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Robert Penn Warren

Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
...and I longed to know the world's name.

Warren’s Self-Interview[fn]New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 11, 1953[/fn]

“To begin at the beginning, I was born at 7 am, April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, in southern Kentucky, a town which has had about the same number of inhabitants—1,500, more or less—ever since I can remember.

The country around, part of the Cumberland Valley, is a mixed country, fine rolling farmland breaking here and there into barrens, but with nice woodlands and plenty of water, a country well adapted to the proper pursuit of boyhood. The streams seem somewhat shrunken now and the woodlands denuded of their shadowy romance, but certain spots there and farther west, where I used to spend my summers on my grandfather’s farm, are among my most vivid recollections.

I recollect that grandfather very vividly, too—already an old man when I knew him, a Confederate veteran, a captain of cavalry who had ridden with Forrest, given to discussing the campaigns of Napoleon and, as well, of the immortal Nathan Bedford and to quoting bits of Byron and Scott and compositions like “The Turk Lay in the Guarded Tent.” His daughters used to say that he was “visionary,” by which they meant he was not practical. No doubt, in their sense, they were right. But in quite another sense, he was, I suppose, “visionary” to me, too, looming much larger than life, the living symbol of the wild action and romance of the past. He was whatever his own small part in great events may have been, “history.” And I liked history. That was what my own father usually selected when he read aloud to his children.

I went to school in Guthrie and at Clarksville, Tennessee, and then, by great good fortune, to Vanderbilt University. For this was the time of the Fugitives art Vanderbilt, a group of poets and arguers—including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore—and I imagine that more of my education came from those sessions than from the classroom. But aside from the Fugitives, writing poetry was almost epidemic at the university, and even an all-Southern center on the football team did some very credible lyrics of a Housmanesque wistfulness.

After Vanderbilt, graduate work at the University of California, Yale, and Oxford (Rhodes Scholar). During those years I had been publishing a good deal of poetry in The New Republic and similar magazines, and in my last year at Oxford, at the invitation of Paul Rosenfeld, I did a novelette for The American Caravan. It is called Prime Leaf.

It is now [in 1953] some six and a half novels (two unpublished and one unfinished) and a collection of short stories later. But the poetry has gone along with the fiction, and I suppose that my last book, Brother to Dragons, is a kind of hybrid. It even started out to be a novel, and though it is in verse and is a poem, it has a complicated narrative and involves many fictional problems.

I like to write in the morning. I try never to depend on later revision: don’t leave a page until you have it as near what you want as you can make it that day. I like to write in foreign countries, where the language is not your own, and you are forced into yourself in a special way. I like to travel and especially like Italy. I like swimming in the country, arguing, and admiring my six-week-old daughter.”

Robert Penn Warren’s connection to Iowa City began in the winter of 1941 when he came to teach fiction writing as a visiting professor. Here is how this was reported in the Daily Iowan:

Robert Warren Joins Faculty Next Semester. ‘Southern Review’ Editor Will Teach Fiction Writing Here. (January 28, 1941) Robert Penn Warren, former professor of English at Louisiana State University and editor of “Southern Review” will teach a course in fiction writing here second semester. Warren, scheduled to arrive sometime next week, won the Houghton-Mifflin fellowship for his novel, “Night Rider,” published in 1939. As wined of the Guggenheim fellowship, usually given for European work, he spent a year studying in Italy. “Southern Review,” published at Louisiana State University, was ranked with “American Prefaces” as one of the leading literary magazines of its kind by Edward J. O’Brien in his book, “Best short Stories of 1940.” Applications for enrollment in the fiction writing course should be made through Prof. Wilbur Schramm of the English department.

Prof. Robert Penn Warren Becomes Member Of University of Iowa English Department. (February 23, 1941) Prof, Robert Penn Warren, formerly of the University of Louisiana and editor of “Southern Review,” is a new member of the English department here this semester. Professor Warren teaches a course in fiction writing and is an advisor in the writers’ workshop. [ …] “The back ground situation for the [“Night Rider”, a story of south-central Kentucky and Tennessee]” said Professor Warren, “involves violence of tobacco-planters’ cooperative organizations.” Price wars, radical measures of the tobacco planters and buyers are included in the story of the south. […] As editor of “The Southern Review,” literary magazine published through the University of Louisiana, Professor Warren has been influential in establishing its place in literary fields. […] “The magazine, published quarterly since 1935,” explained Professor Warren, “is interested in literary, economic, and political fields, and especially southern questions in political affairs.” […] He is [also] co-author of “Understanding Poetry,” a book of literary criticism, widely used as an English text and has contributed to many short story and poetic anthologies. In 1930 he published “John Brown: The Making of s Martyr” and is at work now on another novel of the south with a setting in the 1920s.”

Literary Friendships in Iowa City

There is no other archival information of how Warren’s semester in the English department went, except that he received $1,500 during his stay. But he made friends here and was invited to speak later on. Here are excerpts from his correspondence with Wilbur Schramm that testify about the high regard his peers in Iowa City had for Warren:

11/22/44

Dear Red:

Paul is writing you separately. I want to add a kind of exclamation point to what he is going to say.

I think we can get together about $200 to bring you out here. Will that be enough? Your actual expenses of travel will be about $100; what is left over will be an altogether too inadequate bonus. I wish we had much more to give you, but we haven’t.

If you can come, we want you to make it as soon as possible – any time before December 15 or after January 5. Your friends are anxious to see you, and we are doing some things here with the liberal arts curriculum and with a communication program which will interest you.

Paul will say the rest.

With very best wishes, I am,

Sincerely yours,

Wilbur Schramm

Director

 

Dear Wilbur:

Yes, as I told you long back, and as I wired today, I shall be very happy to come to Iowa, For, I repeat, I look back to very happy times there.

I am a little in the dark as to what you all want me to try to do while there. If you want me to give a formal paper for some public or semi-public occasion, I’m sort of in a bad shape, for the thing I am working on won’t be done for quite a while. But if you want me to visit classes and talk informally and chat back and forth, or if you want me to give a reading (though, for God’s sake, don’t think I am trying to promote this and force brandy down anybody’s throat—to paraphrase Groucho), I can come right away, and shall happily do so. But you and Paul get together and let me know your decision. I can come any time except late December or late January.

Again, my thanks for the fine invitation. I look forward to Iowa. With sincere regards to you and your family.

Red Warren

 

12/21/44

Dear Red:

I believe Paul wrote you about your much-looked-forward-to resurrection in Iowa. Let me underline what he said. January is best—any time between the 10th and the 24th. If that will not do, February will. We don’t want you to lecture formally, but would like to have you stand before a group of your friends in Old Capitol and perhaps read one of the ballads and talk about it, or talk as informally as you wish about some writer or writing that is on your mind. A paper isn’t necessary. Let me know when you are coming so we can reserve one of the Old Capitol rooms in advance.

We wish you and your pretty wife a merry Christmas!

Sincerely yours,

Wilbur Schramm

Director

 

1/3/45

Dear Red:

All right. The band is ready. The town is a-twitter. Paul will meet you at the train Sunday night, and take you home to supper. (I would come along to carry the luggage, but have to help a newspaper celebrate its anniversary.) Paul has a Workshop meeting set for you Monday night, I believe; your reading is Tuesday; another Workshop Wednesday night,; and, if you insist, you can stagger away Thursday. It’s too short a time, but we’ll try to make ourselves feel better about it by looking forward to that to-be-hoped-for day when you come to stay.

Try not to make any inflexible dates until you get here, because there are several indeterminants. One: I want to lunch you some day with the President and the Dean.

Give my best to Cinina.

Yours,

Wilbur Schramm

 

1/17/45

Dear Red:

There is an ugly rumor floating around the halls of Iowa to the effect that people out here like Red Warren. I don’t see quite how this can be true, but I think the rumor should be passed on to you for your own good.

It was a real joy to have you here, and a foretaste of that much to be hoped for a day when you will be here all the time.

Give our best wishes to Cinina.

Sincerely yours,

Wilbur Schramm

Director

 

 

There is a good number of letters that Warren sent to Paul Engle between 1942 and 1955, (kept at the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collection), that are a testament of the friendship between the two men as well as the high esteem, in which Warren held Iowa City and its people.

 

January 21, 1942

Dear Paul:

Forgive me for the long delay, but your letter reached me just when we were most occupied with the effort to keep the Southern Review from being killed by the University Budget Committee. But now that the committee has had its way, I can turn to the pleasures of personal correspondence and reading books and playing a little bridge and doing a little carpentering. At least, I hope now to get to those things. It almost seems like a holiday to me, and I am looking forward to doing some work of my own which I have been postponing because of the damned confusion of the fall. I confess to a certain irritation at the Committee, not because of their handling of the Review but because of their handling of other matters. The live tiger, for example, still gets his beefsteaks. But I imagine that one can scarcely expect a university to do more than reflect the society of which it is a part; and our society generally prefers live tigers to reading matter.

Our life goes rather uneventfully. Cinina has been very busy all fall trying to supervise the remodeling on a house we have taken over, and the war situation didn’t make things easier. Labor was hard to get and certain materials scarce, even common things, and original estimates, made in October, weren’t very trustworthy by the middle of December. I have recently finished my novel [At Heaven’s Gate], and am now doing some last-minute tinkering with it. I suppose I’ll get another shot at it in précis. It is slated for May or June.

The academic life here is pretty turgid lately. The war, of course, has unsettled everything, but the unsettling caused by the war is minor in comparison with the unsettling which seems to be chronic around here. It seems that I’ve spent half my time in committee and department meetings, and I can’t be too sure that a great deal has been accomplished.

[…]

How is your work going? I hope that a letter from you will bring more cheerful information about you and Mary than the last one did. I gathered from a letter from Mr. Foerster that you all will be around next summer. I hope so. We are looking forward with great pleasure to being in Iowa City again for a few weeks.

Cinina joins me in very warm regards to you, Mary, and The Mouse.

Sincerely,

Red

 

December 3, 1944

Dear Paul:

First, I do hope that Mary is all right. Cinina and I are anxious to know, and expect at least a word from you on the matter. Give her our best wishes.

Second, I shall be delighted to come to Iowa, on all accounts. As to the business of the date and what is expected of me once I am there, I don’t have any very clear idea. […] I have been working on a study of “The Ancient Mariner,” but it is yet in a very confused condition, and it might be months before I finish it. […] I’m not too sure that the Coleridge thing would be appropriate for a public occasion. The other possibility that occurs to me, and which I mention humbly and with trepidation—and not as a suggestion—Is a reading. […]

I have wired Wilbur my acceptance. Won’t you confer with him on the question of time and program? I anxiously await your decision. Now, I want to thank you very sincerely for your invitation to put up with you. But I am not going to burden you all. Please get me a room in one of Iowa City’s more modest little hotels on a side street, and rest assured that I shall be happy there. But I am touched by your hospitable offer, and repeat my thanks.

Goodbye. Cinina joins me in best wishes to you both. I look forward to seeing Munchie, the better of some very warm and moving sonnets. For which—the sonnets—I thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Red Warren

 

December 19, 1944

Dear Paul:

It develops that I can get away for the second week in January. This means that—with the blessing of you all on the date—I shall arrive in Iowa City on the afternoon of Sunday, January 7, on the Rocket. I’m now tentatively planning to leave on the Rocket on the morning of Thursday, January 11, by which time I shall have pretty thoroughly worn out even the kind of welcome which Iowa City can provide for a visiting Elk.

[…]

Now under ordinary circumstances I would like nothing better than to inflict myself on the Engles. But with things as they undoubtedly are with the little stranger in your midst, I am not going to accept even such noble hospitality day in and day out. […]

Goodbye, and all the best for the season, and our best to Mary, Munchie, and the new citizen.

Sincerely,

Red

 

December 31, 1944

Dear Paul:

[…] Speaking of Iowa City hospitality, it is terrific. You all, the Warrens and the Kerns have asked me to be a guest. It is wonderful. I shall go to the Kerns, for Alex, unlike Austin, hasn’t got a sick wife, and unlike you, hasn’t got a new baby. But my gratitude all around is unbounded.

[…]

Red

 

January 4, 1948

Dear Paul:

I have been long in letting you have an answer because I was trying to let my views mature. As I said, or implied, my chief problem was not academic but personal/ I won’t go into it in detail, but it involved a decision as to teaching at all. During the holidays I was still wrestling with the matter, and the decision I’ve come to is, in a way, a compromise, or a postponement of decision. To tell the truth, things this fall were so confused and generally unhappy that I was in no state of mind to make a decision which might not be too prejudiced by accidental factors. So I have decided to teach next fall and winter and then quit for a shorter or longer time. Since this was on my mind I had to settle it before considering the possibility of leaving Minnesota. Now that I have decided to teach one more year before taking an indefinite leave of resigning (barring the unforeseen in the realm of matter or spirit), it would be stupid or wrong of me to make a move now. It would be stupid on my own account to face the difficulties of making a move, and it would be wrong to go to a place when I could not be sure of staying a reasonable time. I did not want to set a figure to you, because if I had set one and you all had to accept it, I should have felt myself bound. When I talked with you last I had not reached a conclusion on the basic question. The necessity of giving you an early word forced me to it.

It is needless for me to say that I am deeply grateful to you and the others who have interested yourselves in my behalf, and deeply appreciative of the confidence which your interest indicated. And nobody ever had better reason for gratitude or appreciation. I am only sorry that I have caused you and others so much disturbance. I hope that you will forgive me for robbing you of valuable time and energy.

Please show this letter to Pitcher and McGaillard and, if you think it appropriate, to those in the administration who have been directly concerned with my case. I should not want them to think that I am insensitive to the honor they have done me.

With all the best to you,

Red

 

January 20, 1949

Dear Paul:

Thanks for the note. It revived for a moment the agony of my indecisions of last month. Perhaps I did let a temporary situation color my general feeling. Well, it is done now.

You ask me about somebody for the place. I have thought seriously about it, and here is what I came up with. As I see it your big need is for a novelist, since you are available for the advanced people working in poetry. My first suggestion is this: Saul Bellow, who is now in Europe on a Guggenheim, has just resigned from our department. […] First, he is, for my money, a really fine writer. His work has had remarkable press, and he should be on the verge now of a popular success. I understand that one of the better publishers has now taken him on with a very fine, long-term contract—which means that they are ready to develop that general public for him. Second, he is an expert teacher, not only in writing but in other things. […] Third, he has read very widely and has a strong speculative cast of mind and ranging interests. Fourth, he and his wife are just the kind of people who would fit in well with your community. They are attractive and amusing, and they are young enough to understand the situation of your students […]

Forgive this haste, but I’m starting a pile of papers in the face. If I get any other ideas I’ll write. Meanwhile, all the best to you all.

Red

 

July 21, 1950

Dear Paul:

[…]

Maybe you were right about LSU. I really don’t know the local scene now. The only thing that came to my mind was the possibility that you might have some relief from your very pressing Iowa duties and be able to give a reasonable amount of time to your own work. You have sacrificed that for so long now. I am glad to know about the news stuff, and I’d love to see it. But by all reports the LSU student of these days is not the LSU student of the Peter Taylor, Calk Lowell, Leonard Unger, etc. vintage.

As you see from the head of this letter [sent from Connecticut], we didn’t get abroad. Cinina is not well, has had a break-down, and is in the hospital. I am staying at the summer cottage of the Erskines out at Westport. I am on leave for fall, and if Rossen ever finishes up his cursed Brave Bulls he and I shall revise our play in the fall and get at production. Unless the [Korean] war has scared our backer out. It has scared me, all right. We’ll probably be in this thing twenty years, and then what?

Give my very best to Mary and the family. I look forward to seeing you all in the winter—if I may count on my visit down.

As ever,

Red

 

January 4, 1951

Dear Paul:

[…]

As for a visit to Iowa, I’d like it very much if the date can be fixed. I’m to go to Grinnell in late April or early May. Maybe you could get in touch with Charlie Foster and see if you can use me just after or just before the visit there. I am at Illinois April 24-25-26.

I am sorry to hear that things do not go better with Mary. As for Cinina, she is still in the hospital bur presumably is doing well.

My plans are a bit unsettled. I finish my teaching at New Haven the first of February, but shall stay on here for a time, trying to finish up some writing chores before I settle in for a long pull in a full-scale project. I’d like to plan to go abroad in the late spring or in June, but who can plan anything these days?

Good bye and my very best to you all.

Red

 

December 5, 1951

Dear Paul:

[…]

My summer in France, with a few weeks in West England, was very pleasant, better than pleasant, I might say. Only one blight on it: I had to come earlier than I had anticipated and missed the fall in Rome with the Devlins and other friends there. I had managed to get my long poem well started and have continued with it steadily since my return. I wish I could show it to you and talk with you about it. – Are you coming East soon? If so, please let me know so we can plan a meeting. I’ll even promise not to show the poem.

Write a note some free minute to say how you all are.

Yours,

Red

 

January 26, 1955

Dear Paul:

I have been meaning to write you for some time, but one thing and another has fallen across the matter – most lately a trip to Kentucky for the last illness of my father, and since my return Eleanor’s very painful experience with a slipped disk in the lower spine, a damned excruciating affair, not helped any by the fact that we are expecting another child who is pretty well along the way. Danny Penn (or Gabriel P., we don’t yet know which if it is to be a boy, and Eleanor if a girl) is happily anticipated, but I do hope he’ll behave himself on the way and let the back recover. He has already caused enough trouble with Eleanor’s faint on the street and a fall down stone steps with a concussion as a result and some days in the hospital. This in December.

All of this as preamble.

I want to thank you for the offer of the lecture and Iowa visit. I had at one time hoped to work it out in conjunction with a Kenyon lecture. But now the spring just looks too complicated in too many ways. So maybe we can do it next fall. I do want to come, as you well know. But anyway, I look forward to seeing you soon. I felt deprived about your last visit. Let me know about your arrival and where you’ll be staying. I very much want a substantial session.

No additional news with me except a grinding lot of work at Yale lately, which will spill over past my semester end for a bit. Then I start revising my new novel [Band of Angels], which is due out in August, God help it, and me.

Good bye and thanks and all the best to you both.

Yours,

Red

Short biography

Warren was a poet, critic, novelist, and teacher who taught at Vanderbilt University, Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and Louisiana State University. While at LSU he founded in 1935 and edited, along with Cleanth Brooks and Charles W. Pipkin, the literary quarterly, The Southern Review. He was appointed the nation's first Poet Laureate on February 26, 1986. He published sixteen volumes of poetry and two of them—Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 andNow and Then: Poems, 1976-1978—won Pulitzer Prizes. Warren published ten novels, of which All the King's Men (1946) won a Pulitzer Prize. He also published a book of short stories, two selections of critical essays, a biography, three historical essays, a study of Melville, a critical book on Dreiser, a study of Whittier, and two studies of race relations in America. Along with Cleanth Brooks he collaborated to write two text books, Understanding Poetry (Holt, 1938, 4th edition, 1976) and Understanding Fiction (Crofts, 1943, 2nd Edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959).

Warren—or Red, a nickname his friends assigned him in college for his fiery orange hair—led a life completely devoted to writing. His work is known for its experimental style, influenced by T. S. Eliot, and for his passionate exploration of the South, where he grew up. He was one of the leading representatives of the New Criticism and these works helped revolutionize the teaching of literature by bringing the New Criticism into general practice in America's college classrooms.

He married Emma Brescia (Cinina) in the summer of 1929, a marriage that was to end on June 28, 1951. On December 7, 1952, he married Eleanor Clark. This marriage produced two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren and Gabriel Penn Warren. From the 1950s until his death on September 15, 1989, from cancer, Warren lived in Connecticut and at his summer home in Vermont. He is buried at Stratton, Vermont, and, at his request, a memorial marker is placed in the Warren family gravesite in Guthrie, Kentucky.

 

That night in the lumber room, late,

I found him--the hawk, feathers shabby, one

Wing bandy-banged, one foot gone sadly

Askew, one eye long gone--and I reckoned

I knew how it felt with one gone.

 

(From the poem, "Red-Tailed Hawk and Pyre of Youth,” ©by Robert Penn Warren—

Posted here by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc.)

Selected Bibliography

 

Poetry

XXXVI Poems(1935)
Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942)
Brother to Dragons (1953)
Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 (1957)
You, Emperors and Others: Poems 1957-1960 (1960)
Selected Poems: New and Old, 1923-1966 (1966)
Incarnations (1968)
Audubon: A Vision (1969)
Now and Then, Poems 1976-1977 (1978)
Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980 (1980)
New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 (1985)
The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (1998)

 

Novels and short stories

Night Rider(1938)
At Heaven's Gate (1943)
Blackberry Winter (1946)
All the King's Men (1946)
The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories (1948)
World Enough and Time (1950)
Band of Angels (1955)
The Cave (1959)
Wilderness (1960)
Flood (1964)
Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971)
A Place to Come To (1977)

 

Literary Criticism and others

John Brown: The Making of a Martyr(1929)
I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930)
Understanding Poetry (1938)
Understanding Fiction (1943)
Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1946)
Modern Rhetoric (1949)
Fundamentals of Good Writing (1950)
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South (1956)
Selected Essays (1958)
Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965)
Homage to Theodore Dreiser (1971)

Text and composition: Zlatko Anguelov and Cristina Sarnelli

United States