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Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), American man of letters, was dedicated to art as a way of exploring the meaning of contemporary existence.

Writer and poet Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was born in Guthrie, Kentucky on April 24, 1905. He twice received the Pulitzer Prize: one for fiction in 1947 and another for poetry in 1958. He earned his baccalaureate at Vanderbilt University in 1925 where he knew John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and other Southern Agrarian poets who published the Fugitive magazine (1922-1925). His essay, I'll Take My Stand, published by Fugitive in 1930, was among the most persuasive and reasonable defenses of the South's cultural and social heritage to that date.

After receiving his master's in 1927 from the University of California, Warren attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and took his doctorate in 1930. Pondy Woods and Other Poems (1930) was his first published volume of verse. During the 1930s, he was managing editor with Cleanth Brooks of the Southern Review. Warren taught at Southwestern College, Vanderbilt, Louisiana State University, University of Minnesota, and Yale University after 1950.

Warren's fiction, usually historically based, considers the implications of man's initiation into awareness of the potential evil in himself and the world. It has much in common with the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

His pre-eminent work was All the King's Men (1946), ostensibly a fictionalized account of the rise and fall of the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long. Warren's central theme throughout the book was man's capacity for evil. This book garnered the first of his two Pulitzer Prize awards. World Enough and Time (1950), based on a famous 19th-century murder case, examines the conjunctions between idealism and evil, innocence and guilt. Wilderness (1961), a Civil War tale, describes a youth's acceptance of moral responsibility.

Although Warren's early poems were examples of the so-called New Critical school (as presented in his text book, Understanding Poetry, written with Cleanth Brooks in 1938), his later verse was more romantic and transcendental, reflecting the influence of American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. "The Ballad of Billie Potts" retells a folk legend involving the unwitting murder of a child by his parents. Brother to Dragons (1953), a book-length "tale in verse and voices, " tells of the wanton murder of an African American slave by Thomas Jefferson's two nephews in 1811. Jefferson represents the idealist enmeshed in evil and the institution of slavery. Warren himself appears as the seeker of some solution to universal moral complicity that slavery needed to survive. Promises: Poems 1954 to 1956 (1957) won for Warren his second Pulitzer Prize.

Warren's Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956) argued that only by coming to terms with the common humanity of the African Americans could the South ever realize its ideals. The new poems in New and Selected Poems (1966) provide conclusive evidence that Warren's concerns changed considerably after his New Critical period. Homage to Emerson: On a Night Flight to New York entertains the possibility that Emerson's faith may still be relevant. Other works by Warren include the novels Night Rider (1939), Band of Angels (1955), The Cave (1959), and Flood (1964). He also published Selected Essays (1958) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965). Later works by Warren include such volumes of poetry as Selected Poems, 1923-1975 (1976), Being Here: Poetry, 1977-1980 (1980), Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983), and New and Selected Poems, 1923-1985 (1985); works of fiction include MeetMe in the Green Glen (1971) and A Place to Come Home To (1977). His nonfiction pieces include Democracy and Poetry (1975), Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980), Portrait of a Father (1988), and New and Selected Essays (1989). Warren also wrote the play Ballad of a Sweet Dream of Peace: An Easter Charade (produced in 1981).

Warren died of cancer September 15, 1989, in Stratton, Vermont. During his long and respected career, he was the recipient of many awards, including his two Pulitzer Prizes; Caroline Sinkler Prize, Poetry Society of America (1936, 1937, and 1938); Shelley Memorial Prize for Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942); National Book Award for Promises: Poems 1954 to 1956 (1958); Bollingen Prize in Poetry, Yale University, 1967 for Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1967); National Medal for Literature for Audubon: A Vision (1970); Copernicus Prize, American Academy of Poets (1976); Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination for Being Here: Poetry, 1977-1980 (1980); named first Poet Laureate of the United States (1986); National Medal of Arts (1987); and numerous honorary degrees from such institutions as University of Louisville (1949), Swarthmore College (1958), Yale University (1959), Harvard University (1973), Johns Hopkins University (1977), Oxford University (1983), and Arizona State University.

Further Reading

An excellent critical study is Victor H. Strandberg, A Colder Fire: The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren (1965). Other studies include Leonard Casper, Robert Penn Warren (1960); Charles H. Bohner, Robert Penn Warren (1965); and the section on Warren in Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets, from the Puritans to the Present (1968). A useful critical anthology is John Lewis Longley, Jr., ed., Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays (1965); Connelly, Thomas L., et al., A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren, Louisiana State University Press (1984); Koppelman, Robert S., Robert Penn Warren's Modernist Spirituality, University of Missouri Press (1995). □

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Warren, Robert Penn

Robert Penn Warren, 1905–89, American novelist, poet, and critic, b. Guthrie, Ky., grad. Vanderbilt Univ. 1925; M.A., Univ. of California 1927; B.Litt., Oxford 1930. At Vanderbilt he became associated with John Crowe Ransom and the group of Southern agrarian poets who made the Fugitive (1922–25) an important literary magazine. He was managing editor with Cleanth Brooks of the Southern Review. Warren first gained recognition as a poet. His early verse was much influenced by the metaphysical poets, but his later poetry is simpler and more regional. Among his volumes of poetry are Thirty-six Poems (1935); Brother to Dragons (1953; Pulitzer), a long, dramatic poem; Promises (1957; Pulitzer), Selected Poems: New and Old (1966), Incarnations (1968), Audubon: A Vision (1969), Or Else (1974), and New and Selected Poems 1923–1985 (1985). Warren's most famous novel is All the King's Men (1946; Pulitzer), which concerns the rise to power of a political demagogue resembling Huey Long. Among his other novels are World Enough and Time (1950), The Cave (1959), Wilderness (1961), Flood (1964), Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), and A Place to Come To (1977). His other works include a collection of short stories, The Circus in the Attic (1948), and Selected Essays (1958). In 1986 he became the first poet laureate of the United States.

See biography by J. Blotner (1997); correspondence with C. Brooks (1998), ed. by J. A. Grimshaw, Jr.; studies by C. Bohner (1964, rev. ed. 1981), J. Justus (1981), and K. Snipes (1984).

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Warren, Robert Penn

Warren, Robert Penn (1905–89) US poet, novelist, and critic. In his fiction, which includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men (1946), Warren concentrated on Southern themes and characters. He received the Pulitzer Prize twice more, for the poetry collections Promises (1957), and Now and Then (1978). He became the first American poet laureate in 1986.

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Warren, Robert Penn

WARREN, Robert Penn

Nationality: American. Born: Guthrie, Kentucky, 24 April 1905. Education: Guthrie High School; Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1921-25, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1925; University of California, Berkeley, M.A. 1927; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1927-28; Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), B. Litt. 1930. Family: Married 1) Emma Brescia in 1930 (divorced 1950); 2) the writer Eleanor Clark in 1952, one son and one daughter. Career: Member of the Fugitive group of poets: co-founder, The Fugitive, Nashville, 1922-25; assistant professor, Southwestern College, Memphis, Tennessee, 1930-31, and Vanderbilt University, 1931-34; assistant and associate professor, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1934-42; founding editor, Southern Review, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1935-42; professor of English, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1942-50; advisory editor, Kenyon Review, Gambier, Ohio, 1942-63; consultant in poetry, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1944-45; professor of playwriting, 1950-56, professor of English, 1962-73, and professor emeritus, from 1973, Yale University; Jefferson Lecturer, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1974. Awards: Caroline Sinkler award, 1936, 1937, 1938; Houghton Mifflin fellowship, 1939; Guggenheim fellowship, 1939, 1947; Shelley Memorial award, 1943; Pulitzer prize, for fiction, 1947, and, for poetry, 1958, 1979; Screenwriters Guild Meltzer award, 1949; Foreign Book prize (France), 1950; Sidney Hillman prize, 1957; Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial prize, 1958; National Book award, for poetry, 1958; Bollingen prize, for poetry, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968, and lectureship, 1974; Bellamann award, 1970; Van Wyck Brooks award, for poetry, 1970; National medal for literature, 1970; Emerson-Thoreau medal, 1975, Copernicus award, 1976; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980; Common Wealth award, 1981; MacArthur fellowship, 1981; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1983. D.Litt.: University of Louisville, Kentucky, 1949; Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1952; Colby College, Waterville, Maine, 1956; University of Kentucky, Lexington, 1957; Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, 1959; Yale University, 1960; Fairfield University, Connecticut, 1969; Wesleyan University. Middletown, Connecticut, 1970; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973; Southwestern College, 1974; University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, 1974; Monmouth College, Illinois, 1979; New York University, 1983; Oxford University, 1983. LL.D.: Bridgeport University, Connecticut, 1965; University of New Haven, Connecticut, 1974; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1977. U.S. Poet Laureate, 1986. Member: American Academy; American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Chancellor, Academy of American Poets, 1972. Died: 15 September 1989.

Publications

Short Stories

Blackberry Winter. 1946.

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories. 1948.

Novels

Night Rider. 1939.

At Heaven's Gate. 1943.

All the King's Men. 1946.

World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel. 1950.

Band of Angels. 1955.

The Cave. 1959.

Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War. 1961.

Flood: A Romance of Our Time. 1964.

Meet Me in the Green Glen. 1971.

A Place to Come To. 1977.

Plays

Proud Flesh (in verse, produced 1947; revised [prose] version, produced 1947).

All the King's Men, from his own novel (as Willie Stark: His Rise and Fall, produced 1958; as All the King's Men, produced 1959). 1960.

Poetry

Thirty-Six Poems. 1936.

Eleven Poems on the Same Theme. 1942.

Selected Poems 1923-1943. 1944.

Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. 1953; revised edition, 1979.

To a Little Girl, One Year Old, in a Ruined Fortress. 1956.

Promises: Poems 1954-1956. 1957.

You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957-1960. 1960.

Selected Poems: New and Old 1923-1966. 1966.

Incarnations: Poems 1966-1968. 1968.

Audubon: A Vision. 1969.

Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968-1974. 1974.

Selected Poems 1923-1975. 1977.

Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978. 1978.

Two Poems. 1979.

Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980. 1980.

Love. 1981.

Rumor Verified: Poems 1979-1980. 1981.

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. 1983.

New and Selected Poems 1923-1985. 1985.

Other

John Brown: The Making of a Martyr. 1929.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, with others. 1930.

Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, with others, edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate. 1936.

Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students, with Cleanth Brooks. 1938; revised edition, 1950, 1960, and 1976.

Understanding Fiction, with Cleanth Brooks. 1943; revised edition, 1959, 1979; abridged edition, as The Scope of Fiction, 1960.

A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading, in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 1946.

Modern Rhetoric: With Readings, with Cleanth Brooks. 1949; revised edition, 1958, 1970, 1979.

Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric, with Cleanth Brooks. 1950.

Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South. 1956.

Selected Essays. 1958.

Remember the Alamo! (for children). 1958; as How Texas Won Her Freedom, 1959.

The Gods of Mount Olympus (for children). 1959.

The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial. 1961.

Who Speaks for the Negro? 1965.

A Plea in Mitigation: Modern Poetry and the End of an Era(lecture). 1966.

Homage to Theodore Dreiser. 1971.

John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection. 1971.

A Conversation with Warren, edited by Frank Gado. 1972.

Democracy and Poetry (lecture). 1975.

Warren Talking: Interviews 1950-1978, edited by Floyd C. Watkins and John T. Hiers. 1980.

Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back. 1980.

A Warren Reader. 1987.

Portrait of a Father. 1988.

New and Selected Essays. 1989.

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Coorespondence. 1998.

Editor, with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibaut Purser, An Approach to Literature: A Collection of Prose and Verse with Analyses and Discussions. 1936; revised edition, 1952, 1975.

Editor, A Southern Harvest: Short Stories by Southern Writers. 1937.

Editor, with Cleanth Brooks, An Anthology of Stories from the Southern Review. 1953.

Editor, with Albert Erskine, Short Story Masterpieces. 1954.

Editor, with Albert Erskine, Six Centuries of Great Poetry. 1955.

Editor, with Albert Erskine, A New Southern Harvest. 1957.

Editor, with Allen Tate, Selected Poems, by Denis Devlin. 1963.

Editor, Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1966.

Editor, with Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell 1914-1965. 1967.

Editor, Selected Poems of Herman Melville. 1970.

Editor and part author, with Cleanth Brooks and R.W.B. Lewis,American Literature: The Makers and the Making. 2 vols., 1973.

Editor, Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1979.

Editor, The Essential Melville. 1987.

*

Bibliography:

Warren: A Reference Guide by Neil Nakadate, 1977; Warren: A Descriptive Bibliography 1922-79 by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., 1981.

Critical Studies:

Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground by Leonard Casper, 1960; Warren by Charles H. Bohner, 1964, revised edition, 1981; Warren by Paul West, 1964; Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by John Lewis Longley, Jr., 1965; A Colder Fire: The Poetry of Warren, 1965, and The Poetic Vision of Warren, 1977, both by Victor Strandberg; Web of Being: The Novels of Warren by Barnett Guttenberg, 1975; Twentieth-Century Interpretations of All the King's Men edited by Robert H. Chambers, 1977; Warren: A Vision Earned by Marshall Walker, 1979; Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Richard Gray, 1980; Critical Essays on Warren edited by William B. Clark, 1981; Warren: Critical Perspectives edited by Neil Nakadate, 1981; The Achievement of Warren by James H. Justus, 1981; Then and Now: The Personal Past in the Poetry of Warren by Floyd C. Watkins, 1982; Homage to Warren edited by Frank Graziano, 1982; Warren by Katherine Snipes, 1983; A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Warren edited by Walter B. Edgar, 1984; In the Heart's Last Kingdom: Warren's Major Poetry by Calvin Bedient, 1984; Warren and American Idealism by John Burt, 1988; The Braided Dream: Warren's Late Poetry by Randolph Runyon, 1990; Warren and the American Imagination by Hugh M. Ruppersburg, 1990; After the Fall: Tragic Themes in the Major Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Penn Warren by Yi Yong-ok, 1993; Robert Penn Warren's Modernist Spirituality by Robert S. Koppelman, 1995; Robert Penn Warren: A Biography by Joseph Leo Blotner, 1997; Sleeping with the Boss: Female Subjectivity and Narrative Pattern in Robert Penn Warren by Lucy Ferriss, 1997; The Blood-Marriage of Earth and Sky: Robert Penn Warren's Later Novels by Leonard Casper, 1997; Robert Penn Warren's Novels: Feminine and Feminist Discourse by Cecilia S. Donohue, 1997.

* * *

An illustrious man of letters in virtually every genre—poetry, drama, the novel, literary criticism, biography, intellectual history—Robert Penn Warren spent a relatively brief segment of his 65-year career on short fiction. Gathered into a single book named after its title novella, The Circus in the Attic, these stories were written in the span between 1930 and 1946, and they reflect two constraints that cut short his story-writing career. One constraint, he admitted in an interview, was the hand-to-mouth financial exigency of the Great Depression that moved him to grind out some stories mainly to make a fast dollar—a mercenary motive that was superseded by the huge financial success of his novel All the King's Men in 1946. The other, more unusual constraint, which he declared in interviews, was that his short stories kept turning into poems, particularly after he discovered his gifts for narrative poetry in his major opus of 1943, "The Ballad of Billie Potts."

Within these constraints Warren's most successful shorter fiction encompassed two novellas, "The Circus in the Attic" and "Prime Leaf," and one classic short story, "Blackberry Winter." Because of their length, complexity, and wide range of characters, the two novellas come closer to the novel form than that of the short story. Apart from "Blackberry Winter," the other entries in The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories display a spectrum of achievement that ranges from rather thin, immature story writing to strongly competent but not first-rate work. The critic Allen Shepherd has described these stories as "by-blows," or works that claim our interest mainly because of their correlations with Warren's more substantial work of the time in poetry and fiction.

The least successful category of Warren's stories are those given over to the cheap ironies of "The Life and Work of Professor Roy Millen" (who undermines a brilliant student's application for study abroad), "The Confession of Brother Grimes" (a tale loaded with sarcasm about its protagonist's unwarranted religious faith), and "The Patented Gate and the Mean Hamburger" (which ends with an O. Henry-like triumph of plot over characterization). The best of these tales, however, bear out the correlation that usually obtains between technical virtuosity and the intensity of imagination. "Goodwood Comes Back" is one such tale, which traces out the career of an actual friend of Warren's boyhood who became a big-league pitcher until he was done in by alcohol. This story later turned into a superb poem, "American Portrait: Old Style," in the Pulitzer prize-winning volume Now and Then. And "The Love of Elsie Barton: A Chronicle" joins with its sequel, "Testament of Flood," to represent a deepening of the author's imagination concerning the conflict between passion and marriage in the mores of small-town America. Collectively the stories in Circus in the Attic depict the ironies of small-town life much in the fashion of Winesburg, Ohio, Our Town, and Spoon River Anthology—three works that exerted great influence during Warren's formative period as an artist.

One story of village life, the widely anthologized "Blackberry Winter," ranks with the finest initiation stories ever written. Its theme, the fall from childhood's Eden into an adult's knowledge of loss and loneliness, had from the beginning pervaded both Warren's poetry, gathered from a 20-year spread in Selected Poems 1923-1943, and his novels, including All the King's Men—whose title, we recall, evokes the "Great Fall" of Humpty Dumpty (a fall shared by all that book's main characters). The title "Blackberry Winter" serves the theme in referring to a cold snap that commonly affects the weather in June, otherwise the most Edenic of months, bringing with its chilly air a premonition of the boy-narrator's imminent lapse into tragic knowledge. This story too turned into a poem, or actually two poems, in Promises: "Summer Storm (Circa 1916), and God's Grace" and "Dark Night of." Epitomizing his reluctance to enter the adult world-view, the boy, nine-year-old Seth, evades his mother's orders to wear shoes as he goes out into the morning's chilly landscape. But the aftermath of the night's fierce storm moves the boy toward inescapable discovery of time and loss and corruption, which Warren dramatizes in a series of child-adult encounters. The first and last encounter, in Warren's circular plotline, is between Seth, comfortably secure in his family and community, and a tragically rootless, wandering bum—in Warren's work a recurring figure of the fall into a ruined world. The job that the bum does for Seth's mother, burying chicks that drowned in the storm, gives the boy his first intimate view of death: "There is nothing deader looking than a drowned chick. The feet curl in that feeble, empty way which …, even if I was a country boy who did not mind hog-killing or frog-gigging, made me feel hollow in the stomach."

The second scene of awakening occurs at the bridge where townspeople gather to measure their losses—in crops and livestock—because of the storm. Here Seth, riding on his father's fine horse, gets his first notion of desperate poverty when the drowned cow that comes tumbling downstream turns out to belong to the town's poorest family, evoking some conversation about whether "anybody ever et drowned cow." Seth's third initiatory encounter comes when he visits the meticulously neat cabin of Dellie, the family servant, only to find her yard awash in symbolic filth and trash that the storm has washed out from under her cabin. Thanks to her sufferings in menopause, her personality has also changed radically for the worse, and her husband Jebb extends her "Womanmizry" to encompass earth-mother significance: "This-here old yearth is tahrd … and ain't gonna perduce."

By the time he returns home Seth's barefoot condition can no longer fend off the new awareness of social inequity that he discerns in adult footwear when comparing his father's fine boots with the bum's "pointed-toe, broken, black shoes, on which the mud looked so sad." Though his father sends the bum packing with a coin for his labor, the boy is jolted out of his family nest as the story ends, feeling compelled to follow the tramp so as to learn more about him. The bum's last words—"You don't stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch"—echo down through the story's coda, which marks a 35-year passage of time during which all manner of ruination has ensued: the death of Seth's parents; the imprisonment of his black playmate, Dellie's son, for murder; and, ironically, the continuing life of Old Jebb, who has come to regret God's answer to his prayer for longevity ("A man doan know what to pray fer, and him mortal"). The bum's words, repeated in the closing lines, evoke the one positive effect of the day's insights—the making of an artist. Though warned not to follow this menacing fellow, the writer says, "I did follow him, all the years." By working out how to live in "the world's stew," as he later called it, Robert Penn Warren built his career, in a sense, on this day of discovery.

—Victor Strandberg

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