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 Meet Me 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 on Robert Penn Warren
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).