Robert Penn Warren enjoyed a distinguished career as a novelist, poet, scholar, university professor, and man of letters. His first widely read work was the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men, and it was not until the 1950s that he actually seemed to be courting a wider audience. His best fiction maintains a high level of intellectual and dramatic interest, and yet remains accessible to ordinary readers.
Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, on April 24, 1905. After growing up in rural Kentucky, he began writing seriously as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, where he intended to major in science. But his interests changed at Vanderbilt when he came under the influence of John Crowe Ransom, already a poet and critic of some stature and a major figure in the awakening of southern culture labeled the “southern literary renaissance.” Under Ransom’s guidance Warren changed his interests to literature, and began writing poetry as part of a literary group called the “Fugitives,” after the title of the literary magazine in which they published their work. Warren’s early verse was rather imitative, and it was not until the 1930s that he began to find his voice as a poet.
Continuing to pursue his literary interests, Warren undertook graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, earning a master’s degree in 1927. While studying at Oxford University from 1928 to 1930 as a Rhodes scholar, Warren published his first book, John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929). His long teaching career began with a brief stint at Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee, followed by another short-term appointment at Vanderbilt University. In 1934 he accepted a position at Louisiana State University, where he taught until 1942. While on the faculty there he helped to found the prestigious literary magazine Southern Review.
During the 1930s Warren published verse, literary essays, and short fiction while teaching at Louisiana State. In 1938 Warren and his colleague Cleanth Brooks published one of the most popular and influential textbooks in the history of American literary study, Understanding Poetry. This work presents methods of literary and rhetorical analysis developed from principles espoused by T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and Ransom. As a handbook of what was called “new criticism” it served as the model of poetic analysis for students over the next two decades or more. Warren published his first novel during this decade as well; Night Rider (1939) met with fairly good reviews but modest sales.
From 1942 to 1950 Warren taught at the University of Minnesota. His departure from the South may well have given him a better perspective on his material, for it was here that he produced All the King’s Men, his masterpiece in fiction. The novel deals with the rise and fall of a masterful southern political boss during the Depression, and its protagonist is obviously modeled on the legendary political boss Huey Long, whom Warren observed during his tenure at Louisiana State. A popular and critical success, All the King’s Men earned Warren the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes and established his reputation.
For the next twenty years Warren continued to publish novels at regular intervals, although after the success of his long dramatic poem, Brother to Dragons (1953), he increasingly concentrated his creative energies on verse. World Enough and Time (1950), a massive and romantic novelization of the “Kentucky Tragedy” of Jeroboam Beauchamp and Ann Cook in the 1820s, was viewed as a somewhat successful work by many, but its reception also marked the beginning of complaints about Warren’s idiosyncrasies. Another historical novel, Band of Angels (1955), gained popular, though not critical, success and even became the basis for an undistinguished film-called by some a second-rate Gone with the Wind-starring Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo. Band of Angels also gave rise to a negative view of Warren as a serious novelist openly courting commercial success.
In 1950 Warren and his wife of twenty years divorced, and he moved to the East Coast, taking a job with the Yale Drama School (1950-1956). His new environment and his marriage in 1952 to Eleanor Clark, a talented Connecticut novelist, may have helped to stimulate his creative energies, particularly as a poet. The publication of Promises (1957), which gained Warren his second Pulitzer Prize, marked the beginning of an enormously fertile period of work. During the next three decades he gained immense respect as a poet, signaled by, among other awards, a third Pulitzer Prize (his second for poetry) in 1979. He also served on the faculty of the Yale English department from 1961 to his retirement in 1973.
During Warren’s long and distinguished career as a novelist, poet, scholar, and teacher of literature, he wrote numerous nonfiction works of scholarship and social commentary. During his Yale years he wrote valuable works on John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Dreiser, helping to improve the reputations of those underrated writers. He also authored insightful volumes on the meaning of the Civil War and on the function of literature and poetry in a democracy. During the civil rights movements of the 1960s, he lent support to the cause of black equality by publishing an enlightening book of interviews with influential black leaders and writers. The most enduring of all this work, however, may be the dramatization of All the King’s Men that he published in 1960.
During the most recent decades of his career, Warren’s energies were largely devoted to writing poetry, including a revised version of Brother to Dragons (1979). His entire canon increased to about fifty books, among them numerous volumes of verse, including a narrative poem about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. Warren’s long career as a poet was crowned by his being appointed the first poet laureate of the United States in 1986. He died of cancer on September 15, 1989, in Stratton, Vermont.