Welcome to this website honoring the life and works of . . .

Robert Penn Warren

1905 - 1989

1905 - 1989

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From Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol. 320 edited  by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., 2006. Reprinted with permission of Gale, a division of Thomson Learning: www.thomsonrights.com. Fax 800 730-2215.ISBN: 9780787681388 (0787681385)


Sample Pages



Dictionary of Literary Biography

Volume 320:

Robert Penn Warren

A Documentary Volume

Edited by

 James A. Grimshaw, Jr.

Texas A & M University-Commerce

A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book

James A. Grimshaw, Jr.

This picture of James A. Grimshaw, Jr., is owned and copyrighted by him. Not to be used without his permission.

James A. Grimshaw, Jr. is retired from teaching after thirty-five years in higher education. He and his wife live in San Antonio, Texas.




obert Penn Warren, identified as "the most complete man of letters in our time" by his colleague R. W. B. Lewis, published in every major literary genre, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice in poetry and once in fiction, and was a distinguished teacher, both in and out of the classroom. His contributions to American letters include ten novels, sixteen short stories, fifteen volumes of poetry, seven dramas, five textbooks, eight books of nonfiction, two children's books, and more than one hundred essays. His writings document his immense energy, intellectual stature, and artistic integrity.

     Warren's active participation in a literary life began in high school in Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1921 with a story, a play, and a short vignette in The Purple and Gold, a monthly publication of student writing. His interest in storytelling, however, was whetted years earlier by his grandfather Gabriel Thomas Penn, who sat under a cedar tree on his farm in Cerulean Springs, Kentucky, and told his grandson stories about the Civil War. A turning point in Warren's life occurred in early summer 1921, when he was on his back in his family's yard in Guthrie, Kentucky, surveying the sky and contemplating his future education at the United States Naval Academy. On the other side of a hedge in the yard, his younger brother, William Thomas Warren, was hurling chunks of coal into the air—one of which landed in Warren's left eye. Permanently blinded in that eye, he was no longer physically qualified for an appointment to the Naval Academy. Consequently, he matriculated at Vanderbilt University and found unexpectedly a new life's calling in John Crowe Ransom's freshman English class.

     The following year, 1923, Warren became an elected member of the Fugitives, a literary group composed of Nashville residents who shared an interest in poetry. The original Fugitive group members included Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Alec Stevenson, Stanley Johnson, Walter Clyde Curry, and Sidney Hirsch. Later others joined, expanding the group to include Merrill Moore, James M. Frank, William Yandell Elliott, Jesse and Ridley Wills, William Frierson, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, Alfred Starr, and Laura Riding. Among the original members, Warren was closest to Ransom and Tate. Their meetings were often held in the home of James Frank, but in-between meetings in Ransom's or Curry's office or elsewhere were not uncommon. Not sponsored by Vanderbilt University and thus unfettered by institutional restrictions, the group provided for the undergraduate Warren a safe haven for independent thought and unencumbered creativity. The little magazine The Fugitive published twenty-three of Warren's poems in its three and one-half years of existence.

     During his formal education, which included a master's degree from the University of California at Berkeley, doctoral study at Yale University, and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, Warren's literary productivity increased. His poetry appeared in Poetry, New Republic, and Saturday Review of Literature; he published a biography, John Brown: The Making if & Martyr (1929); he wrote an essay, "The Briar Patch," in which he endorsed the separate-but-equal status of the South for a collection of essays by Twelve Southerners, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930); and his novella, "Prime Leaf," was included in the anthology American Caravan IV. By age twenty-five Robert Penn Warren was a published author in poetry, fiction, biography, and sociology.
     After returning from England, Warren taught one year at Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in Memphis. In 1931 he returned to Nashville as an assistant professor of English, a position he retained for three years. Then in 1934 Warren joined the Louisiana State University faculty and began an important association with his friend Cleanth Brooks, whom he first met at Vanderbilt a decade earlier. Their work as editors of the Southern Review (1935-1942) and as authors of An Approach to Literature (1936), Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Modern Rhetoric (1949) identified new writers and contributed to a redefinition of the way literature was taught in classrooms. They were branded "New Critics," a label Warren always resisted because he believed it was used too broadly and indiscriminately. The New Criticism, nevertheless, was understood as literary analysis that concentrated on elements of the isolated literary work, usually a poem, and how they combineor fail to work togetherto form a whole. The focus on the close reading of an individual work—as opposed to relating the work to its time and culture, or a tradition, or the author's body of writings—became the dominant teaching methodology in literature courses. By the late 1970s, New Criticism was challenged when deconstructionism and the other "isms" took hold in literary theory, but for three decades, the names Brooks and Warren remained ensconced in academic classrooms.

 For their last textbook, American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1973), Brooks and Warren collaborated with R. W. B. Lewis as a third editor. The product of a decade of work, the volume was highly praised for its summaries of each literary period and its introductions to the authors whose works were included. Warren's part in the project led him to write acclaimed critical essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Theodore Dreiser. He also extended his critical writing to other fields. His 1956 book Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, a report of his conversations with people in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, was the first of two books to address and alter the racial views he had expressed in "The Briar Patch." Warren wrote the last section in a question-and-answer format that he states was "an interview with myself." The second book, Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), was based on interviews that Warren conducted with Civil Rights leaders, writers, and educators. Among his later works of nonfiction, three stand out. In The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (1961). Warren addresses the consequences of the struggle, asserting that "the War gave the South the Great Alibi and gave the North the Treasury of Virtue." Democracy and Poetry (1975) is the published version of his 1974 Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, in which he discusses democracy, poetry, and selfhood, arguing that "a society with no sense of the past, with no sense of the human role as significant not merely in experiencing history but in creating it can have no sense of destiny." A third nonfiction book, Portrait of a Father (1988), is Warren's most directly autobiographical work.

    Warren's talent as a poet was evident from the beginning of his literary career. In 1923 five of his poems were included in the Nashville Poetry Guild anthology Driftwood Flames; and the poem "Evening: The Motors" was included in Best Poems of 1926. His first three volumes of poetry— Thirty-Six Poems (1935), Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942), and Selected Poems: 1923-1943 (1944)-show the influence of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets. His poems deal with the emotions of love and, to a lesser extent, with religion, with life's complexities, and with death. Warren's early poetry was intellectual and analytical; sometimes deliberately rough; written in conventional poetic forms, such as the sonnet, with measured meter and rhyme; and drawn from common experiences. In "The Ballad of Billie Potts," a poem included in Selected Poems that indicated a new direction in his poetry, Warren drew on Kentucky folklore and combined his abilities as a storyteller and a poet.

     In 1944 Warren was named the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. More than forty years later, Warren was named as the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, when that position was established in 1986. Between 1944 and 1953, Warren remained busy with critical work and fiction. In 1945 he gave one of the Bergen Foundation Lectures at Yale University. It was a trial run for his essay "A Poem of Pure Imagination," which appeared in the 1946 edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

     Warren began what may be considered his middle period in poetry, 1953-1966, with the book-length verse drama Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (1953). During this period he made greater use of poetic sequences and freer verse forms; his individual poems became parts of larger wholes. Warren, who has admitted the autobiographical essence of much of his writing and in particular his poetry, returned to many of the themes he had explored in his early period, examining them more deeply and more personally. His next volume of poetry, Promises:  Poems, 1954-1956 (1957). earned Warren his first Pulitzer Prize in poetry; it was followed by You, Emperor, and Others, 1957-1960 (1960) and Selected Poem: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1966).

     Readers of Warren's poems in his late period, 1966-1985, recognize his willingness to experiment and his continued development. The nine volumes published in these years include Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978 (1978), for which Warren won his second Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and two book-length poems: Audubon: A Vision (1969), based on the life of the ornithologist Jean Jacques Audubon, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1982) a rendering of the events surrounding the forced move of the Nez Perce to a reservation. In his last phase, Warren's verse is more loosely structured than in his earlier work: his imagery is graphic; and his diction is sometimes notably erudite. A dedicated artist, Warren pursued his own way, continuing his intense investigation of the human condition to his last poem.

     In his first published novel, Night Rider (1939), Warren drew his inspiration from history—as he did for much of his fiction—and set his story during the tobacco wars in western Kentucky and Tennessee at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like Night Rider, Warren's second novel, At Heaven's Gate (1943)—in which the schemes of the unethical banker-businessman Bogan Murdock despoil the land and corrupt society in the 1920s—earned high praise from many reviewers, but the attention these novels received, either from contemporary reviewers or subsequent critics, pales in comparison to that afforded Warren's third novel, All the King's Men (1946), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

     Warren began working with the material that became his most famous novel nearly a decade before it was published. In summer 1937, Warren began working on a play about a corrupt Southern politician—an idea suggested in part by the career of Louisiana governor and senator Huey P. Long. Warren completed the play, Proud Flesh, in 1939; three years later he decided to rework his material as a novel, adding a new dimension-the story of Jack Burden-and brought All the King's Men to publication. After his novel was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1949, Warren continued to work on dramatic treatments of his story: a revised stage version, Willie Stark: His Rise and Fall, was produced in 1955; Listen to the Mockingbird, based on chapter 4 of the novel, was written in 1959; and an Off-Broadway production titled All the King's Men was produced in 1959.

     Warren's only collection of short stories, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (1947), was followed by his fourth novel, World Enough and Time (1950). based on the 1825 murder of Colonel Solomon Sharp by Jereboam O. Beauchamp in Frankfort, Kentucky. It was Warren's first book published by Random House and as edited by one of their new editors, Albert Russell Erskine Jr., his longtime friend. Erskine and Warren had met in 1930 at Southwestern College in Memphis. Tennessee, where Warren taught for a year and Erskine was an undergraduate (but not one of Warren's students). At L.S.U. Erskine was a graduate student and was appointed managing editor of the Southern Review under the supervision of Brooks, Warren, and Charles W. Pipkin, the editors of the new magazine. Erskine was Warren's editor for his subsequent six novels, all published by Random House. Warren and Erskine also edited two anthologies, Short Story Masterpieces (1954) and Six Centuries of Great Poetry (1955).

     Historical events serve as starting points for Warren's next four novels: the Civil War and the issue of slavery in Band of Angels (1955); the exploitation of Floyd Collins, who made headline news when he was trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925, in The Cave (1959); the Civil War again in Wilderness (1961); and the Tennessee Valley Authority project that flooded Johnstown, Tennessee, in Flood (1964). In his last two novels, Warren is more interested in psychology. Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), which includes an element of mystery about the death of Sunderland Spottwood, explores the concept of justice in a small Southern community. In his last novel, A Place to Come To (1977), Warren focuses on the life and academic career of the protagonist. Jed Tewksbury, and offers a skeptical view of human ability to perceive and understand reality.

     DLB 320: Robert Penn Warren: A Documentary Volume covers Warren's literary life in chronological order, thereby allowing readers to appreciate Warren's varied creative career as he moved from poetry to criticism to fiction and back. Each chapter includes representative insights by reviewers and critics, photographs, facsimile pages of manuscripts, and other documents that complement the text. Warren's own words about his works, his theories, and his critical perception of the realm of letters contribute to the understanding of what Cleanth Brooks wrote in The Hidden God in 1963: "The poetry, the fiction, and even the critical essays of Robert Penn Warren form a highly unified and consistent body of work."

James A. Grimshaw Jr.


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