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Flesh and the Common Man: Robert Penn Warren's Huey Long Drama

  • JOSEPH KUHN (a1)


R. P.Warren's play about Huey Long, Proud Flesh (1937–39), is not a provisional draft of All the King's Men (1946) but a distinct work in its own right. Its conservative criticism of New Deal “common-man-ism” makes it unusual in the politicized literature of the 1930s. At the core of the play is a political symbolism of the flesh, which Warren derives from Shakespeare's representation of the Tudor doctrine of the king's two bodies. Governor Strong embodies the people through his second or immortal body, a dictatorial flesh that Warren resists by trying to articulate an existential “definition” of the self.



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1 Warren, Robert Penn, Robert Penn Warren's “All the King's Men”: Three Stage Versions, ed. Grimshaw, James A Jr. and Perkins, James A. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000). References to this work are hereafter given parenthetically in the text.

2 There are occasional exceptions such as Brinkmeyer, Robert H. Jr., The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930–1950 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 261–64. Perry, Keith, in a review of the Grimshaw and Perkins anthology in South Atlantic Review, 66, 1 (Winter 2001), 223–25, 224, finds that Proud Flesh even surpasses All the King's Men in its intensity of tone. This is because the characters constantly shift from ordinary dialogue into “dreamily abstract speeches that focus less on their everyday actions” than on the “eternal implications” of them.

3 Watkins, Floyd C. and Hiers, John T., eds., Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950–1978 (New York: Random House, 1980), 179.

4 How proud flesh on the sounder grows/Till rot engross the estate of men,” in The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, ed. Burt, John (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 76.

5 MacLeish, Archibald, A Time to Speak: The Selected Prose of Archibald MacLeish (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), 68. Warren was not a poet of social commitment in the same way as MacLeish, but he took MacLeish's point that the modernism of Eliot, Pound and Yeats, as a literary revolution in which poetry adapted itself to public speech, had to be completed in the poets of the next generation through an incorporation of public (political) subjects.

6 MacLeish, Archibald, Six Plays (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 72.

7 Warren, Robert Penn, All the King's Men: Restored Edition, ed. Polk, Noel (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 2002), 609.

8 Warren, Robert Penn, “A Note on All the King's Men,” Sewanee Review, 61, 3 (1953), 476–80, 477.

9 Warren, Robert Penn, “All the King's Men: The Matrix of Experience,” in Nakadate, Neil, ed., Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981), 5459, 58.

10 The description of Hitler as “inspired idiot” is taken by Warren from Norman Douglas's prediction in Siren Land (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982; first published 1911), 25, where Douglas predicts that a demagogue of this description will emerge from the urban slums. Warren, “The Matrix of Experience,” 55, ascribes the term to Douglas.

11 Hendricks, Randy and Perkins, James A., eds., Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Volume III, Triumph and Transition, 1943–1952 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 261.

12 Watkins and Hiers, 22.

13 Warren, “The Matrix of Experience,” 56.

14 Kane, Harnett T., Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship, 1928–1940 (New York: William Morrow, 1941), 5, 8, makes explicit comparisons between Long and Hitler. Virginius Dabney compares “Führer Long” and his micro-control over Louisiana's government to the Nazi police state in “If the South Had Won the War,” American Mercury, 39, 154 (Oct. 1936), 199–205, 204.

15 Badger, Anthony, New Deal/New South: An Anthony J. Badger Reader (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007), 5. Badger observes that although “contemporaries may have seen Long's dictatorship as a model of European fascism, his power was based on the familiar tools of American machine politics: patronage, corruption, electoral fraud, and violence.” Ibid., 9.

16 Shapiro, Edward, “Decentralist Intellectuals and the New Deal,” Journal of American History, 58, 4 (1972), 938–57, 939, 955.

17 One decentralist, John Gould Fletcher, observed in 1935 that Germany was under the control of “one single super-financier, and therefore governed by a dictatorship” – in this Agrarian interpretation Nazi Germany was not so much a racial state as one that was “purely mercenary in motive.” Quoted in Shapiro, Edward, “American Conservative Intellectuals, the 1930's, and the Crisis of Ideology,” Modern Age, 23, 4 (Fall 1979), 370–80, 376.

18 Warren, Robert Penn, “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Longley, John L. Jr. ([New York]: New York University Press, 1965), 237–46, 238; Shapiro, “Decentralist Intellectuals…”, 948–49.

19 This concern about the poor whites was voiced by, for example, Carter, Hodding, “How Come Huey Long?” (1935), in Aaron, Daniel and Bediner, Robert, eds., The Strenuous Decade: A Social and Intellectual Record of the Nineteen-Thirties (New York: Anchor Books, 1970), 175–81, 180; and by Kane, 4. Badger, 7, 20, however, observes that Long never tried to help the rural poor and his reforms aimed at helping small businesses and farmers.

20 Warren, “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” 238–41. A “century of the common man” was announced by Roosevelt's vice president, Henry Wallace, in a speech of 1942.

21 Unrue, Darlene Harbour, ed., Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 205.

22 In one reported conversation from the late 1970s, Warren blamed the New Deal for the continuing lack of self-sufficiency in the American citizen and cited with apparent approval Alice Longworth's opinion that because Roosevelt was “a cripple in a wheelchair” he “wanted everybody to have someone to push them around.” See Steve Oney, “The Stacks: The Poet Who Took on Huey Long,” Daily Beast, 21 March 2015, at

23 Watkins and Hiers, Robert Penn Warren Talking, 222.

24 Warren, “A Note on All the King's Men,” 477.

25 Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1958; first published 1951), 311, 277. Arendt, however, specifically exempted America from “the modern psychology of masses.” Ibid., 315.

26 Warren, “The Matrix of Experience,” 55, 58.

27 Watkins and Hiers, 178.

28 Kracauer, Siegfried, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. and ed. Levin, Thomas Y. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 18.

29 Quoted in Kane, Louisiana Hayride, 64.

30 Quoted in Blotner, Joseph, Robert Penn Warren: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997), 179. Warren's critique of instrumentalism is consistent with the larger Agrarian distaste for all forms of functional and pragmatist thinking. Warren claimed that he read William James in the 1930s to see how James's “philosophical pragmatism” might result in the “unphilosophical pragmatism” of Huey Long or, indeed, of Mussolini (Warren observed that the latter “regarded himself as a disciple of the gentle William”). See Robert Penn Warren, “In the Time of All the King's Men,” New York Times, 31 May 1981, at Mussolini overstated his knowledge of James's work and was not in any meaningful sense a “disciple.” But Warren's remarks might also point to James's surprising enthusiasm for his Italian follower, Giovanni Papini, who later became a Fascist intellectual. See James, William, “G. Papini and the Pragmatist Movement in Italy,” Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 3, 13 (June 1906), 337341. James finds merit in Papini's derivation of “power” (ibid., 339) and self-divinization from the successful completion of a pragmatic act, but the disciple eventually ended up with a philosophy of the state that would have made the anarchistic James shudder. What Warren found particularly damaging in pragmatism was its retrospective concept of truth and right, which is used to dignify actions that in themselves are empty and transitory (Warren (23) concretizes these empty actions in the “white road” of the policemen's chorus).

31 Quoted in Cutrer, Thomas W., Parnassus on the Mississippi: The “Southern Review” and the Baton Rouge Literary Community, 1935–1942 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1984), 170.

32 Lowell, Robert, “Louisiana State University in 1940,” in Lowell, Day by Day (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1978), 2526.

33 Santner, Eric L., The Royal Remains: The People's Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), ix. This study is based on Kantorowicz, Ernst H., The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997; first published 1957).

34 Santner, 28. This presence of a collective dimension of the flesh means a necessary qualification of John Burt's view that Amos is principally a “sexual sadist,” more “enraged” by “having a human body” than by Strong's political corruption. Throughout his work Warren's language is Amos-like in its libidinal investment in the flesh, but in Proud Flesh Warren sees the political forms of this naturalistic substance with an even sharper focus than in much of his baroque poetry. See Burt's perceptive “Foreword” to Warren, Three Stage Versions, ix–xxi, xiii.

35 Warren, Robert Penn, Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (n.p.: Random House, 1953), 94.

36 Quoted in Williams, T. Harry, Huey Long (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1969), 513.

37 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen, Daniel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 13, 76.

38 Ibid., 53.

39 “Proud Flesh. Draft 1: Typescript with Holograph Notes,” Robert Penn Warren papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library Website. Warren has annotated in his own hand: “This is the first fragment written of Proud Flesh.”

40 The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 77–78.

41 Hendricks and Perkins, Selected Letters, 260.

42 Santner, 44.

43 The first two choruses in particular offer secular doxologies of Strong that continue the liturgical forms of praise offered to medieval and Tudor sovereigns.

44 Guttenberg, Barnett, Web of Being: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press 1975), xixii, compares Warren's existentialism to that of Heidegger (although he thinks it unlikely that Warren was a “disciple” of Heidegger). One might supplement Guttenberg by saying that existentialism in both Warren and Heidegger is a conservative political form that emerged during the interwar decades at a time of crisis in the liberal state and was used to shore up an authentic self against the “they” or the anonymity of mass being. Warren uses a quotation from Confessions, “I thirst to know the power and nature of Time,” as a motto for Being Here:Poetry 1977–1980, in The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren, 379.

45 “Name” and “definition” are central terms in Proud Flesh. Perhaps they derive from the role of Aristotelian realism in Agrarian thought and poetry, particularly in the work of Allen Tate. They refer to that reality of the word (especially the poetic word) that can nominate particulars as part of an ontological structure of universals. Warren is more of a nominalistic thinker than Tate, but his use of “name” and “definition” suggests that he also wants to hold on to a semantics of truth.

46 Warren, “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” 237.

47 Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 36. Warren was also explicitly thinking of Richard II in his works about Stark and especially of how the monarch's fall draws out a difference between “legitimacy,” which Richard embodies, and “de facto power,” found in the usurper Bolingbroke (Warren, “In the Time of All the King's Men”). In Kantorowicz's terms, this difference is staged in Richard as a travail of the flesh in which the king's second body is painfully extracted from his natural self and his mere name or nomen from his real or universal title of king. Kantorowicz, 29.

48 Warren, All the King's Men, 609.

49 Szalay, Michael, Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 3778; Robinson, Forrest G., “A Combat with the Past: Robert Penn Warren on Race and Slavery,” American Literature, 67, 3 (Sept. 1995), 511–30.

50 Warren, “A Note on All the King's Men,” 478.

51 Warren, All the King's Men, 210.

52 Szalay, 41.

53 The politics of race is largely left out of Proud Flesh. Strong in this work is hardly “symbolically black”: indeed he occasionally makes racial slurs to discredit political opponents, such as his remark that he wants to reduce the late governor to “peddling fish” to black customers (36).

54 Szalay, 40–42.

55 Warren, All the King's Men, 415.

56 Santner, Eric L., The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 46.

57 Ibid., 248, 2. These two episodes are discussed in Szalay, 51–54, and Robinson, 516–17, 523–24.

58 Warren, All the King's Men, 66; Szalay, 57–59.

59 Warren, All the King's Men, 26, 429.

60 Santner, The Weight of All Flesh, 24.

61 Watkins and Hiers, Robert Penn Warren Talking, 79, 24.

62 Burt, John, Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 153–56.

Flesh and the Common Man: Robert Penn Warren's Huey Long Drama

  • JOSEPH KUHN (a1)


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