Robert Penn Warren, Shadowy Autobiography, and Other Makers of American Literature

  • Author(s): Millichap, Joseph R.
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2021-03-29
  • Status: Active
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“This book is a thoughtful and wide-ranging study of the ways in which Warren’s criticism about certain authors engaged not only his ongoing themes, and his ongoing methods, but, in particular, those ontological issues, the issues of being human and of having to die, which lie under his work as an artist and his life as a man.”—John Burt, author of Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict


Toward the end of his career, Robert Penn Warren wrote, “It may be said that our lives are our own supreme fiction.” Although lauded for his writing in multiple genres, Warren never wrote an autobiography. Instead, he created his own “shadowy autobiography” in his poetry and prose, as well as his fiction and nonfiction. As one of the most thoughtful scholars on Robert Penn Warren and the literature of the South, Joseph Millichap builds on the accepted idea that Warren’s poetry and fiction became more autobiographical in his later years by demonstrating that that same progression is replicated in Warren’s literary criticism. This meticulously researched study reexamines in particular Warren’s later nonfiction in which autobiographical concerns come into play—that is, in those fraught with psychological crisis such as Democracy and Poetry.

Millichap reveals the interrelated literary genres of autobiography, criticism, and poetry as psychological modes encompassing the interplay of Warren’s life and work in his later nonfiction. He also shows how Warren’s critical engagement with major American authors often centered on the ways their creative work intersected with their lives, thus generating both autobiographical criticism and the working out of Warren’s own autobiography under these influences. Millichap’s latest book focuses on Warren’s critical responses to William Faulkner, John Crowe Ransom, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Theodore Dreiser. In addition, the author carefully considers the black and female writers Warren assessed more briefly in American Literature: The Makers and the Making.

Robert Penn Warren, Shadowy Autobiography, and Other Makers of American Literature presents the breadth of Millichap’s scholarship, the depth of his insight, and the maturity of his judgment, by giving us to understand that in his writing, Robert Penn Warren came to know his own vocation as a poet and critic—and as an American.

JOSEPH R. MILLICHAP is emeritus professor of English at Western Kentucky University. His books include Robert Penn Warren after Audubon: The Work of Aging and the Quest for Transcendence in His Later Poetry and The Language of Vision: Photography and Southern Literature in the 1930s and After.