Robert Penn Warren was born in Guthrie, Todd County, KY, on April 24, 1905. He was the oldest of three children; others being Mary, the middle child, and Thomas, the youngest. His parents were Robert Franklin Warren, a proprietor and banker, and Anna Ruth Penn Warren, a schoolteacher. In the fall of 1911 he entered the Guthrie School from which he graduated at age 15. He did not then enter college as his mother felt he was too young and went instead, in September, 1920, to Clarksville High School, Clarksville, Montgomery County, TN, graduating after the full school year.
In the spring of 1921 he suffered an injury to his left eye from a rock throwing incident perpetrated by his younger brother. The injury eventually led to removal of the eye. During the summer of 1921, he spent six weeks in Citizens Military Training Corp, Fort Knox, KY, where he published his first poem, "Prophecy", in The Messkit. He earlier had obtained an appointment to the United States Naval Academy but because of the eye the appointment was cancelled and in the fall of 1921 he entered Vanderbilt University at age 16.
While at Vanderbilt he came under the tutelage of some of the foremost teachers in literature such as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Andrew Lytle. Also he became involved with two groups; the Fugitives and the Agrarians. In the summer of 1925 he graduated from Vanderbilt summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and Founder's Medalist. Then, in August, he entered the University of California as a graduate student and teaching assistant. Here he met his first wife, Emma "Cinina" Brescia. In 1927 he received his M.A. from University of California and, in the fall, entered Yale University on fellowship. In October, 1928 he entered New College at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar receiving his B.Litt. in the spring of 1930.
He secretly married Emma Brescia in the summer of 1929, a marriage that was to end on June 28, 1951.On December 7, 1952, he married Eleanor Clark. This marriage produced two children, Rosanna Phelps Warren and Gabriel Penn Warren.
Warren was a poet, critic, novelist, and teacher. He taught at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, Southwestern College, Memphis, Tennessee, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and Louisiana State University. While at LSU he founded and edited, along with Cleanth Brooks and Charles W. Pipkin, the literary quarterly, The Southern Review. As a poet, he was appointed the nation's first Poet Laureate, February 26, 1986. He published sixteen volumes of poetry and two---Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 and Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978---won Pulitzer Prizes. Warren published ten novels. One novel, All the King's Men, won a Pulitzer Prize. Two novels, All the King's Men and Band of Angels were made into movies. In addition he published a book of short stories, two selections of critical essays, a biography, three historical essays, a study of Melville, a critical book on Dreiser, a study of Whittier, and two studies of race relations in America. As of this writing, he is the only author to have won the Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry.
Other honors include Bolingen Prize, National Medal for Literature, and Presidential Medal of Freedom. Warren's first published novel was Night Rider, Houghton, (1939) and was about the tobacco war (1905-1908) between independent tobacco growers in Kentucky and large tobacco companies. His last published novel was A Place to Come To, Random House, (1977) which is, to a certain extent, autobiographical.
Along with Cleanth Brooks he collaborated to write the text books, Understanding Poetry, Holt, (1938), 4th edition, (1976) and Understanding Fiction, Crofts, (1943), 2nd Edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts, (1959). He was one of the leading representatives of the New Criticism and these works helped revolutionize the teaching of literature by bringing the New Criticism into general practice in America's college classrooms.
From the 1950's until his death September 15, 1989, from cancer, Warren lived in Connecticut and at his summer home in Vermont. He is buried at Stratton, VT, and, at his request, a memorial marker is situated in the Warren family gravesite in Guthrie, KY.