Was politics during the Great Depression really like this?

Great Depression

Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All the King’s Men, is widely regarded as one of the best American novels ever written. Seventy years after its publication, it appears on high school and college reading lists throughout the country. Partly because of the Academy Award-winning film of the same title in 1949 and several different stage adaptations over the years, the book has taken on iconic status and has come to be regarded as a classic, perhaps the classic, story about American politics. I’m not sure it deserves that distinction.


All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


Politics during the Great Depression

Anyone familiar with American history in the 1930s will recognize the name Huey P. Long. Nicknamed The Kingfish, Long was the demagogic governor, then U.S. Senator, from Louisiana who roiled the American political scene for many years until he was assassinated in 1935. His “Share the Wealth” program, aimed at bankers and the rich, threatened to upend the New Deal, which by necessity was far more moderate. In All the King’s Men, a Southern populist named Willie Stark resembles Long in a few, but far from all, ways.

Huey Long was one of several larger-than-life characters who emerged to prominence in the United States during the Depression. At a time when the stability of the capitalist system was called into question and the future of democracy was uncertain, demagogues like Long gained immense followings. The radio preacher Father Coughlin, an anti-Semite who openly supported many of the policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, attracted thirty million listeners to his tirades against “Jewish bankers.” A faith-healing Pentecostal evangelist named Aimee Semple McPherson founded one of the first megachurches and, like Father Coughlin, gained a following of millions through the radio. In California, the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, author of the classic The Jungle, gained nearly a million votes when he ran for Governor in 1934 on a platform to “End Poverty in California.” Meanwhile, though fascism was far more popular, the Communist Party was also gaining hundreds of thousands of members and sympathizers. Revolution was in the air. Though I’m quite certain there are many today who would disagree with me, I’m convinced that FDR really DID “save capitalism.” And amen to that.

Is All the King’s Men really about politics?

All the King’s Men conjures up a narrow slice of this reality, depicting the rise of Willie Stark to the governorship of an unnamed Southern state (not Louisiana) amid the poverty, ignorance, and blatant racism of the time. However, the book dwells much more on the life story of its narrator, the former journalist Jack Burden, than on Stark’s career. Warren, betraying his essential nature as a poet rather than a storyteller, repeatedly devotes page after page to Burden’s ruminations about life, nature, truth, love, happiness, and other abstract subjects. The political story becomes a subplot.

A story marred by racism

No contemporary reader of the novel can fail to recognize the deep-seated racism it reflects. Unfortunately, it’s not just the characters who take racism for granted. The author appears to do so, too. In telling the story, Burden, the narrator, routinely uses the N-word to refer to African-Americans. It’s difficult not to conclude that the author shared this view. Reading it made me uncomfortable. Readers in 1946, when the book first saw the light of day, may have felt differently. After all, that was seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, and the civil rights movement had not yet gained a foothold in the national conscience.

About the author

Though he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Robert Penn Warren was one of the most celebrated writers in American history. He wrote nearly fifty books spanning the years 1929 to 1989, the year he died at the age of 84. Three times he won the Pulitzer Prize, once for All the King’s Men and twice for poetry. He also won the National Book Award, the National Medal for Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1986, he was named the country’s first poet laureate. Warren also co-founded the influential literary magazine, The Southern Review.

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