Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905 – September 15, 1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He founded the literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for his novel All the King's Men (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.
Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, very near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, to Robert Warren and Anna Penn. Warren's mother's family had roots in Virginia, having given their name to the community of Penn's Store in Patrick County, Virginia, and was a descendant of Revolutionary War soldier Colonel Abram Penn. Robert Penn Warren graduated from Clarksville High School in Clarksville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt University (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in 1925 and the University of California, Berkeley (M.A.) in 1926. Warren pursued further graduate study at Yale University from 1927 to 1928 and obtained his B.Litt. as a Rhodes Scholar from New College, Oxford, in England in 1930. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Italy during the rule of Benito Mussolini. That same year he began his teaching career at Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee.
While still an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, Warren became associated with the group of poets there known as the Fugitives, and somewhat later, during the early 1930s, Warren and some of the same writers formed a group known as the Southern Agrarians. He contributed "The Briar Patch" to the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand along with 11 other Southern writers and poets (including fellow Vanderbilt poet/critics John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson). In "The Briar Patch" the young Warren defends racial segregation, in line with the political leanings of the Agrarian group, although Davidson deemed Warren's stances in the essay so progressive that he argued for excluding it from the collection. However, Warren recanted these views in an article on the civil rights movement, "Divided South Searches Its Soul", which appeared in the July 9, 1956 issue of Life magazine. A month later, Warren published an expanded version of the article as a small book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South. He subsequently adopted a high profile as a supporter of racial integration. In 1965, he published Who Speaks for the Negro?, a collection of interviews with black civil rights leaders including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, thus further distinguishing his political leanings from the more conservative philosophies associated with fellow Agrarians such as Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and particularly Davidson. Warren's interviews with civil rights leaders are at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky.
Warren's best-known work is All the King's Men, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. Main character Willie Stark resembles Huey Pierce Long (1893–1935), the radical populist governor of Louisiana whom Warren was able to observe closely while teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge from 1933 to 1942. All the King's Men became a highly successful film, starring Broderick Crawford and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1949. A 2006 film adaptation by writer/director Steven Zaillian featured Sean Penn as Willie Stark and Jude Law as Jack Burden. The opera Willie Stark by Carlisle Floyd to his own libretto based on the novel was first performed in 1981.
Warren served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, 1944–1945 (later termed Poet Laureate), and won two Pulitzer Prizes in poetry, in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954–1956 and in 1979 for Now and Then. Promises also won the annual National Book Award for Poetry.
In 1974, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Warren's lecture was entitled "Poetry and Democracy" (subsequently published under the title Democracy and Poetry). In 1977, Warren was awarded the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates. In 1980, Warren was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, Warren was selected as a MacArthur Fellow and later was named as the first U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry on February 26, 1986. In 1987, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Warren was co-author, with Cleanth Brooks, of Understanding Poetry, an influential literature textbook. It was followed by other similarly co-authored textbooks, including Understanding Fiction, which was praised by Southern Gothic and Roman Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor, and Modern Rhetoric, which adopted what can be called a New Critical perspective.
His first marriage was to Emma Brescia. His second marriage was in 1952 to Eleanor Clark, with whom he had two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren (born 1953) and Gabriel Penn Warren (born 1955). During his tenure at Louisiana State University he resided at Twin Oaks (otherwise known as the Robert Penn Warren House) in Prairieville, Louisiana. He lived the latter part of his life in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Stratton, Vermont where he died of complications from prostate cancer. He is buried at Stratton, Vermont, and, at his request, a memorial marker is situated in Highland Cemetery in Guthrie, Kentucky.
In April 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp to mark the 100th anniversary of Warren's birth. Introduced at the post office in his native Guthrie, it depicts the author as he appeared in a 1948 photograph, with a background scene of a political rally designed to evoke the setting of All the King's Men. His son and daughter, Gabriel and Rosanna Warren, were in attendance.
Vanderbilt University houses the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, which is sponsored by the College of Arts and Science. It began its programs in January 1988, and in 1989 received a $480,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The center promotes "interdisciplinary research and study in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences."
The high school that Robert Penn Warren attended, Clarksville High School (Tennessee), was renovated into an apartment complex in 1982. The original name of the apartments was changed to The Penn Warren in 2010.