| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Robert Penn Warren
Warren was born and raised in Guthrie, Kentucky, a
small town in the “Black Patch” tobacco country near the Tennessee border.
Early on he developed deep loves for the countryside and for reading,
particularly fiction and history. After failing his physical examination for
the U.S. Naval Academy because of an eye injury, in 1921 he entered Vanderbilt
talent for writing was quickly noticed by his teachers, including John Crowe
Ransom and Donald Davidson. Before long, he was an active member of the
“Fugitives,” a literary group centered at the university that met regularly to
discuss philosophy and poetry. Warren at this time began writing his own verse
and became close friends with Allen Tate, another “Fugitive” whose literary
career, like Warren’s, was then just beginning.
the time he graduated from Vanderbilt in 1925 and was off to graduate study at
the University of California, Berkeley (and later at Yale and then Oxford with
a Rhodes scholarship), Warren had committed himself to a career of
writing. His years at Vanderbilt with the Fugitives had been crucial in his
early development. Perhaps most important, he established during this time a
profound conviction for the worth of artistic pursuit, seeing, in his own
words, “that poetry was a vital activity, that it related to ideas and life.”
Moreover, particularly through his friendship with Allen Tate, he immersed
himself in the tremendous vitality and experimentation of literary modernism
and began experimenting to discover his own poetic voice. Probably best known
for his novel All the King’s Men, Warren also published ten other novels,
fifteen volumes of poetry, two plays, a biography of John Brown, and numerous
books and essays on cultural and literary criticism, including the influential
anthologies he edited with Cleanth Brooks, Understanding Poetry, Understanding
Fiction, and Modern Rhetoric.
early poems show the strong influences of Tate and T. S. Eliot, and also, by
way of Eliot and John Crowe Ransom, of the seventeenth-century metaphysical
poets. His first volume of verse, Thirty-Six Poems, appeared in 1935, followed
by Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942) and Selected Poems: 1923–1943 (1944).
Most of the poems from these volumes, as James Justus has pointed out, show
Warren as a master craftsman experimenting with models and conventions of
others and along the way “slowly learning how to reinvigorate models out of his
own needs and with his own voice.”
all of Warren’s energies during this time were going exclusively into poetry.
In 1930 he began his distinguished academic career by accepting an appointment
at Southwestern College in Memphis, followed by appointments at Vanderbilt
University (1931) and Louisiana State University (1934), where with Cleanth
Brooks he edited the Southern Review until 1942. In 1942, he became Professor
of English at the University of Minnesota, where he stayed until 1950 when he
accepted a position at Yale University. Warren retired from Yale in 1973.
the 1930s and 1940s Warren was doing a great deal of writing other than poetry.
He collaborated on several important anthologies of literature and rhetoric,
and, even more importantly, began his career as writer of fiction. Night Rider,
his first novel, appeared in 1939, followed by At Heaven’s Gate (1943), his
masterpiece, All the King’s Men (1946), and The Circus in the Attic and Other
Stories (1948). Seven other novels subsequently appeared along with a number of
volumes of literary and cultural criticism.
Warren’s poetic output ceased from 1944 until 1953, when he brought out Brother
to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. This striking work,
an imaginative reconstruction of a historical event involving Thomas
Jefferson’s nephew written in voices, dialogue, and colloquy, marks the
beginning of Warren’s major phase as poet. Brother to Dragons opened up “a
whole new sense of poetry,” he later admitted. No less than twelve volumes of
Warren’s verse followed its publication. Warren’s quest in his poetry was
driven by a passion both to know himself and his world and to discover meaning
and continuities despite the resistance of a naturalistic universe. This effort
to achieve understanding, to transfigure the factual into the interpretative,
lies at the heart of Warren’s imaginative vision. “In this century, and moment,
of mania,” he writes in Audubon, “Tell me a story.”
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr.|
University of Arkansas
In the Heath Anthology
Founding Fathers, Early-Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A.
Infant Boy at Midcentury
Amazing Grace in the Back Country
Heart of Autumn
Fear and Trembling
John Brown: the Making of a Martyr
At Heaven's Gate
All the King's Men
The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories
World Enough and Time
Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices
Band of Angels
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South
Flood: A Romance of Our Time
The Legacy of the Civil War
Who Speaks for the Negro?
Audubon: A Vision
Homage to Theodore Dreiser
Meet Me in the Green Glen
Democracy and Poetry
Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back
A Place to Come To
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce
New and Selected Poems 1923-1985
Portrait of a Father
New and Selected Essays
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Robert Penn Warren's Modernist Spirituality
A review of Robert S. Koppelman's book on Warren.
Robert Penn Warren
A biography, bibliography, and the latest on Warren scholarship in general.
Warren on Warren
From the Modern American Poetry site, read Warren's Criterion for Poetry.
Calvin Bedient, In the Heart's Last Kingdom: Robert Penn Warren's Major Poetry, 1984
John Burt, Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism, 1988
Randy Hendricks, Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exiles, 2000
James Justus, The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren, 1981
David Madden, The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren, 2000
Randolph Runyon, The Braided Dream: Robert Penn Warren's Late Poetry, 1990
Hugh M. Ruppersburg, Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination, 1990
Victor Strandberg, The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren, 1977