One of the richest and most powerful of twentieth century American novels is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. In its pages can be traced a multitude of fascinating subjects ranging from politics to religion, from sociology to philosophy. There is an equally wide scope to the thematic questions posed by the work. The novel’s complexities arouse various responses in its readers. Some, for example, praise it as Christian, while others revile it as nihilistic on exactly the same grounds. The book is generally regarded as the masterpiece of a novelist who is also a respected poet, critic, and professor.
Warren, a Kentucky native, has a special affinity for the South, and much of his work suggests the traditions and problems of this region. All the King’s Men, while exploring issues that are universal as well as regional, has an unmistakable southern flavor in areas other than mere setting. An immediate query regarding this Pulitzer Prize-winning book usually touches on the relationship of Willie Stark and Huey Long. Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1931, Long led a career that parallels what Warren designs for Stark, and Long presented a similarly powerful and paradoxical personality. The product of a poor background, Long became a lawyer at twenty-one after completing the three-year Tulane University course in eight months. Three years later, aggressive and determined, he sought and won the one state office open at his age, a seat on the Railroad Commission. An unorthodox champion of the little man, Long in his 1924 race for governor was unsuccessful when he tried to remain moderate on the Ku Klux Klan issue. His 1928 try for the office was a triumph, however, and at thirty-five, the outspoken country boy was a governor who almost single-handedly ruled the state. Using patronage as his lever, Long talked the legislature into a thirty-million-dollar bond issue to finance farm roads, hospitals, free schoolbooks, and other programs popular with the poor but infuriating to his opponents. Like Stark, Long soon found himself impeached and charged with bribery, plotting the murder of a senator, misusing state funds, and various other crimes, some of which this strange mixture of demagogue and selfless public servant no doubt had committed. However, his promises and threats kept Long in office after a sufficient number of senators signed a round robin promising not to convict him no matter what the evidence.
Long’s career, which included the unprecedented move of becoming a U. S. senator while still serving as governor, and having plans to seek the presidency, was halted by assassination. In a 1935 scene almost re-created in All the King’s Men, a man stepped from behind a pillar at the Capitol and shot once. Felled by sixty-one bullets from Long’s bodyguards, the assassin, Dr. Carl A. Weiss, died within seconds. Thirty hours later, Long, the “Kingfish,” was also dead. Weiss’s motivations were never satisfactorily explained, but some claimed that he was angry because Long’s maneuvering had cost his father a judgeship.
Despite the overwhelming similarities between Long and Stark, Warren denied having...
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