Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Robert Penn Warren, November 7, 1978

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Primary influences

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Partial Transcript: The following is an unrehearsed interview with Robert Penn Warren for the Robert Penn Warren Oral History Project of the University of Kentucky Library.

Segment Synopsis: Warren specifies the writing process of his first book. Influences of Warren during that time are also mentioned. A wide array of authors are found to be influential at this time, ranging from older poetry (William Blake) to more contemporary writers (John Crowe Ransom).

Keywords: Allen Tate; Chronological; Ezra Pound; Hart Crane; John Crowe Ransom; John Keats; Robert Penn Warren; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Structure; Themes; Volumes; William Blake

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Novels; Poetry

00:03:35 - Painting

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Partial Transcript: I wanted to ask you a question about--

Segment Synopsis: Warren relays his affinity for painting, which began when he was a young boy studying the art form under a nun. Warren is found to have most frequently painted animals, which originates from an inherent interest in nature. This hobby of painting continued for Warren, as later in life many trips to California became a source of inspiration to the author. Summers painting and socializing in California are also recalled.

Keywords: "The Impulse"; Animals; California; Forests; Lakes; Landscapes; Nashville (Tenn.); Nature; Nuns; Robert Penn Warren; San Francisco (Calif.); The Coast; University of California, Berkeley; Watercolor; Zoos

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Nature; Travel

00:11:49 - Vanderbilt friends

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Partial Transcript: Uh, the only undergraduate that--at Vanderbilt, that I was a--I was a freshman...

Segment Synopsis: Warren talks of the friends that he made during his time as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University. One friend became a prominent businessman in Nashville. A Tennessee Senator (Luke Lea) that Warren knew through a mutual friend is also mentioned. World War I veteran Alvin York's personal life, and his acquaintance with Warren are detailed. These friends later served as literary inspirations for Warren in the mannerisms of certain characters.

Keywords: Alvin York; At Heaven's Gate (Book); Battles; Bootleggers; France; Infantries; Lieutenants; Luke Lea; Nashville (Tenn.); Robert Penn Warren; Vanderbilt University; WWI; World War I

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Friendship; Life; Prohibition

00:21:59 - Subject matter / "The Waste Land"

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Partial Transcript: Have you done that a lot?

Segment Synopsis: Warren recalls instances when real-life experiences later served as writing material. An instance of this occurrence given in an anecdote in which Warren met an eccentric man from Tennessee. This occurred when Warren was journeying back east from a cross-country trip, which later turned out to an inspiration for the author. The circumstances behind a famous art project at Vanderbilt that Warren completed there is also mentioned.

Keywords: Buffaloes; Character; Characters; Hunting; New Mexico; Road trips; Robert Penn Warren; Rural; T. S. Eliot; The Waste Land (Book); Vanderbilt University; Western United States

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Life

00:31:22 - Early poetic style

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Partial Transcript: Well, we go onto that because we were talking about styles of poetry.

Segment Synopsis: Warren examines the poetic styles contained within his first book of poetry. An interesting connection between a poem Warren wrote about a son and his dying mother and the author's personal experience after writing the piece is described as well. Warren also discusses a poem he wrote later which focused on the actual death of his mother. Additionally, Warren lists the various places he lived during the early stages of his writing career, and their impact on his work.

Keywords: Baton Rouge (La.); Blank verse; Books; Childhood; Collections; Death; Development; Evolution; Free verse; Illnesses; Iowa City (Iowa); Italy; Kentucky; Kenyon College; Mexico; Parents; Robert Penn Warren; Structure; William Blake; World War II

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Life; Novels; Poetry; Travel

00:51:07 - Change in writing

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Partial Transcript: Well, are there new themes now coming out in these poems written there, say, in Italy and--

Segment Synopsis: Warren explains the change in his writing style following a move to Italy. An emphasis on narrative poetry which began at an earlier period in Minnesota is illustrated. Warren's use of John James Audubon as a subject is examined as well. The tendency of Warren to leave writing unfinished, and then returning to complete it years (or even decades) later is also documented.

Keywords: Ballads; Childhood; Europe; Incarnations; Italy; John James Audubon; Minnesota; Motifs; Nature; Philosophical poetry; Promises; Robert Penn Warren; Themes

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Life; Poetry; Travel

00:57:12 - Beginning to write poetry / health issues

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Partial Transcript: And it's so different from what I had set my life, my life up to be, I mean being a naval officer and all that.

Segment Synopsis: Warren reveals why he began to write poetry as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University. One reason is found to be Warren's health problems concerning his vision. Warren also tells of a suicide attempt during this period as well. Next, his fear of becoming blind is chronicled. Lastly, Warren describes the various friends he had at Vanderbilt.

Keywords: Anxiety; Blindness; Depression; Friends; Graduate students; Passions; Refuge; Robert Penn Warren; Southern Fugitives (writers); Vanderbilt University; Work

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Health; Poetry; Suicide

01:04:09 - Surgery / John James Audubon / friends

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Partial Transcript: Now, later on they, uh, they be, began to, uh, began to get certain...

Segment Synopsis: Warren describes the eye removal surgery he underwent, and the effects of this upon his life and writing. Warren also declares how often he talked about his experiences with the surgery and the effects of it. Many years after the surgery, Warren chronicles friend John Crowe Ransom's comments and reactions to the procedure. A brief discussion of John James Audubon is also highlighted. Lastly, friends of Warren in the literary and medical field are detailed.

Keywords: Celebrations; Creativity; Doctors; Emotions; Eyes; I. A. Richards; John Crowe Ransom; John James Audubon; Maimed; Psychological; Reading; Refuge; Robert Penn Warren; Seizures

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Health; Surgery

01:13:30 - Early novels / dreams

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Partial Transcript: Well, here we are at, uh, "Selected Poems" and meanwhile you were working on "Brother to Dragons."

Segment Synopsis: Warren outlines his first experiences as a novelist, beginning while the author worked as a professor at both Yale and Mississippi universities. Warren also mentions his passion for writing, yet the need to teach in order to earn a living. Warren's literary experiences abroad in Europe before the war are recalled as well. The importance of dreams in Warren's life and work is emphasized. An interesting dream that Warren had is also described.

Keywords: At Heaven's Gate (Book); Dancing; Dreams; Fiction; Mountaineers; Rhodes College; Robert Penn Warren; Typhus fever; University of Mississippi; World War II; Yale University

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Novels; Psychology

01:22:49 - Middle years of his poetry / opera singer Samuel Barber

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Partial Transcript: So, we go from, uh, "Selected Poems" of 1943 and that, uh, began with Billie Potts which represents a new kind of poetry for you...

Segment Synopsis: Warren remembers the middle years of his poetry, which mostly took place during a stint abroad in Italy. Warren gathered inspiration from traveling around Europe and his young children at this time. A description of the home that the Warrens lived in on the Italian coastline is given. An instance with a famous former owner of the home is also mentioned. Lastly, Warren tells of his experiences with famed opera singer Samuel Barber, as well as a reading from a poem related to these events.

Keywords: At Heaven's Gate (Book); Children; Concerts; Europe; Excerpts; Homes; Italy; Operas; Owners; Reading; Robert Penn Warren; Samuel Barber; The Ballad of Billie Potts (Poem)

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Poetry; Travel

01:33:57 - More on the middle years of his poetry / comparisons of his poetic styles

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Partial Transcript: Now, this came from "You, Emperors," 1960.

Segment Synopsis: Warren elaborates upon the middle period of his poetry, which in part stemmed from childhood memories. Warren also tells of books he wrote during this time period as well. Additionally, Warren reveals how he determines when a book is finished. The reemergence of narrative elements within the middle-era poetry is also mentioned. Next, autobiographical elements within his writing are documented. Then, Warren's current poetic style is compared to that of previous eras.

Keywords: Autobiographical; Brother to Dragons (Book); California; Changes; Incarnations; John James Audubon; Memories; Narrative poetry; Parents; Promises; Robert Penn Warren; Selected Poems; Tale of Time: Poems 1960-1966 (Book); The Day Doctor Knox Did It (Poem); Themes; Timing; Volumes

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Novels; Poetry; Storytelling

01:50:20 - Summers / World War II

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Partial Transcript: Uh, one thing that we haven't talked about when we've gone over sort of a chronological history of your life is...

Segment Synopsis: Warren recounts how he spent his summers while attending Vanderbilt University as a undergraduate. Anecdotes from Warren's time at a military base during the summer after his freshman year are recalled. Another notable instance was that Warren's first published poem originated from this particular summer through the Army's yearbook. Secondly, Warren briefly tells of his experience during the wartime years, including teaching Air Force recruits. Lastly, Warren recalls when he worked for the Library of Congress during wartime.

Keywords: Army; Childhood; Directives; Guns; Hiking; Infantries; Intelligence; Library of Congress; Minnesota; Muniments; Publications; Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC); Robert Penn Warren; Teaching; U.S. Air Force; U.S. Navy; Vanderbilt University; World War II; Yearbooks

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; History; Military; Propaganda; United States. Army. Reserve Officers' Training Corps; World War, 1939-1945

02:02:52 - Recent work

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Partial Transcript: One question I had is, are you still writing prose?

Segment Synopsis: Warren's newer work is discussed, as well as the reasoning behind his decline in prose writing. Warren also reveals his plans to attempt to write a new novel. An uptick in writing output is commented upon, and factors that contributed to this are investigated. Additionally, Warren's enjoyment of teaching is confirmed. The literary subject matter used in the majority of this recent writing is also mentioned. Warren expresses the impending worry of a time when he will not be able to write anymore. Warren's measure of his work is compared to the estimations of critics, as well as the author's favorite recent composition.

Keywords: Apprehension; Books; Breaking point; Children; Critics; Hobbies; Intentions; Interpretations; Jobs; Judgements; Limitations; Memories; Prose; Re-thinking; Robert Penn Warren; Students; Teaching; The impulse; Time; Writing

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Education; Life; Novels; Retirement

02:18:30 - Favorite authors / workload

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Partial Transcript: You have a poem in here in which you mention Wordsworth.

Segment Synopsis: Warren tells of both favorite authors and literary inspirations over the years. Noted poet William Wordsworth and the large quantity of poetry the writer published is briefly examined. Warren's literary work output is also mentioned.

Keywords: Admiration; Andrew Marvell; Gardening; Hobbies; Pieces; Robert Penn Warren; Thomas Hardy; William Wordsworth; Work

Subjects: American literature--20th century; Art; Life; Poetry; Retirement; Romanticism