Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905 – September 15, 1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He founded the literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for his novel All the King's Men (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.[1]

Robert Penn Warren
Warren in 1968
Born(1905-04-24)April 24, 1905
Guthrie, Kentucky, US
DiedSeptember 15, 1989(1989-09-15) (aged 84)
Stratton, Vermont, US
Alma materVanderbilt University
University of California at Berkeley
Oxford University
Yale University
GenrePoetry, novels
Notable awardsRobert Frost Medal (1985)

Early years

Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, very near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, to Robert Warren and Anna Penn.[2] Warren's mother's family had roots in Virginia, having given their name to the community of Penn's Store in Patrick County, Virginia, and she was a descendant of Revolutionary War soldier Colonel Abram Penn.[3]

Robert Penn Warren graduated from Clarksville High School in Clarksville, Tennessee; Vanderbilt University (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in 1925; and the University of California, Berkeley (M.A.) in 1926. Warren pursued further graduate study at Yale University from 1927 to 1928 and obtained his B.Litt. as a Rhodes Scholar from New College, Oxford, in England in 1930. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Italy during the rule of Benito Mussolini. That same year he began his teaching career at Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee.


While still an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, Warren became associated with the group of poets there known as the Fugitives, and somewhat later, during the early 1930s, Warren and some of the same writers formed a group known as the Southern Agrarians. He contributed "The Briar Patch" to the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand along with 11 other Southern writers and poets (including fellow Vanderbilt poet/critics John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson). In "The Briar Patch" the young Warren defends racial segregation, in line with the political leanings of the Agrarian group, although Davidson deemed Warren's stances in the essay so progressive that he argued for excluding it from the collection.[4] However, Warren recanted these views in an article on the civil rights movement, "Divided South Searches Its Soul", which appeared in the July 9, 1956 issue of Life magazine. A month later, Warren published an expanded version of the article as a small book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South.[5] He subsequently adopted a high profile as a supporter of racial integration. In 1965, he published Who Speaks for the Negro?, a collection of interviews with black civil rights leaders including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, thus further distinguishing his political leanings from the more conservative philosophies associated with fellow Agrarians such as Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and particularly Davidson. Warren's interviews with civil rights leaders are at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky.[6]

Warren's best-known work is All the King's Men, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Main character Willie Stark resembles Huey Pierce Long (1893–1935), the radical populist governor of Louisiana whom Warren was able to observe closely while teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge from 1933 to 1942. All the King's Men became a highly successful film, starring Broderick Crawford and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1949. A 2006 film adaptation by writer/director Steven Zaillian featured Sean Penn as Willie Stark and Jude Law as Jack Burden. The opera Willie Stark by Carlisle Floyd to his own libretto based on the novel was first performed in 1981.

Warren served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1944–1945 (later termed Poet Laureate), and won two Pulitzer Prizes in poetry, in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954–1956 and in 1979 for Now and Then. Promises also won the annual National Book Award for Poetry.[7]

In 1974, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Warren's lecture was entitled "Poetry and Democracy" (subsequently published under the title Democracy and Poetry).[8][9] In 1977, Warren was awarded the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates.[10][11] In 1980, Warren was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, Warren was selected as a MacArthur Fellow and later was named as the first U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry on February 26, 1986. In 1987, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.[12]

Warren was co-author, with Cleanth Brooks, of Understanding Poetry, an influential literature textbook. It was followed by other similarly co-authored textbooks, including Understanding Fiction, which was praised by Southern Gothic and Roman Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor, and Modern Rhetoric, which adopted what can be called a New Critical perspective.

Personal life

His first marriage was to Emma Brescia. His second marriage was in 1952 to Eleanor Clark, with whom he had two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren (born 1953) and Gabriel Penn Warren (born 1955). During his tenure at Louisiana State University he resided at Twin Oaks (otherwise known as the Robert Penn Warren House) in Prairieville, Louisiana.[13] He lived the latter part of his life in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Stratton, Vermont where he died of complications from prostate cancer. He is buried at Stratton, Vermont, and, at his request, a memorial marker is situated in the Warren family gravesite in Guthrie, Kentucky.


In April 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp to mark the 100th anniversary of Warren's birth. Introduced at the post office in his native Guthrie, it depicts the author as he appeared in a 1948 photograph, with a background scene of a political rally designed to evoke the setting of All the King's Men. His son and daughter, Gabriel and Rosanna Warren, were in attendance.

Vanderbilt University houses the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, which is sponsored by the College of Arts and Science.[14] It began its programs in January 1988, and in 1989 received a $480,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The center promotes "interdisciplinary research and study in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences."

The high school that Robert Penn Warren attended, Clarksville High School (Tennessee), was renovated into an apartment complex in 1982. The original name of the apartments was changed to The Penn Warren in 2010.[15]


  • John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929)
  • Old and Blind (1931)
  • Thirty-six Poems (1936)
  • An Approach to Literature (1938), with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibaut Purser
  • Understanding Poetry (1939), with Cleanth Brooks
  • Night Rider (1939). Novel
  • Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942)
  • At Heaven's Gate (1943). Novel
  • Understanding Fiction (1943), with Cleanth Brooks
  • Selected Poems, 1923–1943 (1944)
  • Melville the poet 1946. The Kenyon Review 8(2).208-223.
  • All the King's Men (1946). Novel
  • Blackberry Winter: A Story Illustrated by Wightman Williams (1946)
  • The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories (1947)
  • Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), with Cleanth Brooks
  • World Enough and Time (1950). Novel
  • Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (1953)
  • Band of Angels (1955). Novel
  • Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956)
  • Promises: Poems: 1954–1956 (1957)
  • Selected Essays (1958)
  • Remember the Alamo! (1958). For children
  • The Cave (1959). Novel
  • The Gods of Mount Olympus (1959). For children
  • How Texas Won Her Freedom (1959). For children
  • All the King's Men: A Play (1960)
  • You, Emperors, and Others: Poems 1957–1960 (1960)
  • The Legacy of the Civil War (1961)
  • Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961). Novel
  • Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964). Novel
  • Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)
  • Selected Poems: New and Old 1923–1966 (1966)
  • Incarnations: Poems 1966–1968 (1968)
  • Audubon: A Vision (1969). Book-length poem
  • Homage to Theodor Dreiser (1971)
  • John Greenleaf Whittier's Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection (1971)
  • Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971). Novel
  • American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1974), with Cleanth Brooks and R.W.B. Lewis
  • Or Else: Poem/Poems 1968–1974 (1974)
  • Democracy and Poetry (1975)
  • Selected Poems: 1923–1975 (1976)
  • A Place to Come to (1977). Novel
  • Now and Then: Poems 1976–1978 (1978)
  • Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices - A New Version (1979)
  • Being Here: Poetry 1977–1980 (1980)
  • Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980)
  • Rumor Verified: Poems 1979–1980 (1981)
  • Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983). Book-length poem
  • New and Selected Poems: 1923–1985 (1985)
  • Portrait of a Father (1988)
  • New and Selected Essays (1989)
  • The Collected Poems (1998), edited by John Burt
  • All the King's Men: Three Stage Versions (2000), edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr. and James A. Perkins
  • All the King's Men: Restored Edition (2002), edited by Noel Polk
  • The Poets Laureate Anthology (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)


  1. Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 27. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
  2. Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 291. ISBN 0-19-503186-5
  3. Patrick County People, Free State of Patrick Archived 2011-07-11 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Wood, Edwin Thomas. "On Native Soil: A Visit with Robert Penn Warren," Mississippi Quarterly 38 (Winter 1984)
  5. Metress, Christopher. "Fighting battles one by one: Robert Penn Warren's Segregation", The Southern Review, Winter 1996.
  6. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
  7. "National Book Awards – 1958". National Book Foundation. Retrieved March 2, 2012.
    (With essay by Kiki Petrosino from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog, and other material on Warren.)
  8. Jefferson Lectures. National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved January 22, 2009. Annual subsites with list of Prior Jefferson Lecturers (1972–1999).
  9. "Democracy and Poetry: Robert Penn Warren" (publisher display). Harvard University Press. Retrieved September 7, 2013.
  10. Website of St. Louis Literary Award
  11. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Recipients of the St. Louis Literary Award". Archived from the original on July 31, 2016. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  12. Lifetime Honors - National Medal of Arts Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
  13. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-19. Retrieved 2013-10-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities
  15. "The Penn Warren - History". Retrieved 24 September 2014.
Further reading
  • Millichap, Joseph R.. Robert Penn Warren after Audubon:The Work of Aging and the Quest for Transcendence in His Later Poetry. Baton Rouge, LA. :Louisiana State University Press, 2009 ISBN 978-0-8071-3456-6
  • Warren, Rosanna "Places - A Memoir of Robert Penn Warren" The Southern Review Volume 41-2 Spring 2005
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