Robert Penn Warren: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Robert Penn Warren was one of the most important and multifaceted literary figures of the 20th century. As a critic, he helped found the school of thought known as New Criticism and as a writer he is the only person to win the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and fiction.

A Man of Many Talents

For most people, it would be enough to be one of the most influential literature professors of all time, affecting how literature was taught and read for generations of Americans. Or to write one of the most acclaimed novels of the twentieth century, considered by many to be the best novel about politics ever written. Or, to be the only person to win the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious annual prize for American writers, for both fiction and poetry.

Robert Penn Warren managed to do all of this, and more. As a professor and critic, he was one of the founders of the literary analysis approach known as New Criticism, and authored several influential textbooks. As a novelist, he wrote the acclaimed All the King's Men about a corrupt political boss. And as a poet he won two Pulitzers to go along with the one he received for All the King's Men, often focusing on romantic views of nature, particularly in the American South.


Warren was born in Kentucky in 1905 and attended Vanderbilt University, where he was a member of the literary group known as the Fugitives. The Fugitives and a later group Warren belonged to, The Southern Agrarians, wrote romanticized poetry and fiction about the American South, and were often criticized as reactionaries who opposed civil rights. 'The Briar Patch,' a story that Warren contributed to the Southern Agrarian collection, I'll Take My Stand, defended racial segregation.

Warren first gained attention as both a writer and critic while teaching at Louisiana State University and later moved to Yale, where he and Cleanth Brooks became the leading proponents of New Criticism, an approach to poetry and fiction that focused on the work of literature itself, as opposed to the context and author's biography.

After moving to Connecticut to teach at Yale, Warren gradually became more liberal, both politically and artistically. He experimented with new poetic forms and became an outspoken advocate of Civil Rights. In 1965, he published Who Speaks for the Negro?, a collection of interviews with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement including Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his career, Warren was widely celebrated and collected nearly every award and recognition imaginable. In addition to his three Pulitzers, he was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now known as Poet Laureate, and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, National Medal of Arts, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award granted to civilians by the US government.


Though he wrote several novels throughout his career, Warren's reputation as a novelist rests largely on All the King's Men, published in 1947. The book centers on Willie Stark, a corrupt politician in the South during the 1930s and is narrated by Jack Burden, a political reporter who becomes Stark's top aide. The book tells of Stark's fast rise through politics and eventual assassination.

Stark was based on Huey Long, the governor and senator from Louisiana who was assassinated in 1935. Like Long, Stark espouses a politics of populism, an appeal to the 'common man' and against the elites in power, but uses it cynically to seize power for himself. All the King's Men focuses on the corrupting nature of power and the impossibility of remaining aloof from the world around you, as Jack tries to do.

Besides All the King's Men, Warren's most popular and influential books are probably the pair of textbooks he co-authored with fellow Yale professor Cleanth Brooks: Understanding Poetry (1943) and Understanding Fiction (1947). The textbooks were an introduction to New Criticism, the mode of literary analysis that Warren had been developing since he was at Vanderbilt.

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