"The urge to write poetry is like having an itch. When the itch becomes annoying enough, you scratch it." -- 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 influential 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.
"For what is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding: it is the deepest part of autobiography.""How do poems grow? They grow out of your life.""I don't expect you'll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.""I've been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It's a kind of pain I can't do without.""Poets, we know, are terribly sensitive people, and in my observation one of the things they are most sensitive about is money.""The poem is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see-it is, rather, a light by which we may see-and what we see is life."
Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, to Robert Warren and Anna Penn. Warren's mother's family had roots in Virginia, having given their name to the community of Penn's Store in Patrick County, Virginia. Robert Penn Warren graduated from Clarksville High School in Tennessee, Vanderbilt University in 1925 and the University of California, Berkeley in 1926. Warren later attended Yale University 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, 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 traditionalist conservative 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. 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. 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.
Warren served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Poet Laureate, 1944—1945 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, for his best known work, the novel All the King's Men, whose main character, Willie Stark, resembles the radical populist governor of Louisiana, Huey Pierce Long (1893—1935), whom Warren was able to observe closely while teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge from 1933-42. Warren won Pulitzer Prizes in poetry in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956, and in 1979 for Now and Then. He is the only writer ever to win the Pulitzer in both fiction and poetry. All the King's Men, starring Broderick Crawford, became a highly successful film, 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 premiered in 1981.
In 1974, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Warren 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). 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.
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.
Warren was married in 1930 to Emma Brescia until their divorce in 1951. His second marriage was in 1952 to Eleanor Clark, with whom he had two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren (b. 1953) and Gabriel Penn Warren (b. 1955). He lived the latter part of his life in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Stratton, Vermont where he died of complications from bone 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 Penn 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 Sciences. 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."
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