Today in History – September 15

Writer, critic, and teacher Robert Penn Warren died on September 15, 1989. During his long and distinguished literary career, Warren was twice associated with the Library of Congress. In 1944-45, he served the Library as Consultant in Poetry and in 1986 Warren was named the first Poet Laureate of the United States.

Scene from All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Photo from Life magazine; 1948. Prints & Photographs Division

Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905, Warren attended Vanderbilt University after an accidental eye injury caused him to forgo his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He roomed with Allen Tate at Vanderbilt and befriended Donald Davidson, as well as one of his teachers, John Crowe Ransom, forming a group of Southern poets called the Fugitives. From 1922-25, they published a bi-monthly magazine called The Fugitive. Several members of the group went on to urge preservation of Southern agrarian values in the 1930 manifesto I’ll Take My Stand.

Warren studied at the University of California, Yale, and New College, Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar. He subsequently taught at several colleges and universities including Vanderbilt, the University of Minnesota, and Yale. With Cleanth Brooks and Charles Pipkin, Warren founded The Southern Review. Among the most influential American literary magazines of the time, it deeply influenced and fostered the development of Southern writers.

In Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), both written with Cleanth Brooks, Warren championed the “New Criticism”—a school of literary interpretation that approaches each work as an individual artistic production rather than a reflection of the author’s personal or historical experience.

Warren’s novels include Night Rider (1939)—his first published novel, At Heaven’s Gate (1943), World Enough and Time (1950), Band of Angels (1955), The Cave (1959), and Wilderness (1961). All the King’s Men (1946) used the career of Louisiana demagogue Huey Long to examine the corrupting nature of power. It received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize and the film adaptation won the 1949 Academy Award for best motion picture.

Warren twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry—in 1958 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957) and in 1979 for Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 (1978). His other poetry volumes include You, Emperors, and Others: Poems (1960), Audubon, A Vision (1969), Rumor Verified: Poems, 1979-1980 (1981), Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce… (1983), and New and Selected Poems, 1923-1985 (1985). His long narrative poem Brother to Dragons, a Tale in Verse and Dreams (1953) deals with the brutal murder of a slave by two nephews of Thomas Jefferson. The poetry of his later years touched on a variety of themes including aging, immortality, and nature.

In the spring of 1998, then Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky introduced Robert Penn Warren’s daughter to a Library of Congress audience. Rosanna Warren read her poem “Song,” calling it “an elegy” for her father.

A yellow coverlet
in the greenwood:
spread the corners wide to the dim, stoop-shouldered pines.
Let blank sky
be your canopy.