American Literature Robert Penn Warren
Joseph Millichap
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0120


The life of Robert Penn Warren (b. 1905–d. 1989) spanned most of the 20th century, so that his varied and voluminous work engaged international modernism in many ways that evolved as regional and national responses to it. Born, raised, and educated in Kentucky and Tennessee, Warren came of age among the then developing Fugitives, Agrarians, and New Critics at Vanderbilt University. After graduating in 1925, advanced study at California, Yale, and Oxford (the last as a Rhodes Scholar) prepared Warren for a distinguished academic career at Louisiana State University, the University of Minnesota, and Yale University. In his years at LSU, Warren helped to launch the Southern Review, and he also edited influential literature text books with his friend and colleague Cleanth Brooks. Warren was determined to be a writer though, and his first volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction appeared in those same years. His great novel, All the King’s Men (1946), marked the end of his literary apprenticeship, especially after it won the Pulitzer Prize. This new national status precipitated a midlife crisis that ended Warren’s troubled first marriage, began his long tenure at Yale, and led to new experiments in drama, cultural criticism, and narrative poetry. Brother to Dragons (1953), subtitled A Tale in Verse and Voices, proves a pivotal effort in which the murder of a slave by Thomas Jefferson’s nephews is related to the writer’s regional legacy. Marriage to fellow author Eleanor Clark, the births of daughter Rosanna and son Gabriel, and a sabbatical trip to Italy brought Warren to an open, personal, and lyrical style in Promises (1957), which won the first of his two Pulitzers for poetry. Warren continued to publish well-reviewed novels (ten in all throughout his career), but his more direct engagement with social issues, especially America’s conflicted racial heritage, also increased his recognition. During these same decades, Warren’s childhood memories and mature visions became powerful poetry that he gathered into well-received new collections (fourteen in all throughout his career). Many critics now believe his poems in the six volumes published between 1974 and 1985 will remain Warren’s lasting literary achievement. This judgment is supported by frequent honors in Warren’s later years, including another Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Now and Then (1978) and his appointment as America’s first official Poet Laureate in 1986. Warren’s death in 1989 and his centennial in 2005 renewed interest in his life and in his writing.

General Overviews

Critical reaction to Warren and his work paralleled his evolution from a writer of regional reputation to one of national acclamation. Most of the early overviews were titles in literary series, and some of these initial efforts remain interesting, especially Bohner 1981. The first fully developed study of Warren’s literary achievement is Justus 1981, and it remains the best single introduction to the writer’s work. The increasing recognition of Warren as a national figure later produced three comparable overviews—Burt 1988, Ruppersburg 1990, and Clark 1991—each analyzing Warren’s canon in relation to diverse American traditions. These efforts were complemented by thoughtful readings from more universal perspectives, including spirituality in Koppelman 1995, isolation in Hendricks 2000, and selfhood in Grimshaw 2001.

  • Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 69. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

    This edition updates Bohner’s original 1964 title in this standard series of brief literary introductions. Both versions are solid studies of the writer and his texts at the times of their publications, though Justus 1981 has aged much better than Bohner’s work in terms of later criticism.

  • Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

    Burt’s intellectual consideration proves significant by locating Warren within our national literary tradition—as do Clark 1991 and Ruppersburg 1990. Burt’s volume differs in its focus on Warren’s intellectual relations with American philosophical idealism, especially with its Emersonian roots.

  • Clark, William Bedford. The American Vision of Robert Penn Warren. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

    Like Burt 1988 and Ruppersburg 1990, this volume locates Warren within American literary traditions, though the emphasis here is more directly focused on Warren in relation to social and political history, with its critical readings organized by decades from the 1920s through the 1980s.

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

    Short introductory volume aimed at both the student and scholar. Working within the confines of a standard series, Grimshaw does a fine job in providing a useful introduction to his complex subject that is accessible for general readers and valuable for specialized audiences.

  • Hendricks, Randy. Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

    Well-written study tightly focused in regard to Warren’s themes of separation, isolation, and loneliness. These are focal themes of considerable importance in Warren’s work, and Hendricks analyzes a number of significant texts with both sympathy and insight.

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

    Prize-winning study that remains the finest critical introduction to the writer. Skillfully connects Warren with the traditions of naturalism in fiction, modernism in poetry, and pragmatism in nonfiction.

  • Koppelman, Robert S. Robert Penn Warren’s Modernist Spirituality. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

    Spiritual overview of Warren that is the broadest of those considered here. Although this surprising approach to Warren, a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, sometimes proves affirmative and useful, it also seems overly positive and often generalized in its analysis of the writer’s texts.

  • Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

    Complements Burt 1988 and Clark 1991 by placing Warren within American traditions, but the emphasis here is more directly on literary connections, especially on Warren’s long poetic narratives. Definition of the American imagination is both eclectic and cogent.

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