Robert Penn Warren Biography Books Facts

Warren, Robert Penn (1905-1989), American novelist, poet, and critic, whose work reflects his concern for maintaining human dignity in the face of corruption and abuse of power. In 1986 Warren was named the first United States poet laureate.

Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, Warren was educated at Vanderbilt University and the University of California. In 1930 he received a Rhodes scholarship for study at the University of Oxford. From 1935 to 1942 Warren and the American critic Cleanth Brooks edited the Southern Review, a journal of literary criticism and political thought. Brooks and Warren belonged to a group known as the New Critics, who stressed close reading and interpretation of the texts; the two collaborated on widely read textbooks on criticism, including Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). From 1961 to 1973 Warren taught English at Yale University.

Warren is best known for his novel All the King’s Men (1946), a character study of a powerful Southern governor resembling the Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. In this book the complicated personality and actions of Governor Willie Stark, who like Huey Long is both progressive and corrupt, forces the narrator, Jack Burden, to confront the complexity of personality, the intricacy of moral decisions, and his own newfound self-understanding. All the King’s Men exemplifies many of the themes that recur in Warren’s prose and poetry. Warren maintained a strong interest in Southern history, and his works often explore the past and its relation to the present. He also was concerned with the struggle of the individual for self-recognition. His works reveal the sometimes uncomfortable moral discoveries that occur in such a process. For All the King’s Men, Warren received the 1947Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the book was made into a motion picture that won the 1949 Academy Award for best film. Warren also wrote short fiction. His collection The Circus in the Attic (1948) contains the fine autobiographical tale “Blackberry Winter.”

In 1958 Warren won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection of poems Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (1957), a volume that illustrates his use of intense symbolism. His other books of verse include Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1966), for which he received the 1967 Bollingen Prize; Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (1979), which in 1979 won him a third Pulitzer Prize; and Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 (1980).

Warren’s other novels include Night Rider (1939), World Enough and Time (1950), The Cave (1959), Flood (1964), and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965). Selected Essays was published in 1958. Warren’s later nonfiction includes Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980), based on an article in The New Yorker magazine.