The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter it has been a illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic American political novel, All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. The story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a more rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. He began litigating a series of lawsuits against big companies and won a notorious Supreme Court case against corporate influence (particularly the Standard Oil Company) which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from a 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long borrowed his “kingfish” nickname from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty rates, and healthcare were atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was to burst into the Great Depression in 1929. Louisiana had become dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that exclusively favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted progressive redistribution policies (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers aggressively. He wore white linen suits and often relied on name-calling or lobbing insults to attack his opponents. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for his staged mass firings and blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. Instead, he focused squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss who sometimes resorted to punching his opponents in the face. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for his disregard for decorum and his perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically fired or threatened people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his future presidential ambitions). His impeachment, in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of any evidence against him. Following his impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself on the applause of the mobs of people. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he refused to relinquish his power as Governor to his Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly, Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial. Differing opinions vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial policies, and his firebrand populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 while at the Louisiana state capital attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact his long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind with this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own egos, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting. There are minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find in the end an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders -was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, while posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). This is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s old childhood family friends.

Jack hails from the upper class bubble of Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for the boss not for love or money, so why does he stay employed by the boss? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed an older man out who then killed himself in order to give an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s memories of growing up, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor Stanton (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which he also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like style. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we do not see in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption -no one is innocent. Behind every noble king is a knave (a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling -impressive in scope- but stylistically the novel descends from a Faulknerian modernist strain. It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men much more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that may be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated as a 1936 play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carole Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from his early defense of racial segregation and openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled Huey Long, narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

3 thoughts on “The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

  1. Had to skim the review because this is on my CC-2 list and I didn’t want to risk spoilers. The populist wave of a few years ago had me wanting to read about Long and William Jennings Bryan, who also had a populist appeal during his time. These days he’s mostly dismissed for his involvement in the Scopes trial, but he’s far more interesting than we give him credit for.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A good one, as I remember. I tend to confuse it with Roth’s book, “The Plot Against America”, because I read them around the same time — during the 2012 presidential race!

        Like

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