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Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), a native of Guthrie, Kentucky, became the first official poet laureate of the United States in 1986. He won the Pulitzer Prize three times: for his novel All the King's Men in 1947, for Promises: Poems 1954-1956 in 1957, and for Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 in 1979. He taught at several universities, including Yale, Louisiana State, and the University of Minnesota, and was an essayist, editor, and critic. 

Warren was precocious as a child, and his education accelerated when he began attending Vanderbilt University at sixteen years old.[1] There he met professors John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson, and classmates Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and Cleanth Brooks—colleagues and friends who would remain in his inner circle for most of his life.  He joined the Fugitives poetry circle, which later morphed into the Southern Agrarians group of writers.  After graduating from Vanderbilt, he obtained a master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, and then pursued further studies at Yale.  He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at New College in Oxford, and graduated with a B.Litt.   

After passing his qualifying exams in Oxford, he decided not to continue toward a Ph.D., and began a professorship with Southwestern College in Memphis, Tennessee.  He and Emma Cinina Brescia publicly announced their marriage, which ended later in divorce.

When he taught at Louisiana State University, he and Cleanth Brooks founded The Southern Review journal and conference in 1936. They also wrote manuals to teach undergraduates how to read literature and poetry, which eventually became a foundational textbook, Understanding Poetry.[2]

Warren began teaching at University of Minnesota in 1942, completing All the King’s Men in 1946.  When he taught at Yale, he and writer Eleanor Clark became reacquainted and married in 1952.  They had a daughter and son, Rosanna and Gabriel. 

In 1956 Warren wrote Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South.  With this text he chronicles personal conversations with white and black Southerners in four states, and interviews himself, denouncing segregation and sharing his thoughts as a white Southern man grappling with the burden of history.[3]Warren continued to study the historical underpinnings of the civil rights movement and the meaning of American democracy.  In 1964 he conducted a series of interviews with civil rights activists and leaders.  This material became the groundwork for his 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro?.  Warren wrote poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that explored the significance of identity, nationhood, death, among other themes.[4]

In 1989, Robert Penn Warren died of cancer in his and Eleanor's home in Vermont.  Eleanor Clark passed away in 1996.


[1] Joseph Blotner, Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1997, 31

[2] Blotner, Robert Penn Warren, 154.

[3] Blotner, Robert Penn Warren, 303-304.

[4] Hugh Ruppersburg, Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Published Works

1929: John Brown: The Making of a Martyr

1931: Old and Blind 

1936: Thirty-six Poems 

1938: An Approach to Literature with Cleanth Brooks and John Thibaut Purser

1939: Understanding Poetry with Cleanth Brooks

1939: Night Rider

1942: Eleven Poems on the Same Theme 

1943: At Heaven's Gate 

1943: Understanding Fiction with Cleanth Brooks

1944: Selected Poems, 1923–1943 


1947: The Circus in the Attic, and Other Stories 


1953: Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices

1955: Band of Angels 

1956: Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South 

1957: Promises: Poems: 1954–1956 





1964: Flood: A Romance of Our Time 

1965:Who Speaks for the Negro? 

1966: Selected Poems: New and Old 1923–1966 

1968: Incarnations: Poems 1966–1968 

1969: Audubon: A Vision 



1975: Democracy and Poetry 


1978: Now and Then: Poems 1976–1978 

1979: Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices - A New Version 


1981: Rumor Verified: Poems 1979–1980 

1983: Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce 

1985: New and Selected Poems: 1923–1985

1988: Portrait of a Father 

1989: New and Selected Essays 

1998: The Collected Poems, edited by John Burt

2000: All the King's Men: Three Stage Versions, edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr. and James A. Perkins

2002: All the King's Men: Restored Edition, edited by Noel Polk

2010: The Poets Laureate Anthology