Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
Robert Penn Warren was one of the 20th century’s outstanding men of letters. He found great success as a novelist, a poet, a critic, and a scholar, and enjoyed a career showered with acclaim. He won three Pulitzer Prizes (two for poetry and one for fiction), was Poet Laureate of the United States, and was presented with a Congressional Medal of Freedom. He founded the Southern Review and was an important contributor to the New Criticism of 1930s and 1940s. Born in 1905 in Guthrie, Kentucky, Warren showed his exceptional intelligence from an early age. He attended college at Vanderbilt University, where he befriended some of the most important contemporary figures in Southern literature, including Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.
During a stay in Italy, Warren wrote a verse drama called Proud Flesh, which dealt with themes of political power and moral corruption. As a professor at Louisiana State University, Warren had observed the rise of Louisiana political boss Huey Long, who embodied, in many ways, the ideas Warren tried to work into Proud Flesh. Unsatisfied with the result, Warren began to rework his elaborate play into a novel, set in the contemporary South, and based in part on the person of Huey Long. The result was All the King’s Men, Warren's best, and most acclaimed novel. First published in 1946, All the King’s Men is one of the best literary documents dealing with the American South during the Great Depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a movie that won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1949.
Warren’s success continued after All the King’s Men. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and another in 1979. In addition to poetry, he continued to publish successful novels as well as works of nonfiction. Warren died at the age of 84 in Stratton, Vermont, in 1989.
Background on All the King’s Men
All the King’s Men focuses on the lives of Willie Stark, an upstart farm boy who rises through sheer force of will to become Governor of an unnamed Southern state during the 1930s, and Jack Burden, the novel’s narrator, a cynical scion of the state’s political aristocracy who uses his abilities as a historical researcher to help Willie blackmail and control his enemies. The novel deals with the large question of the responsibility individuals bear for their actions within the turmoil of history, and it is perhaps appropriate that the impetus of the novel's story comes partly from real historical occurrences. Jack Burden is entirely a creation of Robert Penn Warren, but there are many direct and important parallels between Willie Stark and Huey Long, who served Louisiana as both Governor and Senator from 1928 until his assassination in 1935.
Like Huey Long, Willie Stark is an uneducated farm boy who passed the state bar exam—and like Huey Long, he rises to political power in his state by instituting liberal reform designed to help the state's poor farmers. Also like Huey Long, Willie is assassinated at the peak of his power by a doctor—Dr. Adam Stanton in Stark’s case, Dr. Carl A. Weiss in Long’s. Unlike Stark, however, Long was assassinated after becoming a Senator. In fact, it occurred while he was challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.