Robert Penn Warren

(1905–1989)

While teaching at Louisiana State University during the 1930s, Robert Penn Warren (second from right) founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review and helped to develop the New Criticism, which dominated literary analysis during the mid-twentieth century. Learn more »

Poet, critic, novelist, and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren is best known for his novel, All The King’s Men, inspired by the life and death of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. A native of Kentucky, Warren served on the faculty of the Louisiana State University (LSU) English department between 1934 and 1942. Along with Cleanth Brooks, a fellow faculty member, Warren founded The Southern Review, a critically acclaimed literary journal that rose to national prominence. While at LSU, Brooks and Warren also helped establish a movement within literary criticism commonly referred to as New Criticism.

 

Early Life

Born April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, Kentucky, Robert Penn Warren was the oldest of three children born to Robert Franklin Warren, a banker, and Anna Ruth Penn Warren, a schoolteacher. After growing up on a tobacco farm, Warren entered Vanderbilt University at the precocious age of sixteen. There he associated with a group of southern writers known as the Southern Agrarians—including John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—and contributed an essay to their anti-industrialism manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand. Like the Agrarians, Warren played a prominent role in the Southern Renaissance, an outpouring of literature by southern writers between World War I  and the end of  World War II.  Many of his early poems appeared in The Fugitive, a magazine published at Vanderbilt during the mid-1920s.

Warren went on to earn a master’s degree in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1927. After briefly attending Yale University, he entered New College at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, receiving his B.Litt. in the spring of 1930. In 1929, he married Emma Brescia. After teaching at several colleges and universities, Warren arrived at LSU in 1934. 

 

Years at LSU

LSU recruited Warren as part of a campaign—initiated by Huey Long—to expand the university and enhance its reputation by bringing nationally known scholars to its faculty. While at the university, Warren frequently collaborated with fellow Kentuckian Cleanth Brooks. After founding The Southern Review, a literary quarterly, they served as its managing editors and published works by renowned literary figures including Eudora Welty, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Katharine Anne Porter. Time magazine hailed the journal as “superior to any other in the English language.” 

In addition, Warren and Brooks collaborated on several influential text books: An Approach to Literature, published in 1936; Understanding Poetry, published in 1938; Understanding Fiction, published in 1943, after Warren’s departure from LSU; and Modern Rhetoric, published in 1949. With these books, Warren and Brooks helped develop New Criticism, a methodology for the study of literature that dominated mid-twentieth-century American and English literary criticism. New Critics advocated close readings of literary texts, rejecting the use of extratextual sources such as biography and history as tools for understanding literature. Also during his LSU period, Warren published several works of poetry, including Thirty-Six Poems (1936) and Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942). In addition, he worked on a play, Proud Flesh, which became the basis for All The King’s Men, published in 1946. All the King’s Men told the story of a southern demagogue, Willie Stark, who amassed tremendous power before being assassinated by a political foe. The similarities between the novel’s protagonist and Long were obvious, and Warren was at LSU in 1935 when a bullet ended the governor’s rise to power. Circumspect about how Long’s story influenced All The King’s Men, Warren said only that if he had not gone to Louisiana, “the novel never would have been written.” After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, the book was adapted for film in both 1949 and 2006; Warren adapted it for the stage in 1960. 

 

Significance and Achievements

In 1941, LSU officials announced plans to cease publication of The Southern Review, citing budget concerns. Shortly thereafter, the University of Minnesota offered Warren a full professorship with an annual salary of $4,000. When LSU failed to match the offer, proposing a salary of $3,800 instead, Warren resigned and took the post in Minnesota. In the 1950s, he joined the faculty at Yale University as an instructor of playwriting, a position he would hold until his retirement from academia. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1951, and Warren married Eleanor Clark, with whom he had two children.

Warren served as U.S. Poet Laureate in 1944–45 and won the Pulitzer Prize two more times: in 1957 for Promises: Poems, 1954–1956, and in 1978 for Now and Then: Poems, 1976–1978. To date, he is the only writer to have won the Pulitzer for both poetry and prose. In addition to All the King’s Men, Warren published nine other novels. He also interviewed civil rights leaders and workers for the 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro? In this book, Warren reversed his earlier position and advocated racial integration. In 1974, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Warren to give the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. He died September 15, 1989, in Vermont. 

 

Cite This Entry

Chicago Manual of Style

Heitman, Danny. "Robert Penn Warren." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published June 8, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/654/.

MLA Style

Heitman, Danny. "Robert Penn Warren." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 8 Jun 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.

Suggested Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?

Beck, Charlotte. Robert Penn Warren: Critic. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York, NY: Random House, 1997.

Grimshaw, James A. Jr. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Madden, David, editor. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

 

Major Works of Robert Penn Warren

John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929)

An Approach to Literature with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibaut Purser (1938)

Understanding Poetry (1938)

Night Rider (1939)

Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942)

At Heaven’s Gate (1943)

Understanding Fiction with Cleanth Brooks (1943)

Selected Poems, 1923 – 1943 (1944)

All the King’s Men (1946)

Blackberry Winter: A Story Illustrated by Wightman Williams (1946)

The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories (1947)

Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric with Cleanth Brooks (1950)

World Enough and Time (1950)

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (1953)

Band of Angels (1955)

Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956)

Promises: Poems: 1954 – 1956 (1957)

Selected Essays (1958)

Remember the Alamo! (1958)

The Cave (1959)

The Gods of Mount Olympus (1959)

How Texas Won Her Freedom (1959)

All the King’s Men: A Play (1960)

You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957 – 1960 (1960)

The Legacy of the Civil War (1961)

Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961)

Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964)

Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)

Selected Poems: New and Old 1923 – 1966 (1966)

Incarnations: Poems 1966 – 1968 (1968)

Audubon: A Vision (1969)

Homage to Theodor Dreiser (1971)

John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection (1971)

Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971)

American Literature: The Maker and the Making with Cleanth Brooks and R.W.B. Lewis (1974)

Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968 – 1974 (1974)

Democracy and Poetry (1975)

Selected Poems 1923 – 1976 (1977)

A Place to Come To  (1977)

Now and Then: Poems 1976 – 1978 (1978)

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices  - A New Version (1979)

Being Here: Poetry 1977 – 1980 (1980)

Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980)

Rumor Verified: Poems 1979 – 1980 (1981)

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983)

New and Selected Essays (1989)

The Collected Poems (1998)

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