Cover image for Portrait of a father
Portrait of a father
Warren, Robert Penn, 1905-1989.
Publication Information:
Lexington, KY : University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Physical Description:
79 pages ; 21 cm
Format :


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PS3545.A748 Z477 1988 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

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One of America's great poets writes of his father, lost through death and discovered again through insistent recollection. A death in the family forces a re-sorting and reshaping of all that we can recall of times and people gone from us as we measure our identities by their remembered images.

While prowling in the past, Warren is drawn to likenesses between himself and his father, between himself and others of his family. The poet finds that his father too, in his long silent youth, ventured into the writing of poetry, as have so many, but in time put it away for other things. Gradually this elegy for his father becomes Warren's reverie on the many Warrens and Penns who live now only in his memory. We encounter his mother and his mother's mother, his father's Warren line thrown back over three generations, as he draws forth sameness, giving shape and full form and then sharp recognition to family members who were and must yet remain mysteries. Then we see that Warren is delineating the tenuous threads of all our many unsettled and fragmentary American family histories, that he is tracing all our steps from the coast over mountain trails into the dark wilderness to the west. With him, when we stop to consider our loved and lost ones, we realize the delicacy of our accepted relationships.

In this autobiographical essay and the accompanying poem sequence that echoes it, "Mortmain," Warren's look into the mystery of the past evokes for us the loss and recovery and wonder that death brings.

Author Notes

Robert Penn Warren, the first Poet Laureate of the United States, was an unusually versatile writer who tried his hand at almost every kind of literature. In all of these forms, he achieved recognition and distinction, but it is as a poet, critic, and novelist that he was most widely known.

Writing almost always about his native South, Warren produced 10 novels and a collection of short stories, The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories (1948). By far the most successful of his novels is All the King's Men (1946), the story of a southern politician and demagogue named Willie Stark, which Warren based on the rise and fall of Huey Long. Warren was considered one of the most influential of the New Critics, whose influence on the teaching of literature in American schools and universities during the late 1940s and 1950s could scarcely be overestimated. Because All the King's Men seemed to be the very epitome of what a good work of literature should be in New Critical terms---a complicated but highly readable narrative filled with irony and ambiguity---the novel came to be used widely in courses on modern fiction. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Southern Authors Award in 1947.

Warren's other novels are disappointing by comparison. Following the success of All the King's Men, however, Warren seemed to turn to more loosely told stories about dramatic and romantic subjects, such as the interracial theme of Band of Angels (1955) or the natural catastrophes that serve as the crisis background for The Cave (1959) and Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964). Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961) is an allegory of a man's spiritual quest for truth about himself and the world. Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971), the story of a tragic love affair, seemed to mark a return to the tighter structure and more complex artistry of Warren's earlier novels, but A Place to Come To (1977), his last novel, in which an elderly and renowned scholar who seems to owe much to Warren himself looks back on his family's past in an effort to find the meaning of his life, struck some reviewers as a confused and tired work. Sometime midway through his career as a novelist it is as if Warren stopped thinking of himself as a southern writer in the tradition of William Faulkner and turned instead to Thomas Wolfe for inspiration. Although in retrospect that switch must be regretted, no one can deny the immense influence of Robert Penn Warren on modern letters. Warren's poetry is intellectual, rich in powerful images, and has its roots in the pre-Civil War South. He continued to write impressive poetry almost until the time of his death.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In this beautiful, elegiac essay, Warren examines his father's life. Like archaeological findings, clues emerge on the nature of this man as the poet recalls moments shared with his father or receives new evidence from a letter or possession. It appears that while some questions were left unanswered by Warren's father, many more were unasked by Warren himself as a child, a young man, and an adult caught up in his own life. Warren's quest and his equanimity over not being able to answer every question about his father offer an important lesson in this era of ancestor searching with the premium it places on ferreting out every detail of family history. Warren's gentle remembrances and quiet grief are further conveyed in a concluding poem sequence, ``Mortmain.'' DPD.

Library Journal Review

In this brief, plainly written, poignantly honest journey into his family's past, the 83-year-old poet/novelist tries to separate facts from the tricks of memory in recalling his grandparents, his mother, and especially his father, a loving but undemonstrative man strangely reticent about the years before his marriage. More than a chronological narrative, Warren's essay movingly suggests the elusiveness of the American past. It also contains five poems Warren wrote in response to his father's last sickness and death in 1955. Entitled ``Mortmain,'' these powerful works are considerably elucidated by the preceding ``Portrait.'' Charles C. Nash, Cottey Coll., Nevada, Mo. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.