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All the King’s Men’—A Case of Misreading?

All the King’s Men

by Robert Penn Warren, restored edition edited by Noel Polk
Harcourt, 656 pp., $30.00


Like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) has come to be read as an emblematic, even an allegorical, text. The idealistic Carol Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the romantic-minded and doomed Jay Gatsby (formerly James Gatz of North Dakota), and the charismatic Southern politician Willie Stark have acquired the status of American archetypes, larger than the historically precise fictional worlds they inhabit; like outsized farcical-heroic figures in a painting by the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, they are more interesting for what they represent than for what they are.

The Great Gatsby, the most subtle of the three, as it is the shortest, sold only modestly at the time of publication,1 while the cruelly funny Main Street and the shamelessly melodramatic All the King’s Men were immediate, runaway best sellers. Main Street was fueled by controversy: before Lewis, no one had written with such satiric verve and pitiless accuracy of small-town Protestant America. All the King’s Men was fueled by its reputation as a scandalous roman à clef based upon the life and death of the flamboyant Louisiana politician Huey P. Long; high-decibel, operatic, shrewdly plotted as Oedipus Rex grafted onto a whodunit, Warren’s big, sprawling novel would seem to have been perfectly matched to its time. It was awarded a 1947 Pulitzer prize, and the 1949 screen adaptation was equally admired. Though Robert Penn Warren ranks somewhere beneath his coevals Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, in the bygone–best seller limbo of James Gould Cozzens and Edna Ferber, and seems to be more highly regarded at the present time as a poet than as a novelist,2 All the King’s Men has long been regarded as an American classic and has been continuously in print since 1946. As its chatty narrator, Jack Burden, prophesies, or boasts, at the end of the novel, “We shall go…into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

Inspired by the astonishing career and abrupt death of Huey P. Long (1893–1935), All the King’s Men means to be much more than the sum of its disparate parts. Robert Penn Warren took pains to make it clear that the novel isn’t a roman à clef merely:

…If I had never gone to live in Louisiana and if Huey Long had not existed, the novel would never have been written. But this is far from saying that my “state” in All the King’s Men is Louisiana, or that my Willie Stark is the late Senator. What Louisiana and Senator Long gave me was a line of “thinking and feeling” that did eventuate in the novel.3

A young Ph.D. who’d done graduate work at Berkeley and Yale, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Warren had accepted an assistant professorship of English at the University of Louisiana at Baton Rouge (“Huey Long University”) in 1934, a year before the public murder of Senator Long by an enraged private citizen; he came to Baton Rouge from a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, as if stepping through a looking glass into Long’s political kingdom, which clearly fascinated Warren even as it repelled him. (In his youth, Warren fancied himself an Agrarian-aristocrat, a defender of the “culture and economy” of the South; he’d written an essay titled “The Briar Patch” defending racial segregation, which was included in the 1930 manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, later to be repudiated by Warren.) Warren would live intermittently in Louisiana until 1942, absorbing by degrees the legend of Huey Long, whom he contemplated in the light of European fascism; the power of the “man of the people” for both good and evil is a theme that fascinates Warren’s fictional alter ego Jack Burden as well.

We are meant to trust Jack Burden as a man of conscience. A model for All the King’s Men may well have been William Faulkner’s 1940 masterpiece The Hamlet, the first and strongest novel of his Snopes family trilogy, which charts the rise, like a malevolent protoplasm or yeast, of the enigmatic Flem Snopes. Warren acknowledges farther-flung influences, including Elizabethan tragedy, Edmund Spenser, and Machiavelli, but the richness of his novel springs from his firsthand experience of Louisiana during the reign of Huey Long:

There were a thousand tales, over the years, and some of them were no doubt literally and factually true. But they were all true in the world of “Huey”—that world of myth, folklore, poetry, deprivation, rancor and dimly envisaged hopes. That world had a strange, shifting, often ironical and sometimes irrelevant relation to the factual world of Governor, later Senator, Huey P. Long and his cold manipulation of the calculus of power.

Huey Long’s followers were fanatically devoted to him even as the wealthy elite of Louisiana despised and feared him: “He was the god on the battlement, dimly perceived above the darkling tumult and the steaming carnage of the political struggle. He was a voice, a portent, and a natural force like the Mississippi River getting set to bust a levee.”

In 1938, in Mussolini’s Italy, Warren began working on a play titled Proud Flesh in which Willie Stark’s earliest incarnation is a man named Talos: “…The fact that I drew that name from the ‘iron groom’ who, in murderous blankness, serves Justice in Spenser’s Faerie Queene should indicate something of the ‘line of thinking and feeling’ that led up to that version and persisted, with modulations, into the novel.” In 1943, Warren began the novel that is “more realistic, discursive and documentary in spirit (though not in fact) than the play.” Yet the Willie Stark of All the King’s Men is rather more a romantic idealist than a dynamic, still less a demonic, figure; he isn’t plausible as an American cousin of such psychopathic political leaders as Hitler and Mussolini, though Warren seems to have intended him to be so. Nor does Stark exude the mysterious, unnerving because obscure authority of Faulkner’s intransigent Flem Snopes. There are numerous aspects of the historical Huey “Kingfish” Long that might have been developed by Warren to suggest a greater depth and originality than his Willie Stark possesses,4 but Warren’s imagination seems to have led him to simplified, if not stereotypical, resolutions: Willie Stark is shot to death as a consequence of his love affair with a woman from an old “good” family (the daughter of former Governor Stanton, in fact), not for his political machinations, while Long was assassinated for purely political reasons, in more mysterious, quirkier circumstances. It’s as if Warren’s conventionally romantic sensibility couldn’t conceive of political tragedy, only Hollywood melodrama in this climate in which, as Warren said of Louisiana in the 1930s, “melodrama was the breath of life.”

The famous, bravura opening of All the King’s Men has not lost its power. We begin epic-style, in medias res, uncertain of our surroundings as of our destination, or who is in our speeding vehicle with us:

Mason City.

You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, the day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lord Gawd, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!”

This is our narrator Jack Burden at his most lyrical, neither breezily slangy and self-conscious nor pretentiously philosophical, giving us as much information as the cinematic scene requires, but no more: we are in the Boss’s black Cadillac driven at seventy-five miles an hour by his chauffeur “Sugar-Boy” O’Sheean, and with us are the Boss, Governor Willie Stark, his former-schoolteacher wife, Lucy, and his spoiled-rotten football player son, Tom; a seriocomic politico by the name of Tiny Duffy; and Jack Burden, failed journalist and failed historian, failed husband and failed lover, the bearer of another “good” name who has become Willie Stark’s improbable right-hand man, entrusted with the lethal task of digging up dirt on Stark’s enemies. (When Jack wonders why he works for Willie Stark, Stark tells him: “You work for me because I’m the way I am and you’re the way you are. It’s an arrangement founded on the nature of things…. There ain’t any explanations. Not of anything. All you can do is point at the nature of things. If you are smart enough to see them.”) Though we aren’t meant to be aware of it at the time, the cinematic opening scene, indeed virtually all of the novel, is being viewed through the prism of time as Jack Burden tells his story retrospectively, at a time when Willie Stark has become a posthumous legend.

Jack Burden is one whose heightened sense of irony has handicapped him for life. He’s paralyzed—burdened—by the “enchantments of the past,” both his own past and that of his class (of former slave-owning Southern whites). He’s ashamed of his seductive mother “out of the scrub-country of Arkansas” who has married numerous times, for money and social prestige; he’s ashamed of the quixotic, ineffectual gentleman he believes to be his father, whom he calls with quaint derision the Scholarly Attorney; he loses his respect for the gentleman he calls the Upright Judge, who is in fact his father, and whom he inadvertently drives to suicide, in his role as Willie Stark’s vengeful agent. In his diminished sense of his own manhood in a contemporary South governed by ambitious, amoral “hicks” like Willie Stark, Jack Burden is reminiscent of Faulkner’s equally eloquent, and ineffectual, attorney Gavin Stevens, an appalled witness to perversions of nature like the gangster Popeye (of the lurid noir romance Sanctuary) and the ever-burgeoning Snopes clan of The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion. Both Jack Burden and Gavin Stevens are highly educated, intelligent men from “good” families, stricken by a Prufrockian impotence in the face of a rapidly changing South. By the novel’s end, however, after enough plot complications, or contrivances, to fuel a Dickens novel, Jack Burden throws off his lethargy, survives both the suicide of his father, Judge Irwin, and the murder of his boss, Willie Stark, reclaims his love for Anne Stanton despite the fact that she has been Willie Stark’s “mistress,” and comes to a belated realization of his essential worth:

  1. 1

    The first edition of The Great Gatsby sold about 25,000 copies, far less than Fitzgerald’s first two, considerably inferior novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. In 1927, two years after the publication of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s books earned only $153; in 1929, only $32. Shortly after his death in 1940, Gatsby was dropped by the Modern Library because of poor sales.

  2. 2

    Warren’s later poetry, from Incarnations (1968) to Altitudes and Extensions (1985), is generally considered his finest work. In 1958 Warren received a Pulitzer Prize for Promises.

  3. 3

    Introduction to All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Time, Inc., 1963), p. xi.

  4. 4

    See the definitive biography, Huey Long, by T. Harry Williams (Knopf, 1969).

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