Home Page Home Page

Robert Penn Warren.
All the King’s Men.


Penn Warren's Introduction

SOME TIME in the winter of 1937-38, when I was teaching at the Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, I got the notion of doing a verse play about a Southern politician who achieved the power of a dictator, at least in his home state, and who was assassinated in the Capitol which had been the scene of his triumphs. As well as I can recall, the notion began to take on some shape when, sitting one afternoon on the porch of a friend's cottage, I began to describe my intentions.

Very often it is in conversation during the germinal stage of a project that I stumble on my meanings, or they stumble on me, and I recall this particular conversation rather vividly because it was then that I hit on the idea that the politician — then unnamed — would not simply be a man who by force or fraud rises to absolute power, offends the principles of decency and democracy, and then is struck down by a self-appointed Brutus. There would be no drama to such a story — no “insides,” no inner tensions, no involvement of the spectator's own deep divisions. My politician would be — or at least I was groping toward some such formulation — a man whose personal motivation had been, in one sense, idealistic, who in many ways was to serve the cause of social betterment, but who was corrupted by power, even by power exercised against corruption. That is, his means defile his ends. But more than that, he was to be a man whose power was based on the fact that somehow he could vicariously fulfill some secret needs of the people about him. The choruses — and it was in talking about the place of the choruses in the proposed verse play that the notion came — were to develop this in a subsidiary way — a chorus of builders, a chorus of highway patrolmen, a chorus of surgeons, etc. And, naturally, each of the main characters should bear such a relation to the politician, even the Brutus assassin. But over against his power to fulfill, in some degree, a secret need of those about him, the politician was to discover, more and more, his own emptiness and his own alienation. So much for that conversation in the unseasonable sunshine of a Louisiana winter day.

The play did get written. I wrote a couple of choruses in the next few months. In Italy, the next summer, the summer of 1938 , 1 got a little more done, beginning the process, I recall, in the late afternoon, in a wheat field outside of Perugia. The thing dragged on all the next winter and spring, in Louisiana, with a bit done after classes and on week-ends, but the bulk of the play was written in Rome, in the fall and winter of 1939, with the news of the war filling the papers and the boot heels of Mussolini’s legionaries clanging on the stones. During that time I was deep in Machiavelli and Dante. Later, in the novel All The King's Men, Machiavelli found a place in the musings of Jack Burden, and Dante provided the epigraph.

When the play was finished, it was somewhat diEerent from the thing dreamed up in the conversation with my friend. For instance, another theme had crept in — the theme of the relation of science (or pseudo-science) and political power, the theme of the relation of the science-society and the powerstate, the problem of naturalistic determinism and responsibility, etc. At least, if such grand topics did not find explicit place in the play, and if I did not pretend to wisdom about them, they were casting a shade over the meditations of composition. The play, by the way, had the title Proud Flesh. I was rather pleased with the double significance of the phrase.

I mailed the play to some friends back home. I knew that it was not finished, but I would postpone the rewriting for the benefit of the judgment of my first readers and my own more detached contemplation. Back in America, in the summer of 1940, 1 did do some rewriting, with the subtle criticism and inspiring instruction of Francis Fergusson. But still the play was not, to my mind or taste, finished. And besides, I had already begun a novel, to appear as At Heaven's Gate, which was drawing on some of the feelings and ideas involved in the play.

It was not until the spring of 1943 that I began again on the play. I had taken the manuscript out of its cupboard with the intention of revising it, but immediately I found myself thinking of the thing as a novel. That idea wasn’t entirely new. Now and then I had entertained the possibility of making a novel of the story. But now, all at once, a novel seemed the natural and demanding form for it, and for me.

This new impulse was, I suppose, a continuation of the experience of writing A t Heaven's Gate, just as that novel had been, in a way, a continuation of Proud Flesh. Despite important contrasts, there were some points of essential similarity between my businessman hero, Bogan Murdock, in At Heaven's Gate, and the politician hero of the play. And even some of the contrasts between them were contrasts in termis of the same thematic considerations. For example, if Bogan Murdock was supposed to embody, in one of his dimensions, the desiccating abstraction of power, to be a violator of nature, a usurer of Dante’s Seventh Circle*, and to try to fulfill vicariously his natural emptiness by exercising power over those around him, so the politician rises to power because of the faculty of fulfilling vicariously the secret needs of others, and in the process, as I have already said, discovers his own emptiness. But beyond such considerations, the effort of At Heaven's Gate had whetted my desire to compose a highly documented picture of the modem world — at least, as the modem world manifested itself in the only region I knew well enough to write about.

*It was this Circle that provided, with some liberties of interpretation and extension, the basic scheme and metaphor for the whole novel. All of the main characters are violators of nature.

There was, however, another consideration, if one can use such a term of scruple and calculation to describe the coiling, interfused forces that go into such a “literary” decision. This consideration was a technical one — the necessity for a character of a higher degree of self-consciousness than my politician, a character to serve as a kind of commentator and raisonneur and chorus. But since in fiction one should never do a thing for merely a single reason (not if he hopes to achieve that feeling of a mysterious depth which is one of the chief beauties of the art), I wanted to give that character a dynamic relation to the general business, to make him the chief character among those who were to find their vicarious fulfilment in the dynamic and brutal, yet paradoxically idealistic, drive of the politician. There was, too, my desire to avoid writing a straight naturalistic novel, the kind of novel that the material so readily invited. The impingement of that material, I thought, upon a special temperament would allow another perspective than the reportorial one, and would give a basis for some range of style. So Jack Burden entered the scene.

But that is not quite a complete account of his origin. In Proud Flesh, at the time when Dr. Adam Stanton is waiting in the lobby of the Capitol to kill the Governor, and is meditating his act to come, an old friend, now a newspaperman, approaches him, and for one instant the assassin turns to him with a sense of elegiac nostalgia for the innocence and simplicity of the shared experiences of boyhood. This character, who appears so fleetingly in the last act of the play to evoke the last backward look of the dedicated assassin, gave me Jack Burden. And the story, in a sense, became the story of Jack Burden, the teller of the tale.

The composition of the novel moved slowly, in Minneapolis, in 1943 and through the spring of 1944, in Washington through the rest of the year and up till June of 1945, in Connecticut in the summer of 1945. The work was constantly interrupted, by teaching, by some traveling, by the duties of my post in Washington, by the study for and writing of a long essay on Coleridge. The interruptions were, in some way, welcome, for they meant that the pot had to be pushed to the back of the stove to simmer away at its own pace. The book was finished in the fall of 1945, back in Minneapolis, the last few paragraphs being written in a little room in the upper reaches of the Library of the University of Minnesota. The book, after a good deal of revision along the way, with the perceptive criticism of Lambert Davis of Harcourt, Brace and Company, was published in August, 1946.

One of the unfortunate characteristics of our time is that the reception of a novel may depend on its journalistic relevance. It is a little graceless of me to call this characteristic unfortunate, and to quarrel with it, for certainly the journalistic relevance of All the King's Men had a good deal to do with what interest it evoked. My politician hero, whose name, in the end, was Willie Stark, was quickly equated with the late Senator Huey P. Long, whose fame, even outside of Louisiana, was yet green in pious tears, anathema, and speculation.

This equation led, in different quarters, to quite contradictory interpretations of the novel. On one hand, there were those who took the thing to be a not-so-covert biography of, and apologia for, Senator Long, and the author to be not less than a base minion of the great man. There is really nothing to reply to this kind of innocent boneheadedness or gospel-bit hysteria. As Louis Armstrong is reported to have said, there's some folks that if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.

But on the other hand, there were those who took the thing to be a rousing declaration of democratic principles and a tract for the assassination of dictators. This view, though somewhat more congenial to my personal political views, was almost as wide of the mark. For better or for worse, Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie was only himself, whatever that self turned out to be, a shadowy wraith or a blundering human being.

This disclaimer, whenever I was callow enough to make it, was almost invariably greeted by something like a sardonic smile or a conspiratorial wink, according to what the inimical smiler or the friendly winker took my motives to be — either I wanted to avoid being called a fascist or I wanted to avoid a lawsuit. I now in making the disclaimer again, I do not mean to imply that there was no connection between Governor Stark and Senator Long. Certainly, it was the career of Long and the atmosphere of Louisiana that suggested the play that was to become the novel. But suggestion does not mean identity, and even if I had wanted to make Stark a projection of Long, I should not have known how to go about it. For one reason, simply because I did not, and do not, know what Long was like, and what were the secret forces that drove him along his violent path to meet the bullet in the Capitol. And in any case. Long was but one of the figures that stood in the shadows of imagination behind Willie Stark. Another one of that company was the scholarly and benign figure of William James.

Though I did not profess to be privy to the secret of Long's soul, I did have some notions about the phenomenon of which Long was but one example, and I tried to put some of those notions into my book. Something about those notions, and something of what I felt to be the difference between the person Huey P. Long and the fiction Willie Stark, may be indicated by the fact that in the verse play the name of the politician was Talos — the name of the brutal, blank-eyed “iron groom” of Spenser's Faerie Queene, the pitiless servant of the knight of justice. My conception grew wider, but that element always remained, and Willie Stark remained, in one way, Willie Talos. In other words, Talos is the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself. The book, however, was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out.


New York City, March, 1953-

Magee Notes

In 1988, I began grad school at LSU. One day one of my professors, Malcolm Richardson, stopped teaching to do his cranky professor routine. It was the 50th anniversary of Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who were at LSU at the time. They created a methodology of studying literature called New Criticism, which revolutionized the way literature was studied in the United States. The pair went on to great heights almost unknown among English professors. Penn Warren won a Pulitzer Prize for All the King's Men, and the original movie won an Oscar. 50 years later, both men were still alive and living rather close, so LSU could have had them to campus to celebrate their accomplishments (and LSU's). Instead, we were doing nothing. He said if it had been Mississippi, they'd have been on TV, newspaper articles, a symposium. Louisiana just doesn't do a good job of curating and celebrating its literature. I repeated the story from time to time, until I told it once too often to my colleague Stephen Payne. He suggested that we should do something about the problem, when I obviously meant they should do something about it. And that is how the Louisiana Anthology was born from my not meeting Brooks and Penn Warren.

Two of the top-flight professors who worked for Huey Long at LSU were Brooks and Penn Warren. And Penn Warren never forgave Huey for giving him a job. He identifies with the elites who ran the state. As such, he resented having a rube from the sticks be his boss. I've done a word search for "rube" in the Huey Long material at the Louisiana Anthology, and he never used the word once. But Penn Warren has Willie Stark make the word the cornerstone of his stump speech.

Willie is a not-so-fun house refraction of Huey. A student of meter will notice that Willie Stark and Huey Long both scan the same — they are both anapests. Penn Warren talks about the "notion" for his book as some kind of creative breakthrough. It was actually taken from the newspaper headlines of a couple of years earlier. The creativity comes in how he re-writes the Huey Long story. The way he re-writes Huey himself is telling. Willie Stark was an illiterate man whose school-teacher wife taught him to read. He only ran for governor because the political machine encouraged him to. Huey was brilliant, a real genius. He was reputed to have a photographic memory for everything he read. He certainly learned enough law by himself to pass the bar by reading it for a few months. Penn Warren was unable to fathom a country bumpkin with an intellect superior to his own. Furthermore, in my own opinion, Huey Long was a better writer than Penn Warren. I consider Every Man a King to be poorly written and hard to get through. Penn Warren himself sees the book as a pastiche of established literary themes. He considers the Julius Caesar theme to be too obvious and not having depth, although writing the book in Rome during the rise of Mussolini while he read Dante and Machiavelli certainly had its impact on the book. He brings in Jack Burden as a Greek chorus to observe and participate in events. His characters come from the 7th circle of hell in Dante's Inferno, as people who sin against nature. It's certainly a literary achievement, but it misses the political depths of Huey's politics. Penn Warren would have been considered a liberal at the time. That put him at odds with the radical left. Of course he wanted roads, hospitals, books for school children. But the way Huey went about it, don't you see? So Willie Stark was corrupted by the very power he used to fight corruption. That is, Penn Warren makes Willie stark corrupt in the Roman sense of the word, as well as the Aristotlean sense. As a liberal, he leaves out his underlying feeling that Huey is corrupt in the Southern sense: Willie helped those people. That was what was truly unforgivable for a true Son of the South, however urbane and erudite.

Now for the Sean Penn movie. I personally like it better than the book or the first movie. That's because this version re-infuses Huey Long back into the story. Penn Warren set his story in Mason City in a generic state. The remake puts it back in Louisiana. The movie opens and closes, not in a generic capitol, but focused on the seal of Louisiana that is in the forum of the capitol building of Louisiana that Huey built (My grandfather and men like him did the actual building). And it is the capitol, not a set. Where the shooting of Willie Stark takes place, there are chips in the marble from the shooting of Huey Long. And the movie brings in elements of Huey's speeches and policies for those who know the history. In the movie, for example, Sean Penn sings "Every Man a King," the campaign song Huey wrote and sang. Willie talks about building little stretches of road all over the state, as Huey in fact had done. Tiny asks, "Why you gonna do that, boss? People like their roads finished." "You just answered your own question, Tiny," Willie replies. Plus Willie winks at Jack Burden the first time they meet, indicating that he may be playing the men from the machine rather than the other way around. Like Huey Long, Sean Penn's Willie Stark is the smartest man in the room.

Home Page Home Page