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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 790


This is the grave of Robert Penn Warren.

Born in 1905 in Guthrie, Kentucky, a small town on the Tennessee border, Warren grew up in relatively comfortable circumstances. He went to high school across the Tennessee line in Clarksville and then onto Vanderbilt University, where he graduated in 1925. He hadn’t intended on going into writing. In fact, he was to be admitted to the Naval Academy but then had some sort of accident that affected his vision and had to go to Vanderbilt instead. Well, I guess it worked out for him. He then went on for a master’s degree at the University of California in 1926. He started a PhD program at Yale and then went on to Oxford and studied in Italy. He was teaching literature at what became Rhodes College in Memphis in 1930 and then took a job at Louisiana State University in 1933, staying there until 1942. He then left for the University of Minnesota and stayed primarily in the north for the rest of his life, moving to Yale in 1950.

Warren’s writing talent was obvious from the beginning of his time at Vanderbilt and he was mentored by the southern literary community. This was the 1920s though and that meant the openly racist writers that made up the Southern Agrarians. Warren became known as one of them and was a defender of segregation. However, some of the most hardcore segregationists in the group sniffed a progressivism in Warren and did not trust him for it. But he did contribute a story called “The Briar Patch” to I’ll Take My Stand, the manifesto of the Southern Agrarians. Not great. Warren later deeply regretted his youthful segregationist beliefs and later in life would work hard to make up for it. It was nearly impossible for a young southern man at this time to not imbibe in this world.

Academically, what made Warren reasonably well known was his role as one of the leading progenitors of the so-called New Criticism, which was started in large part by his Vanderbilt mentor John Crowe Ransom. This emphasized analyzing a piece of literature as a self-contained referential object, which was a big transition from early 20th century literary criticism.

What made Warren nationally famous was the publication of All the King’s Men in 1946, which depicted a vaguely fictionalized Huey Long and was based on Warren’s own observations of the man while he was at LSU and Long ruled Baton Rouge. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel and it was turned into a very successful film in 1949 starring Broderick Crawford in the Long role. That won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although a few of his other books are still in print, this is far and away what Warren is remembered for today.

The success of All the King’s Men and Warren’s status as the dean of white southern letters by this time (or at least second, after Faulkner but the latter was getting pretty old by this time) meant that by the 1950s and 1960s, as the civil rights movements forced white America to, however briefly as it was, reckon with racism, he was called upon to provide perspectives on the white South. Again, Warren’s own past on this was not great. But he made up for it. He openly admitted the racism in which he grew up with and was trying to fight. He wrote a long article in Life in 1956 titled “Divided South Searches Its Soul, where he went into his personal racist history in detail. This article was quite popular and so he turned it into a short book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South. All of this made Warren one of the leading white supporters of southern integration. For the living colleagues from his Southern Agrarian days, he was a huge traitor. For the white liberal North, he was the interpreter of the South. He published extensively about the movement, including his 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro?, a series of interviews between Warren and various leaders of the Black freedom struggle, including both King and Malcolm, as well as everyone from Ralph Ellison and Bob Moses to Bayard Rustin and Whitney Young. Very few women though, unfortunately.

Warren continued to write both fiction and poetry in addition to his nonfiction work. He won two Pulitzers for poetry, in 1958 and 1979, as well as one National Book Award for poetry. This makes him the only person to win the Pulitzer in both fiction and poetry. By the 1970s, Warren was a senior American literary figure and so got all the awards that these people get. He was selected by the NEH for the annual Jefferson Lecture in 1974, which is about the biggest honor for the humanities in this nation. Jimmy Carter granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981 and won the National Medal of Arts in 1987. In 1986, Warren was named the nation’s first Poet Laureate.

In 1952, Warren married Eleanor Clark. It was his second marriage. She is also buried here.

Clark was a reasonably well known literary figure herself. Growing up in Connecticut after being born in Los Angeles, she went to Vassar with Mary McCarthy and was a prominent Trotskyite in the 1930s. Her first husband was Trotsky’s secretary Jan Frankel. She wrote a few books of her own, including Rome and a Villa in 1953, a widely enjoyed travel narrative about that city and that was a finalist for the National Book Award. She also wrote a book about oysters called Oysters of Locmariaquer that was also widely admired at the time. She had a few novels as well. of course, she was also raising their two children so no doubt her career took the so common backseat to her husband during these years.

In their later life, Warren and Clark bought a farm outside of Stratton, Vermont. Warren died in 1989 and Clark in 1996.

Robert Penn Warren is buried in Willis Cemetery, Stratton, Vermont.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other people who have given the NEH Jefferson Lecture, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Erik Erikson is in Harwich, Massachusetts and Barbara Tuchman is in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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