Proud Flesh (‘All the King’s Men’) (12/16/01)


When All the King’s Men was published in 1946, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The 1949 movie version, directed by Robert Rossen, starring Broderick Crawford, won the Academy Award for best picture. In those days, everyone remembered Huey Long.

Born in 1893, he was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928, running as a Populist against Standard Oil. He built roads, stadiums, hospitals, a new Capitol in Baton Rouge and the most dominant political machine America had ever seen. In 1930 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but did not surrender the governorship until he had put the fix in: For the next five years, through proxies, he ran the state as a dictator. Crucial to Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination for president in 1932, he was by 1934 FDR’s enemy from the left, planning to run himself in 1936 as a third-party candidate on his “Share Our Wealth” platform. He would throw the election to the Republicans he loathed, who would leave the country so much worse than they found it that in 1940, only one man could save it, and everyone would be chanting his name.

“What chance has Long to execute his threat to be President?” Forrest Davis wrote in 1935 in Huey Long: A Candid Biography. “Summing up, he has youth, a belief in his star amounting to effrontery; he is wily, genuinely intelligent, acute in conflict and has a memory that becomes a legend. He is one of the two or three most ingratiating radio personalities of the country, and his deliberately adopted comic character assures him an audience anywhere in the West and South at least. The cap and bells disarm the country respectables and create an idea that he is a ‘regular fellow’ in the big towns. He is a do-er, a builder. He would take power, and utilize it to the utmost, at the drop of a hat.” On Sept. 8, 1935, Dr. Carl Weiss, possibly as a member of a right-wing group determined to kill Long, with machine guns and an assault on Baton Rouge if necessary, shot him at the state Capitol. He died two days later.

Out of this great and burgeoning story—unfinished as politics, but finished as drama—the poet, novelist and English professor Robert Penn Warren contrived a book, set in 1935, about the charismatic demagogue Willie Stark, governor of an unnamed Southern state, and the men and women who are drawn to him: Stark’s bodyguard, his fixer, his stooge and his detective, Jack Burden, Warren’s narrator. All the King’s Men was less self-consciously literary than Warren’s previous novels, Night Rider (1939) and At Heaven’s Gate (1943), and at once more Shakespearean and more hard-boiled. “The .38 special,” Warren writes of the bodyguard, “rode under his left arm-pit like a tumor.” “She had been around a long time,” he writes of the fixer, “and she had learned a lot the very hard way.” It’s that “very” that does it, not so much as emphasis but as rhythm, blocking the cliché so that it all but inaudibly turns into something you haven’t heard before, that makes you stop and think, imagining everything about this character that the author isn’t telling you.

All the King’s Men wasn’t really about Huey Long, Warren always said. It started as a play, Proud Flesh, with a Gov. Strong. “Certainly it was the career of Long and the atmosphere of Louisiana that suggested the play that was to become the novel,” Warren wrote in 1953, but “Long was but one of the figures that stood in the shadows of imagination behind Willie Stark. Another one of that company,” Warren said, no doubt in an attempt to throw his critics not just off the trail but off the mountain, “was the scholarly and benign figure of William James.” All the King’s Men was not even “intended to be a book about politics,” Warren said. “Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns…” And so on.

My strongest impression, coming back to the novel after years of merely carrying it in my head (all mixed up with the movie, with Crawford as Stark and, even more so, Mercedes McCambridge as his dead-woman-walking fixer and lover Sadie), was that the book needed a lot more politics, and a lot more Stark—and that it needed to be tougher, louder, scarier, with Stark at once more idealistic and more demonic. While the movie is something of a cartoon of the book, foreshortened and telescoped, compared to the movie the book seems hedged and airy—and compared to the real Long, what he did, how he did it, what he wanted, the sound he made and the sound he got back (and I’m not thinking of his song “Every Man a King,” covered by Randy Newman on his 1974 album Good Old Boys), Stark is a cream puff. And Jack Burden is more Holden Caulfield than Philip Marlowe.

The book, finally, is less about “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself,” as Warren put it, than about how a Burden, a decent, questing man, might be destroyed by a Stark, a man who, for reasons Burden cannot really understand, has no decency at all—and of Burden the reader learns all too much. His research into the life of an ancestor, subject of an unfinished doctoral thesis, is fascinating: The Civil War soldier Cass Mastern steps forward as the hero of whom Stark is only a corrupt modern counterfeit. Burden’s long, loving reconstruction of a summer romance with his childhood friend Anne is embarrassing. His struggle to escape from Stark, and his final surrender to him, produces a stunning image, “The Great Twitch”—an image that never quite connects to the story it is supposed to decipher. What’s Stark thinking, you ask, as Burden struggles with his disastrous parents, his failures, with the good or evil of the investigation Stark has ordered him to pursue? Is Stark a shell, or is that too a con, like the rabble-rousing speeches he gives to “people who had never been on pavement before”? Burden wants to know—but the reader wants to know even more than he does. Even if it has been all but removed from the American historical narrative, Huey Long’s story has remained part of the American imagination because it was not allowed to find its own conclusion. As Long said (with what most who were with him said were his last words), “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” Warren’s book may have remained part of the American imagination, and the American literary narrative, because in its way it is just as frustrating, just as tantalizing, with Warren telling the reader just enough to make him or her desperate to know what Warren isn’t telling.

So what’s this about a “Restored Edition”? Drawing on the Warren papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale, Noel Polk, professor of American literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, has constructed his version from preliminary drafts and from the typescript Warren originally submitted to his editors Lambert Davis and David Clay: “a ragged composite made up of several different kinds of paper… typed on more than one typewriter, obviously over a period of years, in a variety of places.”

“It is not clear exactly how much of the typescript that eventually went to the printer Warren submitted originally and how much he wrote later and added as revisions,” Polk says. Still, the version Polk has produced is different. There are many tiny changes that have been restored. There are differences in punctuation, with Warren originally prefacing dialogue with a colon (“I said: ‘You planning on being an old maid?'”), which his editors softened to a comma. There are sexual references that were elided or excised altogether (“To hell with Adam, I told myself, did he think he could put lead seals on his sister’s drawers”). There is a first chapter that was effectively transposed into the body of the novel. Willie Stark was originally Willie Talos. Now he’s Talos again.

In his “Editorial Afterword,” Polk works to make these differences into a different book. The published version is “considerably less than the novel Warren wrote”; the published version was damaged by the editors’ “very unmodern sense of what makes a novel good… We, however, with the benefit of over half a century of serious study of All the King’s Men, are in a better position to understand and appreciate the full range of the novel’s complexities.” Never underestimate the superiority of the living over the dead.

Hindsight may be 20-20 with history—I doubt it—but there’s no chance it is with art. The notion that we, now, can read Warren, and the story behind his story, more clearly and more deeply than his original readers, professional or public, is silly. The argument that Warren’s editors deleted the “lead seals on his sister’s drawers” passage “apparently in the name of that era’s ‘taste'”—putting taste in scare quotes, as if the very idea that a more benighted era could even have taste were questionable—is historically redundant, aesthetically trivial and intellectually prissy. If there were a disturbing or thrilling sexual subplot removed from the book, one would have a case to make that something was missing, even the true book itself—but not with a few lines that, by their absence, one could argue at least as persuasively as Polk does, do not weaken but intensify the narrator’s fear, and the novel’s dramatization, of sex and power.

“The most serious and damaging change Davis proposed,” Polk writes, “was for Warren to change the name of his politician hero from Willie Talos to,” in editor Davis’ words, “a name of less ambiguous pronunciation, and one that suggested more definitely an American origin.” Polk jumps on Davis for his poor choice of words: “Someone, perhaps Warren, came up with the name Stark, not at all of ‘American origin’ but of German.” What would Polk prefer, Willie Minnehaha?

No, he wants Talos: because it is “much richer in the ‘metaphorical overtones’ and in literary resonances.” “Talos,” Warren said, was “the name of the brutal, blank-eyed ‘iron groom’ of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, the pitiless servant of the knight of justice.” “Talos was the bronze man in Greek mythology, made by Hephaestus, who was the guardian of Crete,” Polk adds. “He circled the island three times a day, throwing boulders at ships that tried to land.” And, Polk goes on, “Warren was also clearly aware that ‘Talos’ suggests ‘talon,’ the sharp weapons of birds of prey: in a dramatic moment near the beginning of Chapter 8, Willie claims he will have his way… even if ‘I’ve got to do it with my bare hands.’ As he speaks these words, Warren writes, ‘he held the hands before him with spread fingers, crooked and tense as though to seize.'”

It’s no fun to insist on the obvious: that despite the fact that, had Warren stuck with Talos, he would have had to add a scene with a voter “who had never been on pavement before” saying, “Who’s this guy Talos? What kind of name is that?” a 20th century literary hero without the baggage of metaphorical overtones and literary resonances is going to travel much farther than one who has to bear its weight. A man like Warren’s Willie has to travel light, and he has. And, as a friend said, “It’s not as if ‘Stark’ is exactly free from metaphor”—it’s just that you don’t have to look it up.

Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2001

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