Literary and Critical Theory Robert Penn Warren
Joseph Millichap
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0126


Robert Penn Warren (b. 1905–d. 1989) lived and wrote through most of the 20th century, responding to international modernism in personal, regional, and national regards that resulted in his voluminous and varied canon. During the course of his career, which spanned some six decades, Warren was recognized as America’s principal person of letters. For instance, he remains the only winner of Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry, while also writing nonfiction prose of a comparable quantity if not quite of an equal quality. His nonfiction includes biography and autobiography, as well as cultural and literary criticism. Indeed, Warren could be counted as a major American writer in terms of his nonfiction alone. In terms of critical theory, Warren is most often connected to the New Criticism of the mid-20th century, yet his diverse critical practice proves eclectic. Thus, he always remained both a practicing and a practical critic. His essays, articles, reviews, collections, editions, and monographs developed away from strict critical formalism and close textual analysis toward more cultural and psychological approaches. In these contextual changes, Warren’s critical efforts mirror his creative works, so that they prove almost as significant in understanding the life and work of their creator as much as the lives and works of his myriad subjects. Born, raised, and educated in Kentucky and Tennessee, Warren came of age among the then-evolving Fugitives, Agrarians, and New Critics. His critical writing began during the 1920s with student exercises at Vanderbilt and with freelance reviews for regional publications such as The Fugitive. In the 1930s, Warren’s teaching materials evolved into influential textbooks in partnership with Cleanth Brooks, with whom he coedited the Southern Review at Louisiana State. Warren’s first volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction appeared in the 1940s, while his breakthrough novel, All the King’s Men (1946), marked the end of his literary apprenticeship. His national stature led to a long tenure at Yale and also to new experiments in drama, narrative poetry, and cultural criticism through the 1950s. Warren’s closer engagement with social issues, especially America’s conflicted racial heritage, also increased his national reputation during the 1960s. He continued to publish well-reviewed novels (ten across his career) and well-received volumes of poetry (fourteen in total), but in the 1970s his literary focus shifted to criticism. His principal critical project was the classroom anthology American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1973), coedited with Brooks and R. W. B. Lewis. During the later 1970s and the early 1980s, Warren’s childhood memories and mature reflections on them became powerful poems that he gathered into six new collections, which won him late honors such as his appointment as America’s first Poet Laureate in 1986. Warren’s death in 1989 and his centennial in 2005 renewed interest in his canon, including his criticism, which continues to the present by way of several recent critical studies.

General Overviews

Critical reaction to Warren and his work developed in steady response to his evolution from a writer of regional reputation to one of national acclaim. The earlier overviews were generally titles in critical series, and these initial efforts for the most part said little about their subject’s own literary criticism. The first fully developed study of Warren’s overall achievement was Justus 1981, the best single introduction to the writer’s canon to that point—with a long chapter on his literary criticism. Grimshaw 2001 is a title in a series of briefer introductions to major writers, and it provides a useful entry point into Warren’s life and work with some emphasis on his literary criticism. Only two monographs are fully focused on Warren’s literary criticism, Beck 2006 and Millichap 2021. Beck works her way carefully through all of Warren’s literary criticism, while Millichap concentrates on the writer’s later, more personal critical work, which evolved in the 1970s.

  • Beck, Charlotte H. Robert Penn Warren: Critic. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

    A careful study that presents the best overall consideration of Warren’s literary criticism. Beck’s chronological analysis of Warren’s surprisingly large body of critical work reveals that he was an eclectic yet formidable critic in his handful of theoretical essays as well as in his numerous reviews, articles, and volumes.

  • Grimshaw, James A., Jr. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

    A short introductory volume aimed at both the student and the scholar. Working within the confines of a critical series, Grimshaw does an excellent job by providing a useful overview of his complex subject’s diverse canon that is accessible for general readers yet still valuable for more specialized audiences.

  • Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Southern Literary Studies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

    Justus’s prizewinning volume was the first significant overview of Warren, and it remains one of the finest critical introductions to the writer four decades later. This study skillfully connects Warren with the traditions of naturalism in fiction, modernism in poetry, and pragmatism in nonfiction, including literary criticism.

  • Millichap, Joseph R. Robert Penn Warren, Shadowy Autobiography, and Other Makers of American Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021.

    This essentially psychological reading of Warren’s literary criticism parallels Millichap’s earlier monographs on the writer’s fiction and poetry. Here he focuses on Warren’s later critical efforts developing around the American literature anthology he edited in collaboration with Cleanth Brooks and R. W. B. Lewis.

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