Robert Penn Warren may be a quintessential American "man of letters," but after wading through Joseph Blotner's big, redoubtable biography, you can't help but wonder if Warren might have held that title in the same way George Bush was considered a "risumi politician." It's not that Warren wasn't talented, and certainly his name is followed by a dizzying array of honors -- he won several Pulitzers (including one for his novel about politics in 1930s Louisiana, "All the King's Men") and Guggenheims, he was a National Book Award winner and the U.S. poet laureate. The tough question is: Where does his work ultimately figure in the fickle, fruited plains of American literature?
Warren was equally prolific and prodigious as a poet, novelist and historian. Yet, unlike William Faulkner, the subject of Blotner's previous biography, the word "genius" is rarely bandied about with regard to his work (although he did receive a MacArthur "genius" grant). Nor does Warren's work inspire the kind of contemporary devotion that his close friend Katherine Anne Porter's does. Blotner's bio of this eminently accomplished writer is, well, eminently accomplished: meticulously researched, unerringly chronological (without so much as a theme-extracting introduction), voluminous and politely distant -- all qualities one looks for in a biography if one is a scholar. More general readers might need a bit more to keep them turning the pages.
One problem is that the arc of Warren's life -- he was born to a middle-class family in Kentucky in 1905, and died respected and prosperous at age 84 -- seems so placid and successful. He almost went blind in one eye as a young man, and he did attempt suicide (chloroform in a hankie) while an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, which he chalked up to "ennui," an explanation Blotner basically leaves be. And his first marriage wasn't so hot, but his second, to writer Eleanor Clark, worked out pretty well. Overall, Warren comes off as a nice, well-adjusted guy and a very talented and devoted writer, instead of as a Hemingway plagued by fascinating demons.
No, what Robert Penn Warren appears to be -- at least, in Blotner's book -- is the original academic writer. Shuffling from one prestigious university position to the next, Warren lived a comfortable, fortuitous, but somewhat bland, bourgeois life. That thumbnail sketch, coupled with Blotner's lack of psychological or personal insight into his subject, makes the biography resemble an enormously detailed curriculum vitae.