The distinguished novelist, poet, critic and man of letters Robert Penn Warren, best known to many readers for his novel All The King’s Men, was born on this date in 1905 in Guthrie, Kentucky. Robert Penn Warren is the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry. He was also the first United States Poet Laureate.
Robert Penn Warren was educated in the Guthrie local schools and in Clarksville, Tennessee before attending Vanderbilt University, the University of California, and Yale University. He then spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. After his return to the United States, he became an instructor at Southwestern College in Memphis and then Vanderbilt before accepting a position as associate professor of English at Louisiana State University, which he held from 1934-1942. From 1942-1950 he taught at the University of Minnesota, and then moved on to Yale, where he remained until his retirement. From 1944-45 he served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the predecessor of the U.S. Poet Laureate position).
His literary career began at Vanderbilt. Warren came to Vanderbilt to study science after declining an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy due to an eye injury. He decided to study literature instead after taking a freshmen composition class taught by John Crowe Ransom, a poet and critic who became a friend and colleague of Warren’s and an important force in American letters. With Warren at Vanderbilt was Kentucky native Allen Tate, another writer who became an important poet, critic and novelist. All three men would be part of the Southern Renascence in American literature after the First World War. While at Vanderbilt, Warren was also one of the Fugitives, a group of writers—including Tate and Ransom–who met to read and critique each other’s poems. The Fugitives eventually published a journal called The Fugitive from 1922-25 with Warren as co-editor.
Warren published his first book, a biography of John Brown, in 1929 after his return from Oxford. While at Oxford he also wrote a novella called Prime Leaf, which concerned conflict between Kentucky tobacco growers and buyers in the early twentieth century. This conflict, known as the Black Patch Tobacco Wars, would be the subject of his first novel, Night Rider, published in 1939.
It was during his time at Louisiana State University that Warren not only published Night Rider, but also wrote his first two books of poetry: Thirty-Six Poems (1935), and Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942). He also established himself as a scholar, collaborating with the critic Cleanth Brooks (born in Murray, Kentucky) on the influential textbooks Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. In addition, he founded, along with Cleanth Brooks and Charles Pipkin, an influential journal called The Southern Review. The two textbooks would be important works in the critical school that became known as the New Criticism, which emphasized close reading of a text and focus on its structural and aesthetic elements while downplaying historical or biographical contexts for the work being studied.
After the release of the novel Heaven’s Gate in 1943 and Selected Poems in 1944, Warren found enormous critical and popular success with All The King’s Men in 1946. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for the stage and the movies. The film version, starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, won three Academy Awards: Best Picture; Best Actor (Broderick Crawford); and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge).
Other novels followed, among them World Enough and Time, based on a famous murder and trial in 19th century Kentucky known as “The Kentucky Tragedy;” Band of Angels, about a planter’s daughter who discovers she is biracial shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War; Wilderness, about a young Bavarian Jew who immigrates to America in 1863 to aid the Union cause; and The Cave, about a Floyd Collins-type cave explorer trapped in a cave, the efforts of people to rescue him and the attendant media circus surrounding the event. Warren also published a remarkable narrative poem in the early 1950s entitled Brother To Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices.
This poem, like World Enough and Time, concerns a true story—the murder of a slave in 1811 by two of Thomas Jefferson’s nephews. In this work Jefferson’s optimistic view of human nature is contrasted with the vicious actions of two of his kin. A central theme in Warren’s work is the potential for evil in every human being, and how idealistic action combined with a lack of self-knowledge and ignorance of human nature can ravage lives. I’m currently reading the revised version of Brother To Dragons that Warren published in 1979 and look forward to doing a post on it here at Buckeyemuse. (For those interested in a top-notch nonfiction account of Jefferson’s relatives and their crime, see Boynton Merrill Jr.’s Jefferson’s Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy).
Warren continued to publish novels through the Sixties and Seventies, although most critics would likely agree that his earlier works were stronger. These later novels include Flood (1965), Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), and his last novel, A Place to Come To (1977).
And any account of Warren’s career must also mention his essays, nonfiction and literary criticism and analysis. Warren wrote penetrating essays on writers such as Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, and John Greenleaf Whittier. He also wrote nonfiction works on racial issues and was fascinated by the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. Works along these lines include Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956), Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), and Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1981). Another interesting work of Warren’s is Democracy and Poetry (1975).
However, Warren’s career as a poet was what he called “my central and obsessive concern.” There was a period of silence following the Selected Poems of 1944, but Warren returned to poetry with Brother To Dragons in 1953 and followed it with Promises in 1957, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Distinguished volumes of poetry would follow, and Warren would win another Pulitzer Prize with Now and Then: Poems 1978-1979.
Robert Penn Warren was married twice. He married Emma Brescia of San Francisco in 1930, and they divorced twenty years later, Warren then married the writer Eleanor Clark. Their two children are Rosanna Phelps Warren, now a distinguished poet and professor herself, and Gabriel Penn Warren, a sculptor. Robert Penn Warren died on September 15, 1989.
In honor of Robert Penn Warren on his birthday, and since April is National Poetry Month, I’d like to conclude this post with the final section from his long poem Audubon: A Vision, a poem about the life of the great artist and naturalist John Audubon. For me it is rich with Warren’s gift for evoking the mysteries of time and the American south:
Tell Me A Story
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was going north.
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.