a new period in the authors creative life. Rumor Verified  (1981) received mixed critics and was condemned by Donald Hall for abstraction, melodrama, and carelessness. "In one short poem we have love, heart, pastness, hope, despair, doom, future, history, ignorance and experience. The capitalized abstraction Time turns up 14 times, along with Reality, Hope, Eternity, History, Space and Truth. Cliché and abstraction compete with banality: 'Have you ever seen your own child, that first morning, wait/ For the school bus?'" (The New York Times, November 8, 1981)

A leading representative of the New Criticism, Warren collaborated with Cleanth Brooks to write Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). These works helped revolutionize the teaching of literature by bringing New Criticism into the general practice in America's college classrooms. This approach emphasized the detailed textual analysis of poetry instead of examining the mind and personality of the author.

Warren's marriage to Emma Cinina Brescia (1930), whose neurasthenic personality forced her to spend most of her time bedridden, ended in divorce in 1950. From 1944 to 1953, Warren published no poetry. During the late 1940s he drank heavily. Cicina was institutionalized several times. After being awaeded a Guggenheim Fellowship he spent a year in Italy working on the novel World Enough and Time. In 1952 he married the novelist Eleanor Clark; they had a son and a daughter. The marriage brought stability to his life. With her Warren setted into an old farmhouse and barn that they restored themselves in Fairfield, Connecticut.

From the 1950s Warren lived in Connecticut and in rural Vermont, a recurring site for his poetry, such as 'Vermont Ballad: Change of Season' (1980). His last years Warren suffered from cancer. He died on September 15, 1989, in Stratton, Vermont. Warren received many honors, including National Medal for Literature in 1970, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, and the Prize Fellowship of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1981. He was named Poet Laureate in 1986 and held the post for two years.

For further reading: The Fugitives: A Critical Account by J.A. Bradbury (1958); Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground by L. Caspar (1960); Robert Penn Warren by C.H. Bohner (1964); Robert Penn Warren by P. West (1964); Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by J.L. Longley (1965); Colder Fire: The Poetry of Warren by V.A. Strandberg (1965); The Novels of Warren by B. Guttenberg (1975); The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren by V. Strandberg (1977); In the Heart's Last Kingdom by C. Bedient (1984); The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren by William Bedford Clark (1991); Robert Penn Warren: A Study of the Short Fiction by J.R. Millichap (1992); Robert Penn Warren's Modernist Spirituality by R.S. Koppelman (1995); Robert Penn Warren by Joseph Blotner (1997); Robert Penn Warren: A Biography by J.L. Blotner (1997); The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren, ed. by David Madden (2000); Robert Penn Warren, ed. by Harold Bloom (2000); Poems of Pure Imagination: Robert Penn Warren and the Romantic Tradition by Lesa Carnes Corrigan (2001); Understanding Robert Penn Warren by James A. Grimshaw Jr. (2001); Conversations With Robert Penn Warren, ed. by Gloria L. Cronin, Ben Siegel (2005); Robert Penn Warren After Audubon: The Work of Aging and the Quest for Transcendence in His Later Poetry by Joseph R. Millichap (2009)

Selected works:

  • John Brown: The Making of a Martyr, 1929
  • Pondy Woods, 1930
  • I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, 1930
  • Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, 1938 (with Cleanth Brooks)
  • Thirty-Six Poems, 1935
  • An Approach to Literature, 1938 (with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibaut Purser, rev. ed., 1939)
  • Night Rider, 1939
  • Eleven Poems on the Same Theme, 1942
  • At Heaven's Gate, 1943
  • Understanding Fiction, 1943 (with Cleanth Brooks)
  • Selected Poems, 1923-1943, 1944
  • All the King's Men, 1946 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Kaikki kuninkaan miehet (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1976)
    - films: 1949, dir. by Robert Rossen, starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, Joanne Dru; 1958 (TV film), dir. by Sidney Lumet, starring Neville Brand, Maureen Stapleton; 2006, dir. by Steven Zaillian, starring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet
  • Blackberry Winter, 1946 (illustrated by Wightman Williams)
  • The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories, 1948
  • Modern Rhetoric, 1949 (with Cleanth Brooks)
  • World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel, 1950
  • Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric, 1950 (with Cleanth Brooks)
  • An Anthology of Stories from the Southern Review, 1953 (edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren)
  • Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, 1953
  • Short Story Masterpieces, 1954 (edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine)
  • Band of Angels, 1955
    - film 1955, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Raoul Walsh, starring Clark Gable, Yvonne De Carlo, Sidney Poitier, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
  • Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, 1956
  • To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress, 1957
  • Promises: Poems 1954-1956, 1957 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • A New Southern Harvest: An Anthology, 1957 (edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine)
  • Selected Essays, 1958
  • Remember the Alamo!, 1958
  • The Gods of Mount Olympus, 1959 (illustrated by William Moyers)
  • The Cave, 1959
  • How Texas Won Her Freedom: The Story of Sam Houston & The Battle of San Jacinto, 1959
  • Proud Flesh, 196-? (verse drama)
  • All the King's Men, 1960 (play, from the novel, 1947) 
  • You, Emperors, and Others: Poems, 1957-1960, 1960
  • The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial, 1961
  • Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War, 1961
  • Flood: A Romance of Our Time, 1964
  • Who Speaks for the Negro?, 1965
  • Selected Poems: New and Old 1923-1966, 1966
  • A Plea in Mitigation: Modern Poetry and the End of an Era, 1966
  • Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1966 (edited by Robert Penn Warren)
  • Incarnations: Poems, 1966-1968, 1968
  • Audubon: A Vision, 1969
  • Meet Me in the Green Glen, 1971
  • Homage to Theodor Dreiser, August 27, 1871-December 28, 1945, on the Centennial of His Birth, 1971
  • John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection, 1971
  • A Conversation with Robert Penn Warren, 1972 (edited by Frank Gado)
  • American Literature: The Makers and the Making, 1973 (editor, with Cleanth Brooks and R.W.B. Lewis)
  • Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968 – 1974, 1975
  • Democracy and Poetry, 1975
  • Selected Poems, 1923-1975, 1976 (illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon)
  • A Place to Come to, 1977
    - Jokin tässä elämässä (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1979)
  • Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978, 1978 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • Two Poems, 1979
  • Being Here: Poetry, 1977-1980 , 1980
  • Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, 1980
  • Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews, 1950-1978, 1980 ( edited by Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers)
  • Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980, 1981
  • Love: Four Versions, 1981
  • Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Who Called Themselves the Nimipu, "The Real People": A Poem , 1983
  • New and Selected Poems 1923-1985, 1985 (illustrated by Christopher Wormell)
  • Portrait of a Father, 1988
  • Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, 1998 (edited by James A. Grimshaw Jr.)
  • The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 1998 (edited by John Burt)
  • Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren: The Apprentice Years 1924-1934, 2000 (ed. by Willian Bedford Clark)
  • Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren: The "Southern Review" Years, 1935-1942, 2001 (edited by William Bedford Clark)
  • Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren: Triumph And Transition, 1943-1952, 2006  (edited by Randy Hendricks and James A. Perkins)
  • Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren: New Beginnings and New Directions, 1953-1968, 2008 (edited by Randy Hendricks and James A. Perkins)
  • Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren: Backward Glances and New Visions, 1969-1979, 2011 (edited by Randy Hendricks and James A. Perkins)

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