The poet, novelist, and all ‘round man of letters Robert Penn Warren was a force to reckon with for most of his long life, and that hasn’t changed much in the 26 years since he died. Recently, David Brooks called Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men the greatest political novel ever written. “The prose is lush but not overdone,” said Brooks. “The stance is elegiac, which is my favorite literary tone. It captures the intensity of politics but also the way the rush for electoral popularity sucks at the soul of the participants.” Warren won his first Pulitzer prize for that novel in 1947, and he won twice more for his poetry. In 1979, Steve Oney captured the lion in winter for a long profile in The Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine, reprinted here with the author’s permission. Please enjoy “Robert Penn Warren Finds His Place To Come To”.
It was getting into the heart of the Vermont summer, and the air was still and heavy. Resting in a wicker chair on his front porch, Robert Penn Warren, sweat dripping from his sharp, freckled nose like a rivulet running off red rock, gazed into the hazy glimmer of late day. “I think a man just dies,” he said after a while. His voice was harsh and sibilant. “No heaven. No hell.” Tugging a checkered bandanna from a rear pocket of his baggy Levis, he wiped the perspiration from his face. “I’m a naturalist,” he added haltingly. “I don’t believe in God. But I want to find meaning in life. I refuse to believe it’s merely a dreary sequence of events. So I write stories and poetry. My work is my testimony.” Warren’s tone had dropped into a low, croupy register. Limned briefly by the last beams of the sunset, he resembled a statue carved long ago from a hunk of sandstone. He reached for a drink, smiled then said, “I can’t believe I’m talking like this. I can’t tell someone why I write. And I’m sure as hell not going to attempt self-psychoanalysis. But let me tell you a story …”