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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Robert Penn Warren’s life is colored with a string of achievements. His contribution to English literature is immense and he has been duly recognized for it by the literary world.
Robert Penn warren was born on April 24, 1905 to Robert Franklin Warren and Anna Ruth Penn Warren. At the time of his birth, his father was a businessman and his mother, a schoolteacher. Robert was the eldest child of his parents.
As a child, Robert was sent to school in Guthrie. At the age of fifteen, he shifted over to a high school in Clarksville, Tennessee. By the end of 1920, he graduated and entered college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Along with pursuing an advanced course in English literature, he dwelt into the realms of philosophy and history under the guidance of Walter Clyde.
Robert’s interest in poetry made him become an unofficial member of the Fugitives, a group of faculty and students involved with poetry. Attending the meetings of the club, Robert became aware of the significance of poetry in life and got initiated into the world of poems. Soon he began writing poems and got them published in The Fugitive in June 1923. In November 1928, he got his first book published. It was a biography entitled John Brown: The Making of a Martyr.
After graduating in 1925, he went over to study English at the University of California. The years that came saw Robert heaping himself with degrees. In 1927, he acquired his Masters Degree. In 1928, he became a Rhodes scholar and was granted his B Lit by Oxford in 1930. His friendship with Cleanth Brooks at Oxford led to the publication of several textbooks.
Warren’s career as a teacher began in 1930, when he accepted the post of Assistant Professor of English at Southwestern College in Memphis. In 1931, he moved to a college in Vanderbilt to serve as its Assistant Professor of English for three years. During this time he got married to his San Franciscan sweet heart Emma Brescia.
In 1934, Warren became Assistant Professor of Louisiana State University. The following years were saw him editing a number of textbooks with Cleanth Brooks. An Approach to Literature (1936), Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), Modern Rhetoric, with Readings (1949) were a few of them. In 1935, Warren founded The Southern Review along with Brooks, Charles W. Pipkin and Albert Erskine. The same year he also published his first collection of poems, Thirty-six Poems. In 1939, his first novel Night Rider was published. In a years’ time he published a forerunner to All the King’s Men in the form of a verse drama called Proud Flesh.
In 1942, Warren shifted to Minnesota University to become its Professor and stayed on for seven years. In 1950, he shifted to Yale where he worked as a Professor in different capacities till 1953. During these years he produced a variety of literary books and won numerous awards for his writing. In 1944, he was made Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Two years later, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel All the King’s Men. A similar award he got for poetry in 1957. In 1959, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1970, he got the National Medal for Literature in recognition for his contribution to Literature. In June 1980, he was honored with the highest civilian award of America, the Medal of Freedom.
Fame and name continued to haunt Warren even as he kept writing till a ripe old age. He is one of the few writers who has contributed to almost every field of literature and won recognition from different quarters. As an American novelist, he is ranked with likes of Faulkner, Melville and Hemingway. And as a writer in general, he can be compared with the best in other parts of the world.
All the King’s Men, as the title suggests, is all about a politician King and his men. Willie Stark is the Governor of a State who behaves like a King and Jack Burden is one of his faithful men. Robert Penn Warren was inspired to write on the subject because one such politician inspired him.
Robert Penn Warren was teaching at Louisiana State University from 1934 to 1942. During 1937-38, he wrote a few prophetic poems like "Ransom" and "Letter from a Coward to a Hero" which highlighted the principles of decency and democracy in the world. His first novel Night Rider projected a politician who drew his sustenance from the crowd and enhanced his image there by. The concept of a Southern politician, who suppresses his idealism in his thirst for power and gets corrupted in the process, kept haunting Warren.
When Warren moved into Louisiana, Huey P. Long had already established his political regime in the state. In the words of Charles H. Bohner "Typed in his day as a fascist or an ignorant buffoon, Huey Long was actually a complex man of remarkable intellectual gift who defies easy classification. Long was in his time, and is today, an enigma. Nowhere were the contradictory elements in his character more clearly manifested than in his relations with the Louisiana State University. When Warren arrived there in 1934, he found abundant evidence of Long’s achievement and his high-handed tactics." The end of Long was as melodramatic as his life and was interesting material for a novel. On September 8, 1935 Dr. Carl Austin Weiss assassinated him in the capital at Baton Rouge for personal rather than political motives.