Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
Meanwhile, several Fugitives adopted a more political position on social change and literature. They wanted to do something to stop nationwide industrialization and to show the entire country the importance of clinging to such traditional Southern values as devotion to the soil. A new group was formed-the Agrarians. Warren shared their antitechnological views and joined them in publishing a controversial book called I'll Take My Stand (1930). Warren's contribution, "The Briar Patch," argues that unless the Southern agricultural tradition is reinforced, blacks will continue to defect to their dream of the good life in the industrial North, which Warren believed brought them misery. Much later, in Segregation (1956), Warren modified his position and talked about the vast potential of blacks in American society. After their attempt at social criticism in I'll Take My Stand, Warren and the other Agrarians abandoned social reform and sought expression in literature.
In 1931, Warren returned to Vanderbilt as an assistant professor of English. There, during the depths of the Great Depression, the idea for All the King's Men began taking form. Warren saw how Tennessee, like the entire nation, was suffering from a devastated economy. He saw incredible poverty. He saw lives disrupted by political corruption and greed. And while witnessing this pervasive social and political melodrama, he experienced a misfortune of his own: The universities were cutting down on personnel, and he was let go by Vanderbilt. Louisiana, on the other hand, was expanding its educational system under the leadership of Senator Long. In September 1934, Warren left his Tennessee farm and drove to Baton Rouge to begin a new job as English professor at Louisiana State University. On the way he picked up a hitchhiker, a scruffy old fellow who told him about the miracles that Huey Long had wrought in Louisiana. Long had built toll-free highways and new hospitals and had provided public-school children with free textbooks. The senator, who came from a background of poverty, wanted to help the impoverished people of the state, but he often used bribery and blackmail, as well as rigged elections, to achieve his ends. He was loved by the poor, illiterate masses and despised by the wealthy, educated elite.
From the hitchhiker's recital and from the hundreds of tales he heard later, Warren realized that the different accounts of Huey Long's use of power addressed a continuing problem-the conflict between the high-minded ideals of the wealthy class and the realistic demands of the poor.
While Warren was teaching literature and creative writing in Louisiana, he developed the idea for a story about a Southern demagogue, a leader who plays on the fears and prejudices of the people to gain power. Warren had no personal contact with Long, although Long's daughter, Rose, was in one of Warren's Shakespeare courses. In the same course, Warren lectured on the political background to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. During the two weeks he spent on this play, he thought about the ageless question of power and ethics and about the parallels between Caesar and Long. Both men were ambitious, vain, and arrogant; yet, they seemed to be the only leaders strong enough to hold their people together in times of strife. Apparently, the students also saw the similarities, because, as Warren noted, they were unusually attentive. Strangely, a little after the course ended, Huey Long, like Caesar, was assassinated. But, as you shall see, All the King's Men is more than a fictionalized presentation of a dictator. The author's major concern is with moral conflicts and their resolution.
Warren has said that Long was not the sole inspiration for All the King's Men. Even before he moved to Louisiana, he was intrigued by power struggles in the South. Warren's interests also included ancient and modern writings on political philosophy. And the career of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator who held power from 1922 to 1943 and was allied with the German dictator Adolf Hitler in World War II, especially fascinated him.
In 1936, a year after Long's assassination, Warren began planning a play about a politician corrupted by the very evil he sets out to eliminate. With funds provided by a Guggenheim fellowship, he went to Italy where, in the summer of 1938, he began to write the verse drama Proud Flesh. Thus, in Mussolini's Italy, Warren wrote about Governor Willie Talos, who became Willie Stark in All the King's Men.
Warren's play was not performed or published for many years. He put it aside until 1943, when he was teaching at the University of Minnesota. That year he published his second novel, At Heaven's Gate, which also dealt with the themes of self-knowledge, responsibility, and spiritual emptiness. After rereading Proud Flesh, he decided that a novel was a better vehicle for his characters and ideas than a verse drama. But he didn't know from whose point of view to present the story. In the play, he had employed a chorus of surgeons to help the audience see Willie's tragic story from a detached perspective. In the novel, he eliminated the chorus and used Jack Burden as the narrator of Willie's life. As such, you do not get inside Willie's head. Willie's experiences are filtered through the observations and emotions of one of his men. This story-telling strategy imitates the way that Warren actually came to know Long-never personally, always through the perceptions of others.
All the King's Men, Warren's third novel, was published in 1946. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The film version appeared in 1949 and received the Academy Award for best movie of the year. Eventually, Proud Flesh became a theatrical production. It was staged off-Broadway in 1959 and the next year was published under the title All the King's Men: A Play. And in 1981 the novel was the source for Carlisle Floyd's music drama Willie Stark.
After All the King's Men, Warren wrote a number of additional novels, including the ambitious Southern novel World Enough and Time (1950). He also wrote many short stories and put together several distinguished collections of poetry. His poetry collection, Promises (1957), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1958. Nevertheless, All the King's Men remains his best-known work. Indeed, its universal themes and its skillful and powerful use of language have made it an American classic and have led the influential critic Malcolm Cowley to call Warren "more richly endowed than any other American novelist born in the present century."