ROBERT PENN WARREN: A Biography by Joseph Blotner


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A competent but occasionally opaque biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist. Some artists are done in by the bottle. Others fall to academia, economics, or indolence. But for Robert Penn Warren (1905-89) it was the sheer volume of his literary output--hundreds of poems, ten novels, several textbooks, and countless essays--that ultimately diminished his prodigious talent. Sometimes, particularly early on with novels such as All the King's Men or poems like ""Bearded Oaks,"" he managed to wring out almost-masterpieces. Too often, though, there was a feeling of exhaustion to his work, a d‚j… vu sense of old themes plumbed once too often. Blotner (Faulkner, 1984, etc.) would rank Warren here in the empyrean heights, but his case is not quite convincing. Nor is it helped by his slightly perfunctory treatment of Warren's novels or his failure to reach a full critical understanding of his subject. Blotner has fallen for the easy seduction of biography--the childhood on a Kentucky farm, the marriages, the travels, the maladies (Warren always seemed to be ill with something)--forgetting that the artist is almost nothing without the art. As a member of the Fugitives, one of the southern literary renaissance's more active offshoots, Warren did much to shape modern American literature, though more through his teaching and his groundbreaking critical work (with the scholar Cleanth Books) than his art. The southern literary network was characterized by logrolling friendships and a broad base of average talent surmounted by a few lofty geniuses (most notably Faulkner). Still, Blotner has done a great deal of research and deployed it subtly, and we should welcome any biography that looks beyond the colossus of Faulkner to remind us of the South's enormous modern literary vitality.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Random