Monday, September 12, 2011
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Anne Salmond’s detailed and documented biography of the very flawed William Bligh encourages me to recommend, as Something Old, a detailed and documented biography of a very different kettle of fish. Or Kingfish.
I was surprised at the rapt attention with which I read my way through the hefty 877 pages of T. Harry Williams’ 1969 biography of the very flawed Huey Long.
I know why I took this book out of the library. I had just read Robert Penn Warren’s famous 1946 novel All the King’s Men, as well as having seen (a number of times) Robert Rossen’s Academy Award-winning 1949 movie based on it. They concern the rise, moral corruption and eventual assassination of the fictitious Southern governor Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford in the movie). I had also read John Dos Passos’s less impressive 1943 novel Number One, about the fictitious and very cynical Southern governor Homer T. Crawford.
Robert Penn Warren’s novel is rightly regarded as an American classic. Dos Passos’s cruder effort is quite justifiably forgotten. But both Willie Stark and Homer T. Crawford are generally understood to be fictionalised versions of Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and U.S. senator from 1932 to his assassination in 1935.
When Americans now think of Huey Long, they see him through the lens of Penn Warren’s famous fiction – in the same way that William Randolph Hearst cannot now be separated from Herman Mankiewicz’s and Orson Welles’ fictitious Charles Foster Kane. Knowing this, I wanted to find out the historical truth that lay behind the fictions, and I think Williams’ huge, fully-researched biography gave it to me.
I at once admit that the technicalities of Southern state politics in the 1920s and 1930s do not sound the most enticing subject, especially when the star of the show is a bullying, aggressive politician whose main political principle was gaining and holding on to power.
What came through, though, was a truly Machiavellian scenario.
Like so many demagogues, Huey Long had a genuinely populist streak. He was able to appeal to hicks, hillbillies and poor white trash by talking to them in their own language, hooking into their culture and promising them the things they wanted at the time of the Depression. He himself promoted his nickname “Kingfish”, plucking it from a popular radio sitcom. Although it was essentially self-promotion, Long’s “Every Man a King” programme was only a tweak away from the work-creation New Deal schemes of his fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long put public money into showy public works (charity hospitals and an expanded state university) to prove his largesse. In a sectarian age, he was canny enough not to play the religion card and to butter up both the more Protestant northern counties of his state and the more Catholic southern ones. There wasn’t the least likelihood that Long would get the Democrat nomination, but he had at least some credibility in positioning himself as a possible presidential candidate.
Behind this, however, there was a massive programme of arm-twisting and blackmail. Long insisted that all his state employees sign and give him an undated letter of resignation which he would immediately action if they stepped out of line. As a matter of course, his stooges dug up as much dirt as they could on his political enemies, for use at need. Corruption was routine. A “deduct box” meant Long built a personal war chest out of state revenues. Violence became routine too. There were stand-offs between the armed state troopers, whom Long controlled, and the armed city police of New Orleans, controlled by a conservative city administration that refused to carry out some of the governor’s ordinances.
All this sounds very much like the career path of a potential dictator, but Williams’ book makes a number of interesting points that modify this view.
The first – as he shows in copious detail – is that Long’s political opponents were at least as unscrupulous as Long himself. They generally represented older, more moneyed and more privileged elements in society who resented Long, not because they upheld democracy, but because they saw him as horning in on their territory. They wanted to get the kickbacks from contractors and the oil industry that Huey Long was now getting. They were as guilty as Long was of hiring goons to steal or smash up ballot-boxes when local body elections weren’t going their way.
A little reluctantly, Williams is forced to note that those who opposed Long on real democratic principles appeared only late in his career and were not particularly influential. He remarks
“While Huey was moving to strengthen his base of power, some of his enemies were organising to destroy him. They were the most sincere and idealistic of his opponents, and hence the most inept and least dangerous ones.” (pg.422).
The second point is that Long was quite unabashed about his pursuit of personal power. Williams notes
“He was completely frank in admitting his desire for power. On two different occasions interviewers asked him why, with his radical ideas, he did not affiliate with the Socialists. He gave them almost identical answers. First of all, he said, he did not agree with the tenets of Socialism. But even if he did, he would not run for office as a Socialist because he would be defeated. ‘Hell, I want to be in office,’ he said. ‘that’s where I can do good.’ There was no point to be right only to be defeated, he emphasized: ‘First you must come into power – POWER – and then you can do things.’ ” (pg. 750)
Both these points are at least similar to the situation of Robert Penn Warren’s fictitious Willie Stark. Throughout the novel All the King’s Men, Stark has the philosophy that “good can only be made out of evil”, and that the only way to do good is to gain power. The novel’s morose narrator, Jack Burden, is almost the embodiment of liberal middle-class guilt. He realizes that the overbearing governor would never have had a power base in the first place if the state’s traditional leaders hadn’t been so self-serving. It is also fair to note that, in Williams’ biography as in Penn Warren’s fiction, the eventual assassination of the governor was carried out by a disappointed office-seeker who was motivated as much by a personal grudge as by political ideals.
As a general comment, when I first read Williams’ biography of Long, I noted that it was like being locked in a cigar-smoke-filled backroom for a couple of days, watching deals being brokered. It has that awful atmosphere of raw power politics.
But there are two absences that really interest me.
As in Penn Warren’s novel, and the film that was made from it, African-Americans are virtually non-existent. This is very strange given that approximately one third of the population of Louisiana is black. But, as Williams makes clear, before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Louisiana’s blacks were disenfranchised by poll-taxes and were prevented from voting. Like his political opponents, Huey Long could simply ignore them when he made his political calculations, knowing they had no voice. For political purposes, they did not exist.
The second absence is one of those things that can show the age of a biography. For many years, Huey Long’s secretary was a woman called Alice Lee Grossjean. She was widely rumoured to be his mistress, and it is clearly upon this woman that Robert Penn Warren based the important character of Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men (memorably played by Mercedes McCambridge in the film version.). But when Williams comes to this matter in his biography, he whizzes past it with one brief footnote and doesn’t elaborate. Really this was the way with biographies of public and political figures up until the 1960s. Discretion ruled in referring to sexual and private matters, and the focus was more firmly on the public life.
Since then, even scholarly biographers have come to see it as their duty to give us all the scandalous details.
I’m not sure that it necessarily makes for better biographies.