Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905. He is renowned as a novelist, poet, essayist and academic and was named the first official poet laureate of the United States in 1986. He was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards; for example, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for All the King's Men (1946) in 1947 and for poetry in 1958 and 1979.
Warren had hopes to join the United States Naval Academy as a teenager, but this was not possible after he was accidentally blinded in one eye. Instead, at the age of 16, he went on to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee where he finally decided to study English. At university, he became involved with a group of Southern writers, such as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, who published the magazine The Fugitive. It is here that his first poems were published.
Whilst writing prolifically, Warren also maintained an impressive academic career. He worked as a teaching fellow at the University of California and went to Oxford University, England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1928. On his return to the United States he taught at various institutions including Vanderbilt and Louisiana State University. He became associated with New Criticism and worked with Cleanth Brooks on the extremely influential texts Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). With Brooks and Charles Pipkin, he also founded the journal The Southern Review. Later, he also taught at the University of Minnesota and Yale.
His first published novel, Night Rider (1939), is based on the tobacco wars in Kentucky between 1905 and 1908. It was with his third novel,All the King's Men, that Penn Warren received the greatest acclaim. This is a morally ambiguous tale of the rise and fall of the fictional anti-hero, Willie Stark, and is narrated by Jack Burden. Stark is thought to be based loosely on Huey Long, a former Louisiana Governor.
In all, Warren had 10 novels and 17 books of poetry published. He also wrote short stories, essays, children's fiction, text books, historical works and a biography (of John Brown). He died in 1989 from cancer.
All the King's Men: Biography: Robert Penn Warren