Robert Penn Warren: A Biography


Reviewed by Victor Strandberg

ROBERT PENN WARREN: A BIOGRAPHY, by JOSEPH BLOTNER (RANDOM HOUSE: NEW YORK, 1997). 585 & xix pages Preface. Chronology, Genealogy, and Index.


Victor Strandberg, a member of the Duke University English department since 1966, is the author of The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren as well as numerous essays about the writer. In 1990 he founded the Robert Penn Warren Circle, a group of scholars and other people interested in Warren's life and work.

"The most gifted man I ever met," Allen Tate called Robert Penn Warren--and by that time, in the 1940s, Allen Tate had met some extremely gifted people, including William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, and Hart Crane. Since then, American literary history has largely verified Tate’s judgment, with Warren becoming the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes both for poetry (twice) and for fiction. The Prize winner in fiction, All the King’s Men, has clearly become a genuine classic of our national literature, securely nestled alongside Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby on the shelf of Great American Novels. 

But though he was festooned with many honors, including an appointment as America’s first official Poet Laureate (by Act of Congress), and though he maintained a remarkably large and various web of literary friendships, Warren remained for most of his life a strictly private, not to say secretive, man, particularly regarding his life prior to his second marriage at the age of forty-seven to the writer Eleanor Clark. Through most of his eighty-four years, almost nothing entered the public domain by way of information about his first marri00age or his formative years at home and in school. 

The first breach of this silence came about through Floyd Watkins’ brief but fascinating book, Then & Now: The Personal Past in the Poetry of Robert Penn Warren (Kentucky, 1982). Watkins, a Southern gentleman of the old school, over many years developed a strong friendship with Warren, who confided intimate memories to Watkins that he would not have entrusted to most other biographers. 

It was Watkins who provided our first insights into the writer’s ancestry (the Penns and the Warrens), his lonely boyhood and emotionally meager family life, his precocious education in the local schools (where he skipped three grades), his lack of religious upbringing, his suicide attempt at Vanderbilt, and his use of the home town environment in his poems. 

In contrast to Watkins, Joseph Blotner’s arrival in Warren’s life came very late, when Warren, in his eighties, was already seriously ill with the bone cancer that was to end his life. For both men, it was a fortuitous encounter. Warren, we may surmise, must have been gratified to know that since a biography was inevitable, its authorized version would be done by the author of Faulkner: A Biography, Blotner’s magisterial 2000-page authorized life of our greatest novelist. In it, as Warren must have realized, we get the plain facts of Faulkner’s life with a minimum of either Freudian psychoanalyzing or what Joyce Carol Oates has called ‘pathography"--hatchet work motivated by the biographer’s bitter hostility toward his subject (as in Lawrance Thompson’s three-volume biography of his sexual rival, Robert Frost). For his part, Blotner, recently retired from the Michigan English Department, was looking for one serious long-term project to cap his career, and this biography, abetted by total cooperation from the Warren family, seemed perfectly suited to his purpose. 

Because of Warren’s prodigious number of connections--as a writer, anthologist, editor of The Southern Review, professor, and inveterate traveler--the materials Blotner confronted would likely have buried a scholar who had not previously dealt with a project like the Faulkner biography. Certainly Warren’s mountain of letters and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Library would have swamped the pile of documents Blotner had accumulated vis-a-vis the fairly reclusive Faulkner. Supplementing those mounds of paper were vast tracts of time spent with the Warren family and on interviews with Warren’s nation-wide network of relatives, friends, editors, students, and other associates. 

The result of Blotner’s ten-year project is Robert Penn Warren: A Biography, a 587-page monument to plain, old-fashioned fact-collecting. (Although Blotner indulges in an occasional speculation, such as the unlikely thought that Warren’s relationship to his mentor Allen Tate could have included a homosexual attraction,

there is admirably little psychofabrication here.) Beginning with a greatly convenient Chronology of Warren’s life, Blotner’s early chapters retrace Watkins’ path in substantially more detail. Here we learn about the hard life of Warren’s father, who went broke in banking and storekeeping; about the severe relationship of the boy with his mother, whose death he anticipated with the lines "the old bitch is dead/what have I said!" in an early poem ("The Return: An Elegy"); and about his rather cool connection with his two younger siblings, Mary and Thomas.

 Until he was fifteen, Warren’s sunniest memories hovered over the summers he spent on the farm of his Grandfather Penn (born in 1836, a Confederate veteran and a direct descendent of William Penn the Quaker), who gave the boy emotional sustenance and a love for story-telling. Then two things changed his life radically. While waiting to begin study as a naval cadet in Annapolis, he was hit in the eye by a stone thrown over a hedge by his brother. The eye injury, which later caused the suicide attempt in college when Warren thought his other eye was going blind from the "sympathy reaction" syndrome, meant that he failed the fitness requirement at Annapolis, and so he went to Vanderbilt instead. The other great change in his life was, in effect, his homeless condition. After age fifteen, Warren’s campus life at Vanderbilt, Berkeley, Yale, and Oxford (as Rhodes Scholar) distanced his emotional center far from the Guthrie, Kentucky homestead, which often seemed more a place that duty required him to visit than a welcoming hearth.

 Although he covers well the Vanderbilt years, including Warren’s association with the Fugitive literary group, the most striking new information that Blotner unearths pertains to Warren’s marriage to Emma "Cinina" Brescia--the most important result of his graduate career at Berkeley. An aesthetically gifted person--"the cleverest female I have ever known," Warren wrote to Tate--she resembled the wives of Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot in her mental instability and her deepening resentment of her husband’s success as a writer. So frail that she sometimes spent months in bed, typically whenever he published a book, she became all the more imperious as she lapsed deeper into alcoholism and madness, phoning him throughout the day as he tried to teach or write or shaming him at parties with profane and violent behavior. Referring to her Italian lineage, Blotner writes: "The unhappy wife who boasted of ancestors in [Dante’s] Inferno had created one of her own, but she was apparently determined that she should not be its only inhabitant."

 Divorced at last in 1951, Warren had a passionate affair with an unnamed married woman and then tried to elope with an old flame, who instead chose to stay with her husband. But destiny had another woman in mind, the talented writer Eleanor Clark. A classmate of Mary McCarthy’s at Vassar, Clark had been married briefly to a Czech refugee with whom she shared hand-to-mouth poverty and a sojourn at Trotsky’s compound in Mexico in 1937. The Clark-Warren marriage, in December 1952, bore out the old Sinatra song that love is better the second time around. His happiness magnified by the birth of two children, Rosanna and Gabriel, Warren welcomed them with Promises, his Pulitzer-Prize winning volume of poems of 1957.

 His new family, in turn, seemed to unblock copious memories of his early years, so that a great deal of his prodigious late creativity focused on opposite ends of his time spectrum. Novels like Flood, A Place to Come To, and The Cave reflect this impulse, but it shows up most compellingly in book after book of poems: Tale of Time, Incarnations, Or Else, Now and Then, Being Here, Rumor Verified, and Altitudes and Extensions. Blotner is very good at linking Warren’s poems and novels with his biographica, giving us a running account of the writer’s intellectual and artistic development that accompanied his successive phases of living. The beginnings of a critical biography are seeded here, though Blotner’s monumental task of fact collecting did not permit extensive analysis of Warren’s artistic oeuvre.

 The most moving segment of the book comes in the later chapters, where the artist’s shower of honors arrives in sad counterpoint with severe pain and illness for both partners in this exceptionally loving marriage. Eleanor’s macular degeneration led to near blindness and difficult fits of irascibility over their last dozen years, and Warren’s prostate cancer imposed severe suffering as it slowly metastasized to his bones. Nonetheless, the tragedy of those final years is met with such unyielding courage, dignity, and fidelity by the whole family unit--notably including their daughter Rosanna--as to inscribe a triumph of the spirit over their irremediable adversity.

 In the end this Southern Fugitive and Agrarian chose a wooded hilltop in Vermont for his final resting-place, because this is the place in his long life where he felt he had been most happy. About his prodigious achievement as a writer, he said, during his last month of life, "It’s nothing. What counts are family and friends." He was wrong, of course, about the "nothing," but he was right, too.

 His conversion of family and friends and every other dimension of his life into art is why he was honored with this vast, admirably tempered biography. But as Warren remarked about John Crowe Ransom, his life was in the end his chief work of art, and Joseph Blotner has preserved it for us in a masterly compendium of truth for which--as with his Faulkner biography--generations of scholars and readers will forever find reason to be grateful.