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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 University instead.

Warren’s 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.

By 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.

Warren’s 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.”

Not 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.

During 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.

Meanwhile, 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. (1956)
Infant Boy at Midcentury (1956)
The Leaf (1968)
Evening Hawk (1975)
Amazing Grace in the Back Country (1978)
Heart of Autumn (1978)
Fear and Trembling (1980)

Other Works
John Brown: the Making of a Martyr (1929)
Thirty-Six Poems (1935)
Night Rider (1939)
At Heaven's Gate (1943)
Understanding Fiction (1943)
All the King's Men (1946)
The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (1948)
Modern Rhetoric (1949)
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 (1957)
Selected Essays (1958)
The Cave (1959)
Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1961)
The Legacy of the Civil War (1961)
Wilderness (1961)
Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)
Audubon: A Vision (1969)
Homage to Theodore Dreiser (1971)
Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971)
Democracy and Poetry (1975)
Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1975)
A Place to Come To (1977)
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983)
New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 (1985)
Portrait of a Father (1988)
New and Selected Essays (1989)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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