Long before Donald Trump, there was the homegrown demagoguery of Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark. All the King’s Men turns seventy this year, but Warren’s best-known novel seems as prescient as ever. As Governor Stark barnstorms his way across the South, Warren exposes the underbelly of American politics, where the rule of law and state budgets become “like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy.” For Warren’s politician, “it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone’s to the breeze. The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind.”
Despite his ten novels, Warren thought of himself primarily as a poet, and you can hear his ear for backwater prosody in Stark’s often-cruel populist rhetoric. In this sense, All the King’s Men serves as a kind of primer for approaching Warren’s earthy realism. The poems we find in volumes like Promises and Tale of Time are full of blackened oaks, birds of prey, unnamed fathers and ticking clocks. The “facts” of rustic America can seem backward or painful, but they can also give substance to poetry. For Warren, the honest poet confronts the world before him, without floating off into what Keats called the “egotistical sublime.” The freewheeling ego is a writerly sin he associated with Emerson’s Over-soul, Hemingway’s chauvinists and Jay Gatsby’s romantic fantasies. All are guilty of a “fluidity of selves” and the dangers that come with delusions of grandeur. More often than not, this shapeshifting has a political component. We see it in the bizarre conceit that the son of a New York real-estate mogul speaks for working-class voters abandoned by the “establishment.” Trump’s sudden affection for the everyman marks a nastier rejoinder to 2008, when soaring vagaries like “hope” and “change” propelled President Obama to the White House. Vacant ideals tend to invite civic confusion at best and political thuggery at worst.
I thought about Warren a lot this primary season, as Trump chest-thumped his way to the Republican nomination for president and Bernie Sanders pledged a “revolution” against Goldman Sachs. The insurgencies we’re seeing on both the right and left share a fear that our economy has lost the nerve to actually make things. One side detests bankers and their derivatives, while the other looks askance at the creative class. Both claim to mourn the factory jobs that aren’t coming back.
In our debates about employment, inequality and the hollowing out of Middle America, it might be useful to think about a different type of labor. What kind of work is it we’re doing when we write and read poetry? What kind of response is available to the artist when modern individualism and industrialism threaten to undermine the land that inspires his work? And how might we harness art to forge a communal, historically conscious way of life without lapsing into tragic parochialism?
As a boy from a border state, Warren insisted that the poet must account for the history that seeps into his landscape. On a national level, Kentucky had been neutral. On the ground, it was surely Southern. And that rootedness, he thought, is the stuff of poetry.
Take, for instance, “The Mad Druggist,” in which Warren recounts the story of the insane local pharmacist who really did terrorize Warren’s hometown of Guthrie with a hit list of patrons whose prescriptions he planned to poison—until Warren’s own mother alerted the police. And yet the poem insists the pharmacist’s claustrophobic delusions aren’t incompatible with truth; indeed, his ravings are inseparable from Warren’s memory of his no-nonsense mother and boyhood landscape:
Of her, and if I do remember,
I remember the lineaments only beyond
the ice-blur and soot-smutch
Of boyhood contempt, for I had not thought they were real.
The real began where the last concrete walk gave out
And the smart-weed crawled in the cracks, where the last privy canted to spill
Over at in the rank-nourished burdock, and would soon, no doubt,
If nobody came to prop it, which nobody would do.
It’s hard to imagine an anonymous Walgreens pharmacist stimulating such a vision of Southern smartweed. Lunacy is often localized. Our neighbors can be so grievously kooky because we see their quirks unfold in a community with genuine claims on us, and such claims are wrapped up in our own psychologies.
Revisiting the source of such “boyhood contempt” certainly undermines any cosmopolitan pretensions; however, the act of putting our parochialisms on the page can serve as a form of democratic craftsmanship. Poetry performs acknowledgment and critique in a way that our national politics cannot. Federal candidates may occasionally descend upon clam bakes and county fairs—all the while flattering their constituents into complacency. The poet’s task is more labor-intensive.
I take the seriousness of such labor to be Warren’s central claim in Democracy and Poetry, which was originally delivered as the 1974 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The pair of essays, written relatively late in his career, showcase Warren’s perennial worries about political narcissism and the role of technology. But the tone is much more inclusive than his collegiate identity as a Southern Agrarian.
Warren’s notes reveal he was reading a lot of Arendt, Tocqueville and Marcuse, and wrestling with what kind of “work” a career in the humanities adds up to. In red ink, he scrawled headlines like “Alienation” and “Self.” Next to quotations copied from Arendt’s The Human Condition, Warren led his thoughts on the pitfalls of “technology,” which shout from the archives in nearly illegible capital letters.
He begins the speeches by tracing the individualism inherent to American democracy and poetry. Just as the democratic citizen must have the liberty and gumption to speak for himself, the poet manifests self-knowledge in the act of artistic creation. Poetry need not be democratic—throughout most of human history, it hasn’t been—but America’s political society and republic of letters were born at the same time. In the most romantic vision of nineteenth-century frontier life, self-knowledge, self-creation and self-rule came together in a shared political and poetic experiment.
The self, for Warren, represents “a felt principle of significant unity,” with a certain continuity in time and a capability for moral action. The unified self is the person who seeks out unalienated work. The poem can constitute a form of unalienated labor, but only if we have individual selves with an honest eye for history can this “made thing” incorporate the author, the reader and their mutual society. For Warren, this democratic dialectic defies alienation because poetry is always operating “echo upon echo, or mirror facing mirror.” The poem embodies the fullness of a self experiencing himself vis-à-vis the world and realizing that this artistic “work” is non-exhaustible. The artist and his reader defy material scarcity; their work is unique yet forever renewable.
Read generously, this quest for unalienated work was related to what the Southern Agrarians were seeking in their call for dignified, small-scale farming. Warren’s first foray into poetry came in the Twenties at Vanderbilt, alongside other poets like the young Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson. Together, these Fugitive poets formed an outcrop of aspiring Agrarians interested in defending the Jeffersonian ideal of regional farms against encroaching urbanization. As Southern intellectuals, they sought to maintain a presence in the academy without betraying their regionalism. But they were poets, not plowmen, and their Agrarian commitments were more aesthetic and moralizing than truly agricultural—even if they seemed to take their platform rather literally.
I’ll Take My Stand, the Agrarians’ 1930 anthology, offers a lens into the Depression-era anxieties that haunted these young writers. It also provides a glimpse into America’s interwar flirtation with fascism. The introductory manifesto urges its readers to reject “industrial gospel” and stand up for Southern self-determination “within the utmost limits of legal action.” At its worst, I’ll Take My Stand deteriorates into unconcealed Calhounism. During the civil rights movement, Warren and the Agrarians would have to answer for their reactionary stances and apologies for segregation.
Here was an example of poets doing badly what Warren in other places did so well: sincerely grappling with provincial populism. In the poem “Original Sin,” Warren’s speaker listens for hope in “the crepuscular clatter of always, always, or perhaps.” But escaping boyhood’s “arsenical meadows” is hard work, and hope has the habit of betraying herself. In Warren, recognition comes with inescapable human fallenness. Harold Bloom called him the most severe secular moralist he’d ever known. Because Warren’s morality is invariably tied to the historic American landscape—whether Andrew Jackson’s frontier, John James Audubon’s Southwest or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s New England—the sinfulness tends to intensify as we seek solutions too far afield.
Though he distrusted the centralization of government in Washington under FDR, Warren’s bleakness complicates any turn toward textbook federalism. Indeed, I’ve found the poet’s struggle to demarcate the local “real” instructive for confronting my own bias toward spirited federalism. In a college democratic theory seminar, a friend and I explained to a room of distressed Manhattanites how much of New England politics gets decided at the town dump. Forget Robert Putnam and his bowling leagues: real deliberation, we delighted in relaying, happens in towns without garbage pickup, where local chatter is processed alongside the scrap metal. Our portrait of life in the rural Northeast was at once accurate, and, like a lot of small-town charm, totally mythical. The Tocquevillian town meetings are real, but so too is the risk of treating folksiness as yet another consumer good.
Mine is a fantasy of tractors and first selectwomen and school boards bolstering the civic street cred for the rest of us. Then I go home to Durham, Connecticut, and the nostalgia can’t sustain itself. My childhood pastor committed suicide. Main Street has gotten shabby, but the historical society makes upgrades too cumbersome. We boast the largest volunteer agricultural fair in North America, but the number of true farmers has dwindled. The proposal for a small-scale solar farm was nixed by residents rallying behind the actual slogan “Not in my backyard!” Clearly there’s a fault line between the romantic ruralism we count on and the provincial narrowness we so often encounter. That this fissure can be the space for great American poetry—poetry that captures local truth but refuses knee-jerk nostalgia—was Warren’s great insight.
We alternate today between disdaining the post-industrial towns littered with Trump signs and waxing nostalgic about lemonade stands. Both responses seem a reaction to democratic uprootedness. So we opt for total apathy or, perhaps more perniciously, go hunting for civic salvation in political campaigns.
This sin of political escapism is at the heart of All the King’s Men. The novel reserves most of its pathos for Jack Burden, the newsman who joins Stark mostly out of lethargy and cynicism, after trudging around Baton Rouge as a lackluster journalist. Although there are obvious echoes of Huey Long, we should be wary of reading All the King’s Men as a thinly veiled biography of Louisiana’s Kingfish. The novel is less about the governor—whose personal psychology remains relatively opaque—than it is about the sycophants who enable their boss and prove all too willing to sacrifice their own pasts to a political personality.
Notably, Governor Stark is probably the least fluid of all the novel’s drifters. Young Willie practices his stump speeches with a schoolboy’s dedication, until, almost in spite of himself, he becomes a professional rabble-rouser. Perversely enough, we might say the same for Trump, who has been a consistently crass showman for several decades. What should worry us is that so many Americans appear to be civically exhausted enough to see substance in Trump’s incoherence. Warren labeled this democratic fatigue the “Great Sleep.”
Democracy, Warren understood, has a way of swaying from idealism to paralysis. Even Thomas Jefferson had his doubts. In Brother to Dragons, Warren reckons what it might be like for Jefferson to confess the cruel hypocrisies at the heart of his revolutionary project. Dredging up the folklore surrounding some of Jefferson’s more sordid relatives, Warren focuses on a Kentucky nephew, Lilburn Lewis, who gruesomely murdered his slave. Amidst this family saga, a haggard Jefferson realizes his own face is pocked with wrinkles and age:
When every seam is but the malign
Calligraphy of old indulgences,
That glut our time and mark us men.
Decades after his triumph in Philadelphia, Jefferson admits:
There is no form to hold
Reality and its insufferable intransigence.
I know, for I once thought to contrive
A form fit to hold the purity of man’s hope.
But only dumped hot coals in that croker sack.
I read this poetic realism as a rejoinder to those of us quick to believe democracy is too pure to disappoint us. Personally, I wouldn’t want to shred the Declaration of Independence as mere calligraphy, though I find Warren’s radical candor constructive. Here we have the realist poet counseling the starry-eyed politician. When a once-purist like Jefferson throws up his hands at the “glut of our time,” it’s the poet who offers up a form for holding our democratic discontent.
Warren’s descriptions of life along the Cumberland River or the struggles of Jacksonian America demonstrate an anti-elitist esteem for his subject matter. And yet the impulse to write also reveals a profound dissatisfaction—and a political challenge. This challenge demands our thoughtful artistic labor. There’s not much work needed in fleeing our rural past. Nor is it all that laborious to blindly romanticize it. Real work requires acknowledging the pitfalls of populism and then going on writing for a democratic audience anyhow. This is the kind of work I think Warren would recommend for today’s American poets. Poets aren’t legislators, but they do have a weighty civic job before them.