Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905 to Anna Ruth Penn, a schoolteacher, and Robert Franklin Warren, a businessman. Growing up on a Kentucky tobacco farm and being thoroughly exposed to first-hand accounts of life in the Confederate army from both grandfathers, Southernism remained influential in Warren’s career. Warren produced ten novels and numerous collections of poems, all of which unmistakably represented the South and its people.
In the summer of 1920, intending to pursue a naval career at Annapolis, Warren was forced to abandon this dream following an accident that resulted in blindness in his left eye. In the 1990 publication, Talking with Robert Penn Warren, the writer lamented his blindness, writing that, “I felt a kind of shame, a disqualification for life, some sense of being maimed.” Due this fateful event, he opted to seek a degree in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University. It is here, because of the stress of falling behind in his studies and a failed love affair, where Warren attempted to take his own life. He soon found a way to channel the overwhelming emotions into his writings.
While attending Vanderbilt, Warren’s interest in storytelling, inspired by the Southern narratives of his childhood and his interest in poetry—no doubt kindled by his father’s daily practice of reading verse at the dinner table—led to his association with a group of young writers, which included Warren’s college roommates Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. They founded the publication The Fugitive, the poetry magazine for which they are now described. Warren’s essay inclusion in the historic collection, I’ll Take My Stand, was a plea for a return to the agrarian way of life. After graduating in 1925, Warren decided that a career as a writer was the path he would embark on.
Following his decision to pursue a writing career, Warren attended The University of California and Yale University. In 1928, Warren entered Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. During this period Warren met such prominent literary figures as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1930, returning home from England with a degree in English Literature, Warren married Emma Brescia. While a professor of literature at Louisiana State University, Warren co-founded the quarterly magazine, The Southern Review, a publication that quickly became one the most respected magazines of its time, and published works by Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, and W.H. Auden. Warren, influenced by new ideas proposed by a fresh breed of literary critics, published a textbook, Understanding Poetry, with Cleanth Brooks which enveloped all of these new ideas into an understandable approach to literary study. This publication, along with its subsequent volume, Understanding Fiction, created a plethora of imitators who utilized the “new critical” approach in universities. Following the economic turmoil of World War II, the university discontinued the publication of The Southern Review, resulting in Warren’s decision to abandon the South and assume the director of creative writing position at the University of Minnesota.
Warren was able to focus more on his love of writing poems, stories, and novels once the obligations and requirements of the classroom, which had consumed more of his time than previously realized, were gone. Of the three novels he managed to find time to write, only one was published: Night Rider. This story about a tobacco war between the independent growers in Kentucky and the larger industrial tobacco companies extended Warren’s reach of influence beyond the boundaries of academic life.
All of Warren’s novels invoked the particular characteristics that embody the South, and can be separated into two distinct categories. The first type, which included World Enough and Time, Band of Angels, and Wilderness, were the result of Warren’s immersion into American History. Warren’s John Brown: The Making of a Martyr demonstrated the particular interest in the years leading up to the Civil War imparted in a young Warren by his grandparents.
The second category of Warren’s work is representative of the events that shaped his life. All the King’s Men, which earned the writer a Pulitzer, was based on the Louisiana politician Huey Long, whose career Warren witnessed from LSU. Since its publication, All the King’s Men has been made into a play, a motion picture, an opera, and has been translated into 20 languages. The Cave, Flood, and Meet Me in the Green Glen expose the years of his Southern experience leading up to World War II through the 1960’s.
1950 marked a dramatic change in Warren’s life, following his decision to leave The University of Minnesota to become a professor of playwriting at Yale, and his divorce from Emma Brescia. Two years later, Warren married Eleanor Clark, the mother of his two children. Despite several years of not being able to produce any poetry, Warren published Brother to Dragons in 1953. A new venture in the field of verse was marked by Promises: Poems, 1954-1956. Critics and readers alike found Warren’s new lyrical direction fresh and energetic. As Warren’s reputation flourished, the invitation to voice his opinions on the social issues of the day also grew. The following years saw the publication of Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, an in-depth look at the dilemma Southerners encountered when faced by entrenched attitudes toward race.
Very few writers are able to exhume the type of versatility that was evident throughout Warren’s career. Even with ten novels under his belt, Warren regarded himself as a poet first and a novelist and critic second. Warren wrote literary criticism about Faulkner, Hemingway, Melville, and Coleridge. His ability to transcend genres and maintain success in any literary form earned him numerous prizes, honorary degrees, and memberships into intellectual societies. The contributions Warren made to fiction, poetry, history, literary criticism, and social commentary are immeasurable. Three years before his death in 1989, Warren became the official poet laureate of the United States. Warren, known by those closest to him as “Red,” is buried in Stratton, Vermont and, at his request, a memorial marker is stationed in the Warren family gravesite in Guthrie, Kentucky. Considered among the forefront of writers during his life, Warren has left an imprint of his intellectual and artistic dominance in the consciousness of the land he loved.
Understanding Poetry (textbook), 1938
Night Rider (novel), 1939
Understanding Fiction (textbook), 1943
All the King’s Men (novel), 1946
Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (poetry), 1953
Band of Angels (novel), 1955
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (nonfiction), 1956
Promises: Poems 1954-1956, 1957
The Cave (novel), 1959
Audubon: A Vision (poetry), 1969
Meet Me in the Green Glen (novel), 1971
Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (poetry), 1978
Official website of Robert Penn Warren:
Robert Penn Warren at Poets.org:
Interview in The Paris Review:
Robert Penn Warren at the Library of Congress:
The Robert Penn Warren Collection at Austin Peay State University:
The Robert Penn Warren Library at Western Kentucky University: