Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

G. Ellis Sandoz, Jr


Robert Penn Warren is generally regarded as one of America's preeminent men of letters in the twentieth century. In his poetry and novels-as well as his historical essays, literary and social criticism, biographies, and other non-fiction---Warren often addressed political themes. This study of the role of political ideas in Warren's writings begins with his concept of the "philosophical novelist" who consciously incorporates ideas into fiction. An examination of Warren's own essays about his novel All the King's Men provides a useful illustration of the concept and introduces the reader to two key themes that pervade all of his writings: first, modern man's response to philosophical naturalism and, second, the true meaning of pragmatism, which, in Warren's view, does not degenerate into mere expediency. Despite his use of religious language, Warren accepted the premise that there is no transcendent or divine source of order. Faced with this disconcerting truth, man is responsible for creating and articulating the values that will give his life meaning. Such ideals may not be created uncritically, though; ideals must be tested against experience and, especially, against the knowledge of man's flawed nature, a subject which Warren addressed at length in his book-length poem Brother to Dragons and in other works. Following William James, Warren argued that the justification of a belief comes from its effect. Warren also insisted that Jamesian pragmatism (unlike the unphilosophical pragmatism espoused by his fictional politician Willie Stark) was a principled approach to ethics and politics. Ideals are often in conflict, Warren argued, and pursuit of one value may put higher values at risk. And in All the King's Men, Willie Stark's Machiavellian pursuit of his political program put at risk the equally important values of legality and political legitimacy and jeopardized his long-term success. After considering Warren's vision of human nature and his examination of the problems surrounding naturalism and pragmatism, we conclude with Warren's treatment of these ideas in relation to American political thought and practice.