Remembering Robert Penn Warren

by David Madden

 

The year 2005 marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of Robert Penn Warren, America’s first poet laureate, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, and most recognized in his beloved Louisiana for his novel All the King’s Men, inspired by the reign of Huey Long.

Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky on April 24, 1905. He entered Vanderbilt University in 1921, where he became the youngest member of the group of Southern poets called the “Fugitives,” which included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Merrill Moore. Warren’s first poems were published in The Fugitive, a magazine which the group published from 1922 to 1925. The Fugitives were advocates of the rural Southern agrarian tradition and based their poetry and critical perspective on classical aesthetic ideals.

From 1925 to 1927, Warren was a teaching fellow at The University of California, where he earned a master’s degree. He studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and returned to the United States in 1930. He taught at Vanderbilt, The University of Minnesota, Yale and Louisiana State University.

Warren arrived at the Baton Rouge campus in the spring of 1934 to teach in the English Department as an assistant professor. He already had a national reputation as a historical biographer with publication of his first book, John Brown: The Making of A Martyr , in 1929. In addition to his work as a poet, Warren had also written a novelette, Prime Leaf (1931). His published agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand (1931), defended conservative Southern values.

Warren’s achievements during the eight years he taught at LSU were many. In February 1936, Thirty-Six Poems, his first collection of poems, was published. His first novel, Night Rider, appeared in 1938. Eleven Poems on the Same Theme was published in 1942 and won the Shelley Memorial Award. Even then, the man we honor now was honored in his early career with awards and grants, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1938 and in 1942. He began Proud Flesh, a verse-play version of what would become All the King’s Men in 1939, four years after the assassination of Huey Long. He continued to labor on the prose during a sojourn in Mussolini’s Italy.

These works and his earlier successes made Warren unique in a department full of teachers and graduate students who were themselves becoming prominent creative writers and scholars: Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, Robert Erskine, Thomas McGrath, Earl Bradshear, Allan Swallow, George Marion O’Donnell, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Heilman, Leonard Unger, and William Van O’Connor.

This dynamic milieu of professors collectively pooled their notes and handouts and cranked out on a mimeograph machine the makings of a textbook ultimately published as Understanding Poetry (1938). The book made Warren and Brooks most famous as the creators of a revolutionary approach for studying and writing about literature: the New Criticism. Poetry students were instructed to pursue a rigorous, close reading of the text as an aesthetically organic whole.

Warren and Brooks, responding to an offer from then Governor Huey Long that they couldn’t (and wouldn’t have wanted) to refuse, helped to create The Southern Review in 1935, a publication that quickly became, and that remains one of the most influential literary quarterlies in the world.

In Exile

Around Christmas 1941, LSU, having devoted $2,500 to a new cage for Mike the Tiger, was too poor to continue to support the great magazine that Governor Long had dreamed up and Warren and Brooks had made a national treasure. The university was also too poor to match the $200 increase in Warren’s salary with which the University of Minnesota had enticed Warren to direct its creative writing program. So this uncommonly accomplished renaissance man, who had renovated a house in Baton Rouge at which he fully intended to spend the rest of his creative life, went “out history, into history,” beyond the dreamscape of the tropical south into what was for him the nightmare of the frigid North.

After nine years in Minneapolis, Warren joined the faculty at Yale University where he taught playwriting in the esteemed Drama School. During the academic years following his teaching stint at LSU, Warren never ceased to refer to his time away from Louisiana as “exile.” He became the great writer the state lost but never forgot.

In 1947, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into the Academy Award-winning movie of 1949. (A new movie adaptation of the novel is now in the making, being filmed on location in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge.) Conceived and likely started in Baton Rouge, Warren’s second novel, At Heaven’s Gate, debuted in August 1943. Warren continued to play a major role in the proliferation of the New Criticism with the publication that same year of Understanding Fiction. In April 1944, the publication of Selected Poems, 1923-43 enabled readers to review the full scope of Warren’s poetry, while in July of that year, he began promoting the importance of poetry in American life as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress.

Scholars and creative writers have been drawn to Louisiana State University, as I was 37 years ago, after reading All the King’s Men. Robert Penn Warren’s legacy imbues the campus. His Baton Rouge imprint includes the three houses where he lived (still standing) and the art-deco apartment house on South Chimes where he often discussed Dante with a graduate student poet who followed him to LSU, Robert Lowell. With passionate intensity, Warren was a kind of Virgil himself to many admirers.

On the national stage, Warren is remembered as our first poet laureate, honored with the title in 1985. He was the recipient of two additional Pulitzers, both for poetry. Warren is also noted for his insights into the myriad myths and issues of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. In the first year of the Civil War centennial of the 1960s, he published The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (1961); a generation later he penned Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980), a unique perspective.

“The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history,” he wrote in The Legacy of the Civil War. “… An overwhelming and vital image of human, and national, experience.”

His insights into the civil rights movement remain relevant: Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956) and Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965). He returned to the Baton Rouge area to conduct interviews with African American leaders.

Warren had a passion for literary criticism: Selected Essays appeared in 1958; Homage to Theodore Dreiser, On the Centennial of His Birth and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection, appeared in the same year, 1971. His Portrait of a Father (1988) sheds light on his search for surrogate fathers and on his own role as a father figure to hundreds of writers.

Belated Honors

A recent Baton Rouge Advocate editorial exhorted LSU to learn from its ill treatment of a great writer. But LSU had learned that lesson well within a few years of Robert Penn Warren’s death on September 15, 1989. In 1992, the English Department’s creative writing program began raising funds to create the Robert Penn Warren Seminar Room and the Robert Penn Warren Professorship, now held by James Wilcox, the nationally known novelist and former Warren student at Yale. An award for the best Master of Fine Arts thesis was established in January 2005.

In 1995, the United States Civil War Center at LSU held a conference on Warren’s fiction and poetry, out of which LSU Press published The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. The Press has published many books about Warren and reprinted four of his novels, as well as volumes of his letters, and a complete collection of his poetry. Most recently the Press issued play versions of All the King’s Men and of a select Civil War chapter from the novel. In 2003, the chancellor’s office funded a week-long, multi-disciplinary conference on All the King’s Men.

Warren and Brooks themselves had brought 40 men and women of letters to campus for the Conference on Literature and Reading in the South and Southwest, April 10-11, 1935, on the occasion of launching the Southern Review and of the celebration of LSU’s 75th year. Warren and Brooks returned to LSU in 1986 for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Southern Review. Prominent contributors, including Eudora Welty, Ernest Gaines, Walker Percy, and Louis Rubin came to honor the journal’s founders.

To honor Warren on his 100th birthday, Southern Review will publish a special issue, and LSU’s creative writing program, along with various departments in Arts and Sciences, are planning programs that will appeal to the general public.

Master of Many Genres

Few writers have given cause for so varied an array of descriptive terms: scholar, editor, exile, private person, writer with a public mission, and more. In the short preface to a book of original essays that I edited called The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren (2000), historian C. Vann Woodward testified that his friend was “many sided … I don’t believe I ever knew a more completely fulfilled man.” Warren was a seeker of all knowledge and all forms in which to express it through charged images that ignite emotion, imagination, and intellect.

Warren’s distinction is in having taken not only all human knowledge as his province, but all genres and modes of artistic expression as his means of pursuing and capturing such knowledge. What other American writer has achieved excellence in such a broad and varied range of genres: poetry, novels, plays, critical works, historical essays, personal essays, biography, and editor of anthologies and innovative textbooks?

A survey of his life and work in evolving contexts demonstrates that consciously or unconsciously — but likely deliberate — Warren searched restlessly but with clear vision and intent for ways to express his sensibility, his temperament, and his intellect. No one genre or intellectual realm could have adequately served his myriad-mindedness. It was a fact of temperament that he had an inherent predisposition, which he consciously developed, to respond to the nature and potential of each genre. That movement from one to the other was for him a natural flow of creative energy.

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David Madden, director of the United States Civil War Center at LSU, is the author of nine novels and two collections of stories, poems, plays, literary and historical nonfiction, and textbooks. He won the Robert Penn Warren Fiction Award for 2005.

 

 

 

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