Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Great Louisiana Novel

The best novel set in Louisiana is Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. It takes place (mostly) in New Orleans in the late 1950s during Carnival week--and, coincidentally, today happens to be Mardi Gras.

But the Great Louisiana Novel is the second best novel set in my native state: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, characterized All the King's Men as

certainly one of the finest American novels. The story of the archetypal Southern populist Willie Stark and his tortured aide, Jack Burden, is emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically unforgettable.

Warren did not describe his story as a political novel. He wrote, "The book was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out."

But it is about politics; complex, vivid characters digging up dirt, following orders, seducing and scheming. Perhaps uniquely in American novels, "All the King's Men" portrays people with big, complicated public lives who have even bigger, more complicated inner lives; "deeper concerns."

And here's a summing up that plays a little reckless with the terms "fascist" and "henchman" yet gives Warren his due:

All the King's Men was the most widely read [of Warren's novels] and generated the strongest critical and popular reception. The novel chronicles the rise and fall of a homegrown fascist, Willie Stark, as told by one of his henchmen, Jack Burden. Its first readers praised its treatment of the political processes of democracy as practiced in the South of the 1930s. More recent studies have stressed its innovative structure and its philosophical subtlety. It is the novel in which Warren's special gifts are most in evidence--his sense of history, his inventive language, and his ability to dramatize a large cast of characters against a vividly realized background. --From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Perhaps Willie Stark is "a homegrown fascist" but his character and career is closely modeled on that of Huey P. Long, Depression-era governor of Louisiana, a radical populist much beloved by many Louisianans—like my grandfather, who ate little more than potatoes during those years—who admired and benefited from Long's progressive measures.

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The criteria for the Great [Your State Here] novel—I'm making this up as I go—are (1) the writer must be a native of or closely identified with the state, (2) the novel must be a great (or, at least, acclaimed) literary achievement and (3) capture a signal period in the state's history.

For the Southern novels/states, that signal period might well be identified by failure or struggle rather than success, growth or optimism. As Walker Percy said in 1962, there was so much good writing from the South "because we lost the war"—because defeat forced the white South to confront human fallibility in ways the rest of the country never had.

Robert Penn Warren was born in Kentucky and spent only a part of his life in Louisiana, yet he did live there when he wrote All the King's Men. It is a deservedly acclaimed novel: #36 on the Modern Library's list 100 Best novels. And it depicts the life of the most famous and most influential governor in the history of the state.

By the criteria I set, is it fair to declare Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (#6 on the Modern Library list) to be the Great Mississippi Novel?

And what is the Great Alabama Novel? My guess would be To Kill a Mockingbird. (While a huge popular favorite not only in America but in places like Japan and Australia as well, the general critical acclaim isn't as high as for the other books mentioned here.)

And the Great New York Novel? I would propose William Kennedy's brilliant Albany series, the first of which, Ironweed, makes the Modern Library list at #92.

--Marshal Zeringue