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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Faulkner
- Zora Neale Hurston
- Flannery O'Connor
- Katherine Anne Porter
- John Crowe Ransom
- Robert Penn Warren
- Eudora Welty
- Tennessee Williams
- Thomas Wolfe
- Richard Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)

Political poster on sharecropper's house, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi
[4730] Marion Post Walcott, Political poster on sharecropper's house, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-020570-M3].

Robert Penn Warren Activities
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A prominent member of the Southern Agrarians as well as an accomplished poet and novelist, Robert Penn Warren was born in southern Kentucky and educated at Vanderbilt, the University of California, Yale, and Oxford. While at Vanderbilt he became one of the "Fugitive poets" and later contributed a somewhat reluctant defense of "separate but equal" racial segregation to I'll Take My Stand, the political manifesto of the Southern Agrarians, who were also associated with Vanderbilt. (Like many southerners, Warren later changed his mind about segregation.) He began teaching English at Louisiana State University in 1934 and there co-founded the Southern Review, which published provocative essays by the "New Critics," passionate advocates of "close reading," as well as fiction by emerging southern writers such as Eudora Welty. Warren's influence on the New Criticism was considerable; Understanding Poetry--which Warren co-authored with Cleanth Brooks while both were at Louisiana State--helped revolutionize the teaching of literature within the American university. That volume was followed in 1943 by Understanding Fiction. Warren left Louisiana State that same year.

Much of Warren's own prose and poetry grows out of his critical engagement with the history of the American South. That engagement was evident in his biography of abolitionist John Brown, which he undertook while at Yale and published in 1929. Warren's third and best-known novel, All the King's Men, which chronicles the rise and fall of a southern politician, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. Like Warren's second novel, Heaven's Gate (1943), All the King's Men was concerned with power and the way its pursuit and acquisition can destroy both the powerful and those around them. Warren returned to the theme in his fourth and perhaps second-best novel, World Enough and Time, published in 1950. Though he went on to write six more novels over the next thirty years, none would equal the power and eloquence of these earlier efforts.

The mid-fifties onward were fruitful years for Warren the poet. His long poem Audubon (1969), one of his most significant works, reveals a writer who celebrates the necessity that humans must face the darkness in their natures and forge ahead. Warren advocated a poetry "grounded in experience" and declared that the goal of the artist should be to stay within the limits of his/her gifts and, to the extent that those gifts allow, "to remain faithful to the complexities of the problems with which [he/she] is dealing." Warren's volumes of poetry include Incarnations (1968), Now and Then (1978), Being Here (1980), Rumor Verified (1981), and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1983).

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