When a writer’s reputation is examined at the end of their career, it’s often done in the language of curvature. The reputation is said to rise and fall, to plateau, to arc and regress, and, in ideal cases, to reach a permanent state of apogee. Usually, the curve follows a rising path, though it’s sometimes stunted as it lifts, is reversed, or worst of all, it conspicuously flattens. Long literary careers challenge that vocabulary. A writer like Robert Penn Warren, for example, whose career lasted more than half-a-century and included every literary genre, would make the language of curvature look like an EKG.
Warren’s early achievements have been well chronicled. He began at Vanderbilt, where in his studies he migrated from an initial interest in the sciences to an immersion in the world of letters. He was both student and teacher there, active almost from the beginning in establishing the platform from which he would make his first contributions to literature. He moved on to LSU from Vanderbilt and eventually to Yale, an institution far from his native South, but a place entirely appropriate for one who had climbed to the top and had become one of the country’s reigning literary emperors.
Early on, he had been a member of the Fugitives and was a major contributor to I’ll Take My Stand, the Agrarian manifesto. He collaborated with Cleanth Brooks in what would become the standard texts for the teaching of literature in college classrooms—Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. These books would ultimately become so well known that they were referred to in shorthand as simply “Brooks and Warren,” and were studied by generations of English majors, as well as being the basis for what became known as the New Criticism. His novel All the Kings Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 (one of three that Warren would bring home), propelling him to a larger audience and higher critical standing. A study in the corruption of a Huey-Long–like politician, All the King’s Men was a best seller and was made into two popular films. It has become Warren’s signature work, a potent expose of populist hypocrisy and regional narrowness. It’s considered a modern classic, privileged to seemingly permanent residence on high school and college reading lists.
Warren spent much of his late life harvesting the trophies he’d earned as an accomplished literary lion. He stopped publishing fiction around 1977, in his seventies by then, but instead of quietly fading into retirement, he had a dramatic rebirth, returning to what had been his original literary impulse, poetry. His muse had been awakened early, his first poems displaying a young man’s preoccupations—first love, nature, the lure of the land. His Southern origins informed his first work and continued their influence to the very end, his imagination dancing with life as it always had. His earliest poems, like the folk-inspired epic, “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” frequently dealt with the history of his region. This ballad recounts the exploits of a nineteenth-century Kentucky outlaw whom the poem describes in an early couplet as
A clabber-headed bastard with snot in his nose
And big red wrists hanging out of his clothes.
Though Warren’s poetry was often filled with raw and profane language, he ultimately smoothed his poems’ rough edges, injecting them more with metaphysical force than physical force. Their language by then tended toward the lyric, to highly polished imagery mixed with earthy elegance. He never lost his sense of expansiveness, though, his Whitmanesque generosity that enclosed worlds in a single gesture. The final result of his gathering tended to have a homemade quality, as if nothing artificial had ever touched it:
Watch how the aspen leaf, pale and windless, waggles,
While one white cloud loiters motionless over Wyoming,
And think how delicately the heart may flutter
In the windless joy of unworded revelation.
Watch and think, the poet advises, and a questing human can steal a glimpse into the heart of things. A poem of Warren’s could be inspired by the sweep of history and the men who made it, or to the sudden turning of a moment, the flash of an observation caught in his words. And although his late poems could sometimes seem dashed off, written in haste, his long, heavily freighted lines clanking too loudly, he was also capable of an almost Chinese delicacy.
Warren’s last years were spent with his wife, the writer Eleanor Clark, in a rustic estate outside Fairfield, Connecticut. There he rocked on the spacious front gallery, a dram of the South come alive in the back yard of high-minded Yale University. Even at the end, Warren was a writer whose reputation’s curvature was still rising, a matter of great satisfaction to him, loyal as always to his native region, its Bourbon that he mixed in his Old Fashioneds, always topped with generous slices of orange.