Willie Stark rises to governor by igniting the fears of under-served working people and taking money from oil companies, utilities, and other large donors. He wields the threat of his populist support and his money to bend rules, strong arm opponents, and further augment his power and his coffers.
Does this sound familiar? Much of the 1949 Academy Award winning film follows a script that could be taken from current events.
Abuse of Power
Anyone who stands in Stark’s way risks his ire and worse, and this includes close supporters and family members who grow weary of his tactics. He has no inhibitions when it comes to destroying people. His vision is greater, his alone.
Author Robert Penn Warren based the character of Willie Stark on Huey Long, a controversial Depression-era Governor and Senator from Louisiana. The theme of Stark’s (and Long’s) rise and fall is whether or not his good works justify his means.
Portrait of a Demagogue
As governor, Stark’s investments in infrastructure and education presaged the New Deal, but he bears more resemblance to Mussolini than FDR. Warren said of Long, “Dictators, always give something for what they get.”
On a more personal level, Warren examines whether Stark pushed his programs because he cared for the people or because he cared only for his own power and cult of personality. Like all great literature, the answer is mixed, but throughout the arc of the story Stark moves from one pole to the other.
Robert Penn Warren
Given our current dialogue on social justice and race, Robert Penn Warren is a noteworthy social commentator in addition to his literary achievements. Warren wrote nine novels including his Pulitzer Prize winner All the King’s Men. But he is best known for his poetry, which won him another Pulitzer Prize. As one of the founders of New Criticism and its literary analysis techniques, Warren has taught generations of poets and scholars how to read poetry.
Born in 1905 and educated at Vanderbilt, Warren’s early writing echoes the racist attitudes he was born into. However, in later years he renounced those views. Former US Poet Laureate Natasha Treadway lauds Warren’s social evolution as a blueprint for change: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/05/15/natasha-trethewey-delivers-final-lecture-as-u-s-poet-laureate/
“All the King’s Men” is a movie worth watching and a great excuse to revisit Robert Penn Warren’s poetry.
A Poem by Robert Penn Warren
Here is one of my favorite poems from the Poetry Foundation website (originally published by Poetry Magazine in May 1932). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=19660
Here was the sound of water falling only,
Which is not sound but silence musical
Tumbling forever down the gorge's wall.
Like late milkweed that blooms beside the lonely
And sunlit stone, peace bloomed all afternoon.
Where time is not is peace; and here the shadow,
That crept to him across the western meadow
And climbed the hill to mark the dropping sun,
Seemed held a space, washed downward by the water
Whose music flowed against the flow of time.
It could not be. Dark fell along the stream,
And like a child grown suddenly afraid,
With shaking knees, hands bloody on the stone,
Toward the upland gleaming fields he fled.