Thursday, June 21, 2007

Review of the Book "All The King's Men"

“All the King's Men” – by Robert Penn Warren – published in 1946

You've probably seen the recent wretched movie with Sean Penn playing Governor Willie Stark, i.e. Huey Long, of Louisiana. It was a dreadful film. If you are a fan of old movies, you might have seen the black and white original starring Broderick Crawford, which was better. Both are based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren.

Now, basing movies on novels is basic. And basing movies on really good books is even more basic. So what are we missing?

Robert Penn Warren is a great writer. You know it because he has three names. He was of the last generation of heroic novelists who lived in Paris, chummed around with Hemingway, and wrote like the devil. At least he wrote this book like that. The book is the first-person reflections of an aide to Stark, whose name in the book is actually Talos. The aide is an educated cynic named Jack Burden. He carried one, see? Warren writes long looping sentences that start somewhere and finish somewhere else, and say something, and sound good in the way of saying it, making poetic sense along the way. He writes in the colloquial mixed with the beautifully descriptive or startlingly original, and hits you with the images, bang after bang after boom. Great stuff on the aesthetic side.

The topic of this book is politics. Or at least it is ostensibly about politics. And Talos/Long is "King" and Burden is one of his men. But it is really the narrative journey of Mr. Burden as an aide, describing the life and fall/assassination of Talos/Stark/Long by a born-wealthy doctor enraged by his own 'goodness.'

Robert Penn Warren is not to blame for what other people’s films are trying to make out of his book. Not wholly anyway. You see, in the book Talos/Long is treated as a manipulative monster - womanizing, pushy, power-mad, and crooked. His followers portrayed as sheep-like, rural bumpkins and ignoramuses. "Hicks." Rednecks you'd call them now if you didn't like white working people. The assassin on the other hand is a self-sacrificing straight-arrow. End of story. This, not coincidentally, is also the real view of the Louisiana ruling families, who hated Huey Long with a passion. The assassin's fictional class background is portrayed as being born out of one of these ruling families. This "King" offended all the real Kings and was dethroned by a son of one of the old Kings. Shakespearean, huh? Or maybe Humpty Dumpty? A populist egg cracked to make a ‘royal’ omelet.

The only view we have of Huey Long, the historical figure, is this tiny reverse telescopic image of the past – i.e. this book and the two movies it spawned. No one really knows anything about the real Huey Long, unless they knew Long or are historians. According to some of the latter, a tired patrician liberal, Franklin D Roosevelt, stole Long's platform to create his own ‘new deal.’ Could this dreadful monster "King" be the source of the storied and loved New Deal, foundation of social security, unemployment compensation, legal unions, welfare, etc.? The wet dream of every liberal DFLer? And jeez, why isn't some of this in this well-written book?

The NY Times called this book, "The definitive story of American politics." Does that mean that all the populists always get shot?


Who was Robert Penn Warren? Warren was born in Kentucky, the son of a banker, graduating from Vanderbilt and Berkeley, then became a Rhodes scholar. He wrote novels and poetry, writing ATKM while at the University of Minnesota! In the 20s through the 40s he was a part of the southern ‘Agrarian’ school of writers, who were conservative and embraced segregation, among other things. His attitude changed in the 50s and in the 60s when he attempted to deal with the race question in a progressive way. Most literary critics only focus on his attitude towards race, but segregation was part of a full political point of view for him. Very few literary critics notice that Warren, a dyed-in-the wool conservative from an upper-crust Southern background, wrote a book about a left populist in 1946 - and seem to take no notice of how this might shape his novel! While Warren did not intend his book to be a mere depiction of the Long phenomena, much of it is rooted in just that. He actually met Long at LSU. The central character, Burden, is nothing but a kind of alter-ego of Talos/Stark/Long.

Warren was interested in an artistic rendering of an emotional journey, with some familiar social cliché’s larded into poetic language. However, let's just look at one word, the word - "Boss." Guess who's called that that about 700 times in the book? You guessed it, Mr. Stark/Telos/Long. Part of this is the repeated usage by associates of Telos. You know, "hey boss." However, Warren uses it beyond that as a constant discriptor. Not once does Warren call the real 'bosses" who ran Lou-‘sana’ their real names. Reminds me of the times AFL-CIO leaders have been called "union bosses" by the press. Somehow the only time they come up with the name "boss" is when it is about a union "boss" or a populist 'boss' or a communist 'boss.' Making the real rulers of society invisible is the name of the game. They are NEVER called "boss." And yet, in the real world, we all refer to our supervisors as 'boss.' Words are important for writers and this word, of course, is significant in its repeated use.


Someone who kills a left-wing populist should be put under the microscope, because there are many people who would pay to have someone like that killed, either the rich of Louisiana or Roosevelt. Was it goodness or jealousy? Or, actually, politics? Who was the real Adam Stanton, the so-called assassin? The real Adam Stanton was named Carl Weiss, the son of a judge whom Long was trying to remove. There are many questions about the assassination of Long - no motive, missing weapon, wrong slug caliber, missing records, the bullets in Long did not match Weiss’ gun, etc. - which lead some to suspect this was a political assassination by someone within Long’s bodyguards, and had nothing to do with the fictional reasons Warren stated in his book. Sound familiar? Killing those who stand up to the system is a time-honored tradition in this ‘democracy.’


Who was Huey Long? Long grew up somewhat poor from a rural background, became a lawyer, defending workers on worker’s compensation cases, then took on Standard Oil (“SO”) for unfair business practices. As governor and senator, Long targeted SO for exploiting Louisiana’s oil and gas. When first elected, he ran on an anti-SO platform, fighting rate increases and pipeline monopolies. He took one case all the way to the Supreme Court. He ran twice for governor, succeeding the second time on the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” a phrase he borrowed from William Jennings Bryan.

As Governor, Long got free textbooks for school children, inexpensive gas for New Orleans, and a large system of public works programs in a state with few good roads, hospitals, bridges, schools and universities. A move to impeach him happened after he proposed taxing SO’s refined oil about 5 cents, which was to fund social programs. After being elected Senator (and resigning as Governor), the regular Democratic Organization decided to back some of his plans – instituting a gas tax and building LSU. Reflecting his ascendant power, Long called himself the “Kingfish” after the character in Amos and Andy. He was ruthless with enemies, and sometimes bought his friends. He controlled state government like a fiefdom, from all reports. This latter aspect is the only thing that is remembered about him.

In the Senate in 1932, Long criticized both parties for ignoring the working class and pushed for a redistribution of wealth. Long at first supported Roosevelt, then opposed him when he sold out to business. Roosevelt later compared Long to Hitler and Mussolini! Long opposed U.S. involvement in foreign wars, attributing them to the influence of Wall Street. He unveiled a plan to the left of the first New Deal called “Share our Wealth.” It put a cap on incomes, redistributing wealth through revisions in the tax code, a minimum wage, free college, old age pensions, veterans’ benefits, federal assistance to farmers, works programs and a 30 hour work week. After the Democratic Party ignored him, Long formed “Share the Wealth” clubs outside the party. The organizations had 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs. Long opposed socialism and communism, and said his program would prevent their success. Roosevelt later adopted many parts of the Long program in the ‘second” New Deal.” None of this is even hinted at in the book or the films. Is it any wonder?


A book usually has three significant parts. A good story; well-written words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs; and an actual point. Although Jack Burden is not the world's most interesting character, he narrates a good story. The language is great. The point? Jealousy will make you do dire things? "Justice wins out?" "He deserved it?" Telos was a bad man? The actual 'point' of this book obscured and maligned Huey Long and his supporters, in the interests of the real bosses. Maybe that was not the intention of Warren. But. Writers who write fiction, and in the process greatly fictionalize history, are bound to fall short. But damn, Warren is a good writer. And isn't that what it is all about?

-----The Red Frog

And I might have found it at May Day books!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

David Zirin to speak at Mayday Books on June 19

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For more information, visit the Haymarket Books web site.

For Zirin's weekly sports column, visit Zirin's Edge of Sports website.