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Robert Penn Warren was a twentieth-century American writer closely associated with the Southern Agrarian movement in literature in the 1920s and 1930s, a movement that celebrated the South’s rural heritage and bemoaned the damage done to Southern culture by industrialization. Warren achieved widespread fame for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book All the King’s Men (1946). During his extensive career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and short story writer, Warren received two additional Pulitzer Prizes for his groundbreaking achievements in poetry.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Birth of a Southern Agrarian
Warren was born and raised in the small southern town of Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905. Traditional core values combined with a rural, agricultural landscape would shape Warren’s character during the first decades of the twentieth century. During this time, southern states like Kentucky struggled to maintain an agrarian, or farming, society as technological advancements and industrialization brought progress to the North. Rural communities, such as Guthrie, were afflicted by severe poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, and a lack of adequate roads and electricity. These conditions led to a debate over whether the rural South was being left behind by progress in the North.
These social and technological changes caused tensions in the South that were reflected in political and literary movements of the period. In the 1920s and 1930s, politicians and writers who defended the southern way of life and condemned northern industrialization and secularism as a threat to southern traditions became known as the Southern Agrarians.
In 1921, Warren began contributing to this literary movement not long after enrolling at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he studied under renowned poet John Crowe Ransom. Ransom invited Warren to join a select group of young writers that included Donald Davidson and Allen Tate.
From 1922 to 1925, Ransom’s group of young writers published the Fugitive, a literary journal that included both poetry and criticism. The Fugitive served as a forum for the young writers to amplify traditional Southern, agrarian values while underscoring the hazards of the budding industrial economy that was flourishing in the northern states. The pieces collected in Warren’s first two volumes, Thirty-Six Poems (1935) and Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942), are based on folk stories of Warren’s native Kentucky. The Fugitive group, as these writers came to be labeled, later aligned itself with the Southern Agrarian movement and published I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a manifesto that defended southern culture and criticized northern modernization as a negative influence on traditional values. In some ways, the Southern Agrarians used this publication to respond to critic H. L. Mencken’s essay ”The Sahara of the Bozart” (1917), which harshly criticized southern culture for its backwardness and lack of literary production. Warren contributed an essay titled ”The Briar Patch,” in which he defended racial segregation, reflecting the conservative politics of the Agrarians. Later in life, Warren rejected these early views and supported the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
After completing his studies at Vanderbilt, Warren continued his education at several prominent institutions, including Oxford University in England. In 1930, Warren returned to the United States and married Emma Brescia. A few years later, he accepted a position at Louisiana State University, where he taught English. In 1935, along with fellow faculty members Cleanth Brooks and Charles W. Pipkin, he co-founded the Southern
Review, an influential literary magazine. Contributors to the Southern Review often analyzed a piece of writing as an object of art, independent of outside influences. This form of literary analysis was later referred to as New Criticism. Warren also collaborated with Brooks in editing the textbooks Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). Both textbooks introduced future generations of students and teachers to this new, in-depth analysis of text as an art form.
Maturing as a Writer
As he developed his craft and matured as a writer during the 1930s and 1940s, Warren sifted through the surface of human nature and entered into the much darker realm of human corruption. Although Warren did not serve in World War II, the turbulent political situation in the world and the economic upheavals at home, caused by the Great Depression, left marks on his literary work. He focused on the human subject and the forces that influence human behavior, such as society and the idea of God. Warren often targeted his Kentucky upbringing as the setting of his darker works during this time. His first short story “Prime Leaf” (1930), was published during his final year at Oxford. This piece of historical fiction is set in Kentucky during the Black Patch Tobacco War (19041909), a conflict between a large tobacco monopoly and local farmers over price fixing. The farmers could not make a living off the low prices fixed by the tobacco monopoly. The resulting conflict involved violence on both sides, with night attacks on farms, crops, and property. Warren’s first novel, Night Rider (1939), is set during the same historical conflict.
The novella Blackberry Winter, first published in 1946, tells of the loss of innocence. Set during an unseasonably cold June morning, the narrator—nine-year-old Seth—recounts a violent storm that flooded a nearby creek, damaged crops, and left marks of destruction across the countryside. Warren constructs a realm similar to ”Prime Leaf’ in ”The Ballad of Billie Potts,” a poem in his collection Selected Poems, 1923-1943 (1944). The ballad centers on the life of a frontier innkeeper who makes his living by robbing and murdering travelers. The innkeeper’s malevolence comes to a climax when he mistakenly kills his son, who had previously gone missing. This theme of human corruption, caused by both external and internal forces, would later appear in his most famous work, All the King’s Men.
Major Novel Inspired by Huey Long
All the King’s Men draws its inspiration from the career of Huey Long, who is often referred to as the Louisiana Kingfish. Long was a controversial political figure who was disliked by the political establishment but supported by the people as a reformer. He was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928, and installed his own people in every level of state government in an attempt to end corruption, but he ultimately fell victim to corruption himself. He served as a U.S. senator from 1932 until 1935, when he was assassinated at the Louisiana state capitol. The protagonist of this novel, Willie Stark (based on Long), appears as a simple, earnest farmhand from the South corrupted by power and greed.
Transitions in Life and Literature
The 1950s and 1960s mark a transitional period in Warren’s life that reflects important changes in American society. The American victory in World War II led to a period of economic expansion and prosperity during the 1950s. Warren and Emma divorced in 1951, and he married Eleanor Clark in 1952. They had two children, Rosanna (born in 1953) and Gabriel (born in 1955). While Warren continued to base his work on his own experiences and emotional turmoil, a reader may identify a break away from figurative darkness. Indeed, many of his most prized writings seem to reflect life experiences that invoke joy, including works that allude to his immediate family.
Promises: Poems, 1954—1956 (1957), for which Warren received his first Pulitzer Prize in poetry as well as the National Book Award, reveals a dramatic shift from his early, darker works. Promises has been described by some as a distinctly personal tale from a man who ultimately rediscovered joy.
Taking a New Stand on Race Relations
The 1950s were marked by social tensions that resulted in the birth of the civil rights movement. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organized nonviolent protests against segregation on the church and community level. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which made it a crime to discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, or religion. During this period of important social changes, Warren abandoned his earlier, conservative views on segregation, and he befriended and supported the work of prominent African American writer Ralph Ellison. He published essays on these social struggles, Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956), and conducted an interview with civil rights leaders titled Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965).
Later Life and Works
Warren spent the last decades of his life living in Connecticut and in a summer home in Vermont, where he continued to write poetry and a final novel, A Place to Come To (1977), a largely autobiographical work. Warren received his second Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Now and Then: Poems, 1976—1978 (1978). In this collection, he meditates on his life, beginning with his boyhood in rural Kentucky and progressing, in Warren’s words, through ”sixty years blown like a hurricane past.” In 1986, the Library of Congress appointed Warren Poet Laureate of the United States, a position that he had held from 1944 to 1945 under the title ”Consultant in Poetry.” Warren is one of the few to hold this honor twice. Warren died in Vermont from complications of cancer in 1989.
Works in Literary Context
The Southern Literary Renaissance
In 1917, Baltimore critic H. L. Mencken published an essay titled ”The Sahara of the Bozart” that famously derided Southern arts and culture, writing that the South as a whole was ”almost as sterile artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” There were Southern authors, of course, in the early twentieth century, but they were publishing sentimental books about the pre-Civil War South—so-called ”moonlight and magnolia” romances. Mencken mocked such writing and pronounced the South incapable of producing an important, new kind of literature. A generation of young Southerners took Mencken’s criticism as a call to arms, and set about creating ”Southern” literature. During the 1920s, this produced mostly protest literature, or literature written attacking the old-style books of the South. The founding of The Fugitive at Vanderbilt University can be seen as a direct response to Mencken. Warren and other Fugitive poets set out to prove that Southern writers could produce solid work that avoided the pitfalls of sentimentality and romanticism.
The 1920s can be seen as a reactionary phase in Southern writing. During the 1930s, however, Southern literature emerged as a major, mature literary force. The titan of Southern letters was William Faulkner, who published a series of novels in the late 1920s and early 1930s that even Mencken had to admit were impressive. These include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932). Faulkner steeped his work in the culture and character of the South, representing it in epic scale using a flowing, experimental style. Warren’s monumental All the King’s Men similarly paints the South in tragic terms. By the 1940s, writers like Warren, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers had dispelled any misconceptions the reading public may have had about the artistic abilities of the writers of the American South.
Power and Corruption
The human desire for power and its potential for corruption is an enduring literary theme, which Warren introduces into many of his works, including novels like All the King’s Men and poetry, such as ”The Ballad of Billie Potts” and ”Brother to Dragons.” Even today, media outlets—such as advertisements, infomercials, and other messages—claim that fame and fortune will solve the problems of the common man. While venues have changed and the transmission of messages has improved over time, the false sense of security that comes with blind ambition remains as important a theme in our own day as it was in Warren’s time. Warren’s ability to construct an American landscape familiar to many, while turning seemingly harmless characters into monsters, is the reason many describe his work as both poignant and timeless.
Works in Critical Context
While critics vary in their interpretation of Warren’s major works, many identify a common thread: Warren infused history and his early experiences into fictional characters; these characters yearn for stability and power while residing in a volatile society that tempts and abuses its citizens. Warren illuminates such desires and corruption in perhaps his greatest literary achievement, All the King’s Men.
All the King’s Men
All the King’s Men captures one man’s rise and fall from political power as it juxtaposes life and government in a backward American state. Initial criticism of the novel focused on the character of Willie Stark and his corruption by power and greed, while later critics analyzed the important role of Jack Burden, the journalist who narrates the story. As James Hall has noted, ”The power of the novel comes from imposing two forms of energy, embodied in Willie and Jack, on the permanent scene of politics.” Robert Gorham Davis emphasizes the relationship between action and ideas in this novel, writing, ”Warren is fascinated by the strong man of action, as many of our war novelists were fascinated by the Nazis. And the question of All the King’s Men is solely whether the man of ideas can work with the dictator in the interests of historic change.” Davis also comments on the poetic aspects of Warren’s prose fiction, describing the novel in the context of Warren’s narrative poetry. He contends that ”All the King’s Men is brilliantly done, with magnificent brief set-pieces in which Robert Penn Warren writes prose equivalent to his poems in sound and rhythm and imagery. . . . Mixed with this pure gold is the brass of slick writing and melodrama that comprises the rest of the novel.” Later criticism focuses on aspects of the novel other than its political dimension. Earl Wilcox, for example, sees the many love affairs of Willie Stark as perhaps more important than his one political affair. Wilcox suggests that ”the novel is finally about the power of love in the universe to change a man.” Wilcox sees in this novel’s many themes a complexity that defies easy categorization: ”Not all readers find the novel as richly humorous, as politically exciting, or as totally pertinent to humanity. . . . In a final analysis, the novel resists categorizing . . . since it depicts many complex matters simultaneously.”
- Berger, Walter. A Southern Renascence Man: Views of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
- Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.
- Bohner, Charles H. Robert Penn Warren. New York: Twayne, 1964.
- Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
- Casper, Leonard. Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960.
- Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. New York: Twayne, 1981.
- Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
- Strandberg, Victor H. The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren. Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 1977.
- Ealy, Steven D. ”Corruption and Innocence in Robert Penn Warren’s Fiction.” Modern Age 47, Issue 2 (March 22, 2005): 139-147.
- Walker, Marshall. ”Making Dreams Work: The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren.” London Magazine 15 (December/January 1976): 33-36.
- org. Robert Penn Warren. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/17.
- Robert Penn Warren.com. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.robertpennwarren.com.
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