Robert Penn Warren was born on April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, Kentucky, to Anna Ruth Penn Warren and her husband, Robert Franklin Warren. Robert Franklin was a banker, and Anne was a schoolteacher. Warren was the first of three children. He had a sister named Mary and a brother named Thomas, who was the youngest. Warren enjoyed growing up in the small town of Guthrie in the Cumberland Valley, which he viewed as a beautiful area. Warren called it "a country well adapted to the proper pursuit of boyhood." His family had a strong leaning toward literature and history; his grandfather was a Confederate veteran who enjoyed quoting the English poet Lord Byron and Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. Robert Franklin loved to read history books aloud to his children.
When Warren was in his teens, his brother threw a rock that hit him in the left eye, causing a severe injury that caused the United States Naval Academy to deny his admission. Instead, at age 16 Warren attended Vanderbilt University, a decision that changed his life. Before college Warren had dabbled in writing, penning his first poem, "Prophecy," in 1921. However, he didn't take literary pursuits seriously and majored in engineering at Vanderbilt. Several scholars, though, convinced Warren to shift his focus to the study of literature. Soon Warren became involved with two important American literary groups: the prosouthern Agrarians and the Fugitives, who defended formal technique in poetry and traditional southern values. Warren began to write poetry seriously and published several pieces in a college journal called The Fugitives. After graduating he attended the University of California, where he met his first wife, Emma "Cinina" Brescia. He received a Master of Arts degree and then went to Yale for a year on a scholarship. In 1928 Warren traveled to England, where he studied at New College at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Within two years he received a Bachelor of Art's Degree in Literature from Oxford.
In 1930 Warren and other southerners contributed essays to an anthology called I'll Take My Stand, which supported an agrarian lifestyle and segregation in the South. Later in his life Warren renounced these views, saying "I remember the ... wrangle of writing it, some kind of discomfort, some sense of evasion." He would go on to publish Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956), in which he reported conversations he had with southerners from all walks of life about their response to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954, which ended legal segregation in public schools. One reviewer said, "This is not an apology for the South. Warren does not attempt to excuse southern failures. But he does try to explain it through the words of the people in the South."
In the early 1930s Warren taught briefly at Southwestern College and Vanderbilt before taking a teaching position at Louisiana State University (LSU). Here Warren along with American critic Cleanth Brooks and American political scientist and editor Charles W. Pipkin founded the The Southern Review, which became a prestigious literary journal, publishing works by English American poet W.H. Auden, English novelist Ford Madox Ford, and American writer Eudora Welty. Also, Warren wrote his first novel, Night Rider (1939), a story about the struggle of independent tobacco growers in Kentucky. With Cleanth Brooks Warren wrote two influential works of literary criticism—Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). These works present a theory called the New Criticism, which claims that works of art should stand alone and should not be interpreted based on the artist's background or the work's historical milieu. In 1942 after The Southern Review folded because of lack of funds, Warren left LSU and never lived in the South again.
All the King's Men
In 1943 Warren took a teaching position at the University of Minnesota and published the novel At Heaven's Gate. He then began writing All the King's Men. It began as a play called Proud Flesh and evolved into a novel inspired by the life of the corrupt, powerful politician from Louisiana, Huey Long. Later Warren admitted he would never have written this novel if not for Long. Even though Warren had left the South, his strong sense of history and southern culture are clearly on display in this novel. Also Warren infuses the work with cultural change, tragedy, and triumph particular to that region.
Warren wrote All the King's Men in sections. He'd write a section, send it to his editor Lambert Davis, who made suggestions, and then continue writing the next part. This process went on for two years until the novel was completed. In retrospect many of Davis's suggestions seem off base. For example, he questioned why in the novel the character Jack Burden, a reporter, would use such a crude way of interviewing a person. Davis missed the point: Burden wants to do a bad interview so he wouldn't dig up the truth about a close family friend, Judge Irwin. Just the same, Warren implemented some of Davis's suggestions. The Restored Edition of 2001 corrects many of these changes based on Davis's poor advice, thereby restoring much of Warren's original intentions for the work. Most notably, it uses Warren's original last name for the character of Willie, Talos; the name was a reference to a cruel character, Talus, who helps mete out justice in the 16th-century poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. Davis had convinced Warren to change the name to Stark, which sounded more American to him.
The novel was released in 1946 to impressive reviews. Orville Prescott of the New York Times calls it "magnificently vital reading, a book ... charged with dramatic tension." The work won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and, two years later, was adapted into the film All the King's Men, which won the Academy Award for best picture, as well as many other prizes.
Since then All the King's Men has received both great praise and severe criticism from scholars. Some laud the work as a philosophical novel that has profound symbols and an inventive narrative style. Others disparage the novel for its melodramatic story, seeing it as popular culture with pretensions of being taken as serious literature. The critic Allen Shepherd, though, claims Warren's genius lies in his ability to fuse abstract thoughts with a dramatic story, showing how ideas emerge from the tangible experience of the world. Still other scholars view All the King's Men as an impressive but flawed work. For example, the critic Jonathan Baumbach claims Warren created a vitally concrete character in Willie but the depiction of Jack Burden lacks a tangible reality. In 2010 Time magazine included All the King's Men as one of the 100 greatest English-language novels written since 1923.
In 1950 Warren moved to Yale University, where he became a professor of playwriting. He divorced his wife in 1951 and, the following year, married the American writer Eleanor Clark. They had two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren and Gabriel Penn Warren. Warren continued to write novels, including World Enough and Time
(1950), Band of Angels
(1956), and The Cave
(1959), in addition to the oral history Segregation
. However, as he grew older Warren devoted more time to writing poetry. Two volumes of poetry—Promises: Poems, 1954–1956
and Now and Then: Poems, 1976–1978
—each won a Pulitzer Prize, making Warren the only author to win the prize for both genres. Warren left Yale to devote himself to his writing in 1956. But in 1961 he took a position as a professor of English at Yale and continued to teach there until 1973. Warren lived with his wife in Connecticut and in a summer home in Vermont. He died of cancer on September 15, 1989.