In his small Kentucky hometown, he was the gangly, red-haired boy with a flair for poetry, a passion for stories about the Civil War, and dreams of sailing the seas.
To the greater world, he became a literary lion, a man whose novels, essays, and poems reflected back to his readers the transcendent beauty of the natural world and the tragic frailties of the human condition.
The new KET documentary explores the life and work of this critically acclaimed writer in Robert Penn Warren: A Vision.
‘I Am a Southern and That Can’t Be Changed’
Warren was born in 1905 in Guthrie, Ky., a small town perched atop the Kentucky-Tennessee border in Todd County, where two old L&N Railroad lines intersect. The local farm fields, creeks, and woodlands made “a country well adapted to the proper pursuit of boyhood,” Warren once wrote. It’s a landscape he would later describe in the poem “Pondy Woods.”
A train’s far whistle blew and drifted away, coldly.
Lucid and thin the morning lay along the farms,
And here no sound touched the sweet earth, miraculously stilled.
His father, who only had a sixth grade education, worked as a store clerk and bank cashier. His mother was a schoolteacher. Nights in the family home at the corner of Cherry and Third Streets in Guthrie were filled with the family members reading aloud to each other.
And there were stories of the Civil War. Many of Warren’s neighbors and relatives fought for the Confederacy, including his grandfather, who rose to the rank of captain in the cavalry. Warren describes Gabriel Penn as bookish man who “quoted poetry by the yard” and who used a stick to diagram Napoleonic battle strategies in the western Kentucky dirt. He later wrote of his grandfather in the book, “Portrait of a Father.”
He had then been against the state’s rights notion because he said his people had fought in the Revolution to make a country and he did not want to see that country balkanized. He thought that slavery was an outmoded – or was it outgrown – institution… But when the war came and Virginia was invaded, he was ready to fight.
Warren also hoped for military glory. He gained an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and dreamed of becoming admiral of the Pacific fleet. But a childhood accident left Warren blind in one eye, thus dashing his plans for a naval career.
But the young Kentuckian with the tuft of unruly auburn hair that earned him the nickname “Red” had another love: poetry. He started writing it as a teenager, and had his first poem published in a local journal when he was 17.
That creative talent would soon catch the attention of Warren’s professors and fellow students at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.
“By the time he’s 18, he’s discovered by what becomes known as the Agrarians,” says historian David Blight. “They see in him an amazing skill and ability as a poet.”
The Agrarians, also known as the Fugitive Poets, sought to defend and promote the traditional values of the rural South. The group included Tennessean John Crowe Ransom, who was a professor at Vanderbilt, and Winchester native Allen Tate, who was Warren’s roommate.
“He was tall and thin, and when he walked across the room, he made a sliding shuffle as if his bones didn’t belong to one other,” wrote Tate. “This remarkable young man was Red, Robert Penn Warren, the most gifted person I have ever known.”
As the youngest member of the Agrarians, Warren, who entered college when he was 16, found himself encouraged and challenged by the more seasoned writers.
“It was my education,” Warren said of the experience. “Whatever I got, I got from them.”
In 1930, the group published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand,” in which Warren had been assigned to write a defense of racial segregation. The result was an essay called “The Briar Patch.”
The southern white man wishes the negro well. He wishes to see crime, genial irresponsibility, ignorance, and oppression replaced by an informed and productive negro community… Let the negro sit beneath his own vine and fig tree.
“The piece in the end simply argues that segregation is necessary,” says Blight, “probably permanent, and rooted in the natural proclivities of black and white people.”
“You can’t talk about Robert Penn Warren and race without first locating him in [his] place,” says Kentucky poet Frank X Walker, speaking of Warren’s southern roots and his upbringing down the road from the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
“So if this is the space that he was born out of, it would not be a surprise to anyone that by the time he was… an undergraduate at Vanderbilt that he’d have some conservative ideas,” Walker says.
Warren later said the essay reflected the standard view of many Americans of that era. Blight says it was the one piece of work out of his entire literary career that Warren came to regret.
All The King’s Men
After Vanderbilt, Warren’s academic studies took him to the University of California at Berkley, Yale, and Oxford. He held teaching positions in Memphis, Nashville, Baton Rouge, and Minneapolis, and finally New Haven, Conn. He married and divorced. And he published a string of books, ranging from historical fiction to poetry and literary criticism.
His career took a dramatic turn in 1946 with the release of the novel “All the King’s Men.” It told the story of the rise and ultimate downfall of a corrupt southern governor and one of his henchmen. It’s based on the life of former U.S. Senator and Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, a populist demagogue who rode his themes of “every man a king” and “share our wealth” to national political prominence during the Depression.
“The outline of the story plus the legend, not the facts, were interesting to me,” Warren said. “It raised the question… what is the nature of power in a modern world?”
As a relatively poor and uneducated state, Louisiana was ripe for someone like Long to come to power, according to Warren. Long’s administration built roads, bridges, and schools as a way to solidify a devoted base among working class people in Louisiana.
“This is true of all authoritarian states, Mussolini, or Hitler or anybody else: [they] give something for what they get,” Warren said. “You cannot have a tyranny without a paying off for it.”
Long, like Warren’s protagonist Willie Stark, wound up the victim of an assassination by a political opponent in the hallways of the Louisiana state capitol. Warren said he couldn’t miss the parallels between Long’s demise and that of Julius Caesar.
Warren would publish 10 novels during his lifetime, but none would achieve the popular acclaim of “All The King’s Men.” It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947; a movie adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1949. It would seal his status of as an American literary icon.
A Drought and a Transformation
But all was not well in Warren’s life during this time. He was in the middle of a something of a creative drought, in which he could complete a long novel, but he couldn’t finish a poem.
“I must have tried 50 poems in that period,” he said. “They never got past a few lines. They’d die on me.”
“What Warren himself said is that he had written himself into a corner by taking too fastidious a view of what counts as a poem,” says Brandies University Professor John Burt, who is Warren’s literary executor.
In the meantime, though, Warren married his second wife, the essayist and novelist Eleanor Clark, in 1952. Together they had two children: Rosanna, born in 1953, followed in her parents’ footsteps and became a poet and literary critic. Gabriel, born in 1955, became a sculptor.
“I think it surprised him … how at a relatively old age he became a father,” says writer Mark Lee, who was a student of Warren’s at Yale. “It surprised him how much pleasure and how much wonder these children gave to him.”
Rosanna says her father read to the children every night for years – even after they grew old enough to read for themselves. And he became a willing actor in a play she wrote during a family trip to France when she was 12 years old. Home movies show Warren cloaked in a black robe and colorful headdress while carrying a stick for a scepter as he ruled over Rosanna’s imaginary kingdom.
The happiness Warren found in family life and long trips to he Mediterranean coast provided him a key to unlock his decade-long block on poetry.
“Something happens on the other side of that dry spell,” says Kentucky poet Maurice Manning. “His poetry was transformed.”
The poems that would follow represented a new style for Warren, one he said was inspired by the immediate world rather than some poetic ideal. He published more than 10 books of poetry over the remainder of his life. He became the first author to win Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry, taking the poetry honor twice: in 1958 and 1979. And he was named the United States Poet Laureate in 1986.
Wrestling with the ‘Burden of the Past on the Present’
Even though Warren departed Kentucky to go to college, and left the south early in his teaching career, he continued to be influenced by the region and its complex social history. He wrote several more novels loosely based on historical stories from the south, and even a children’s book about the Alamo.
“I don’t think Warren could ever escape his endless fascination with history,” says Blight. “There’s a poem in which there’s a simple line by Warren where he says history is the thing you cannot resign from.”
In 1955, he took an assignment from Look magazine to travel his native region and interview people there about their racial attitudes.
“After being away from the South for many years and in Europe a while, I came back” Warren said, “I saw many things that shocked me.”
Those stories became the book, “Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South,” published in 1956. The concluding essay in the collection is, in essence, a self-interview as Warren probes his own evolving thoughts on racial segregation.
If the south is really able to face up to itself and its situation, it may achieve identity – moral identity. Then in a country where moral identity is hard to come by, the south, because it has had to deal concretely with a moral problem, may offer some leadership, and we need any we can get if we are able break out of the national rhythm – the rhythm between complacency and panic.
To coincide with the centennial of the start of what he called “the war,” Warren released “The Legacy of the Civil War,” which was a meditation on the roots of the conflict and its costs and consequences.
Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. There was, of course, the noble vision of the Founding Fathers articulated in the Declaration and the Constitution: The dream of freedom incarnated in a more perfect union. But the revolution did not create a nation, except on paper, and too often in the following years, the vision of the Founding Fathers, which men had suffered and died to validate, became a merely daydream of easy and automatic victories, a vulgar delusion of Manifest Destiny, a conviction of being a people divinely chosen to live on milk and honey at small expense… The vision had not been finally submitted to the test of history.
“The war made an infinite difference,” Warren said. “It removed the paradox of the notion of America: A land of freedom, which is a land of chattel slavery. That was over. Now what happened afterwards is far from perfect, God knows.”
Poet Natasha Tretheway calls the book not only a primer on the war itself, but also a window into understanding the racial and social justice issues that continue to challenge America today. Blight says the book shows how the writer, now in his late 50s, still struggled to understand human nature and racism within the greater context of our national story.
“Warren was always in some way dealing with the problem of the burden of the past on the present,” says Blight.
In 1964, Warren hit the road again to interview more than 40 nationally known civil rights activists as well as people working behind the scenes in the movement. He had frank and revealing conversations with James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and fellow Kentucky native Whitney Young.
Warren said he pursued the project to learn first hand about the “Negro Revolution.” In speaking with King, Warren said revolutions usually aim to liquidate a ruling class or regime. He asked if that was King’s goal too.
“This is a revolution to get in,” King told Warren. “I think you’re quite right that most revolutions, almost all revolutions, have been centered on destroying something… where in this revolution, the whole quest is for the negro to get in to the mainstream of American life.”
Warren recorded all the interviews, , which are archived at the University of Kentucky and transcribed them for the book, “Who Speaks for the Negro?” which was published in 1965.
In the Shadow of Robert Penn Warren
Warren’s last book, “Portrait of a Father,” came out in 1988. In it he seeks make sense of his father’s life, who Warren discovers also wrote poetry in his youth, and the lives of other of his fraternal and maternal ancestors.
A year later, Warren died after a long battle with cancer. He was buried in Stratton, Vt., but he also had a marker placed in Guthrie’s Highland Cemetery in the Warren family plot and adjacent to the grave of his best friend in childhood. Rosanna Warren says her father wanted a marker in his hometown because his soul and sense of life were rooted there.
I wonder what it would be like to die…
And know yourself dead, lying under
The infinite motion of sky.
–American Portrait: Old Style
“He never forgets Kentucky. Something in him is permanently embedded in the dark and bloody ground,” says literary critic and long-time Warren friend Harold Bloom, referring to an old Native American description of the land that would become the commonwealth.
Now, nearly three decades after his death, Warren remains an inspiration for the students he taught, the other writers he influenced, and the readers who continue to revel in his books.
“You couldn’t be a writer in Kentucky and not be in the shadow of Robert Penn Warren,” says poet Frank X Walker.
“One of Warren’s great strengths as an artist, as a poet is to provide in his work a kind of hope for us against the despair of our history and our human condition,” says Natasha Tretheway. “Warren is one of my literary ancestors, and in that way, he’s a voice in my blood.”
“Robert Penn Warren had a vision,” says Maurice Manning. “Not only a creative vision expressed through his fiction and poetry, but a broader vision of our entire country and its complicated history. So for me, there is something remarkable about this man that I find deeply moving, always.”