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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.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), born in Guthrie, Kentucky, was one of America's most revered writers, producing fiction, poetry, history, and criticism, much of it focusing on the moral dilemmas of the South. He served as America's first poet laureate. He received the Pulitzer Prize three times, for his novel All the King's Men and for his books of poetry Promises: Poems 1954–1956 and Now and Then. He is also the author of Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back and The Cave.

"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."—Booklist

"Not simply what its author remembers of his roots in small-town and rural Kentucky, but an account of all fathers as imperfectly seen by sons."—Philadelphia Enquirer

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Robert Penn Warren, Warren family, Kentucky, American poets


Literature in English, North America

Portrait Of A Father
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