‘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
Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren; drawing by David Levine

1.

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…


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