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Tribute to Robert Penn Warren   

By Michael E. Walters    

Center for Study of the Humanities in the Schools


“Not only was the right to knowledge portrayed. There was an even more gross portrayal. The complacency fostered by the doctrine of common man-ism belied and portrayed that aspiration to excellence that is really in our midst, that has always marked much of our history, an aspiration that is sometimes blundering and confused, but is indomitable and indestructible. . . . “  Robert Penn Warren, Knowledge and the Image of Man (from Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Longley, Jr. (Editor), p. 240, NYU Press, 1965)


In April of 2005, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate the centennial of  Robert Penn Warren’s birth  (1905-89). While not as well known as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, he had the distinction of receiving three Pulitzer Prizes – one in literature in 1947 and two in poetry in 1958 and 1979. His Pulitzer Prize novel,  All the King’s  Men (1946), is about the dilemma of political power. The protagonist (Willie Stark) was based on the political life of the U.S. Senator and Governor from Louisiana, Huey Long (1893-1935). To this day there is a legendary aspect to Long’s memory. He created a political coalition of poor whites and African Americans with his message, “Every man a king.”  Warren took his political science to a metaphysical level – All the King’s Men is a meditation on the problem of using power and its impact on history. In 1934 he was an assistant professor of English at Louisiana State University during Huey Long’s governorship. In 1939 Warren received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Italy where he witnessed the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. These personal experiences stimulated his writing about the role of power in politics.

Warren’s life was a continuous interaction with giftedness and its sensibility. His mother was a school teacher and his banker father was an amateur poet; his childhood home was infused with books. He originally wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy but an earlier accident resulted in the loss of an eye. In 1921 he entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee to major in electrical engineering. At that time, Vanderbilt was a breeding ground for scholars in literature and the humanities. The poets John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson were Warren’s instructors. Allen Tate, who became a great American poet, was his roommate. In 1930 he received an English literature degree from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Later, while on the faculty at Louisiana State University, he was an editor (1935-42) of the literary journal, the Southern Review; its contributors were such renowned poets as W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.  At LSU he worked with Cleanth Brooks who became a lifelong friend and colleague -- they wrote two major texts for college English courses, Understanding Poetry (1939) and Understanding Fiction (1943).

Warren was one of the foremost educators of his time – a professor at Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, Minnesota and Yale universities – and he was a distinguished lecturer at other universities throughout the United States. I attended his lectures at the University of Virginia in the late 1960s. Just before he died in 1989, my wife and I went to his poetry reading at the YMHA at 92nd Street in New York City. Afterward, despite his illness, he graciously talked to us about poetry and writing. For Robert Penn Warren, the sensibility of giftedness was a gift he loved to share. He indeed deserves not only a commemorative stamp but the deep appreciation of all Americans.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Gifted Education Press