This piece was written in response to a call for papers on the United States during the Depression and WWII. An abridged version was presented at an academic research symposium.
In Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, few characters are more misunderstood or overlooked than Adam Stanton. Throughout the novel, Warren manipulates the Stanton character, obscuring his motives, leaving readers with countless questions once he emerges as Willie Stark’s murderer. Though working in the world of fiction, Warren used his creative freedom to create endless questions about the case. In the same way, when examining Stanton’s historical counterpart Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, familiar issues of manipulation – in this case with actual historical records – cloud the case, creating a convoluted mystery around who killed Louisiana Governor Huey Long. Within both the created and the real, confusion surrounds the actual murder. One wonders why Warren and those investigating Long’s murder sought to obscure the motives of the respective murderers. What information existed in each case that called for manipulation? Unquestionably, Adam Stanton murdered Willie Stark, but Warren masked his motives to sow confusion about why the deed was done. In the case of Weiss, news releases from the event report the tale of an outright murder of Huey Long, while FBI accounts from the night range from actual murder to Weiss not even having a gun. Though the two accounts differ – one being a novel, the other a description of putatively real events, both covered – and even manipulated – truth, through the liberties of fiction taken by Warren and the blurring of the historical record in the case of Weiss.
Perhaps one explanation of the characterization of each could be understood through philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s work on the intersection of history and memory. For Nietzsche, memory plays a significant role in the writing of history, especially when working with a difficult event. Oftentimes in stories such as those involving Stanton or Weiss, history is recorded in such a way to allow for a forgetting of difficult topics. In the case of All the King’s Men, one possible reason for Warren’s writing of the story could have been the feelings of the American people, all searching for a way to escape the everyday reality of the Great Depression. In the factual case, hiding the political corruption of the administration surely played a role. To understand some of the mysteries and expansive historical discrepancies presented in each case all of these questions need examining. In both the fictional and factual worlds, authors (Warren, the press) invented narratives to fit their needs and the perceived needs of various readers, whether Americans weary of the rigors of the Depression or public authorities looking for clear causal linkages in, and reasons for, a chaotic assassination…
As the 1920’s drew to a close, Herbert Hoover triumphantly declared America to be “nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.” One year later, Black Tuesday reshaped the entire landscape of United States history, sending citizens into a decade of economic recession and social mayhem. While Americans dealt with the era in a myriad of ways, they all seemed to be related in some way or another to escaping the reality of their present lives. During the Depression, everyday men and women did what they could to survive the devastation of their homeland; when it came time to raise their children, their memories of hardship goaded them to refuse to tell some stories, to transfer at best a partial personal history. Blackie Gold, a car dealer during the Depression stated, “I’ve never brought up the Depression to my children. Why would I? What I had to do, what I had to do without, I never tell ‘em what I went through, there’s no reason for it. All they know is the life they’ve had and the future they’re gonna have.” A daughter of the Depression echoed the sentiment, saying “We never got to hear about the rough times. [It’s] vicious, because it’s wanting you not to have to go through what is a very real experience, even though it is a very hard thing. Wanting to protect you from your own history, in a way.”
Intersections like these, between history and memory, prove to be a crucial element in unraveling the mysteries surrounding Warren’s character Dr. Adam Stanton, the assassin of Willie Stark, and his historical equivalent, Dr. Carl Weiss, the assumed assassin of Huey Long. In Unfashionable Observations, Friedrich Nietzsche cites three purposes history serves for humans, the last being for the individual, the people, or the culture “who suffers and is in need of liberation.” To this end, people serve history because it serves their life. Nietzsche acknowledged the shadow side to this use as well, recognizing there can also be “a way of practicing history and a valorization of history in which life atrophies and degenerates.” The uses of history for the purposes of remembering or forgetting, then, becomes a necessity for humankind in order to maintain sanity; a balance between what Nietzsche terms “ahistorical” and “historical”, both of which are required outlooks to fill the dark holes of life, for if some pieces of the past cannot be forgotten or altered, they become “the grave digger of the present.” The way in which history is written allows for the remembrance or forgetting of past events. In these cases, (the assassinations of Stark and Long) it is the forgetting of the past that allows the fictional and factual to move forward, to reach some denouement or resolution, however uneasy.
From a historical perspective, Warren likely wrote his characters in response to the temperament of the American people. Published in 1946, the public was fiercely skeptical of charismatic leaders with underlying ideologies based on total control. Characters such as Willie Stark would have hit a tender nerve, immediately raising suspicions of motives and demagoguery. Perhaps Warren’s writing of Stanton can be seen as a shuffling of this mentality, as it is the seemingly moral man of the story who ultimately commits murder. From a literary perspective, Warren calls into question notions of character portrayal, honor, and goodness, exemplified through morally driven Stanton, who becomes disillusioned with the world around him.
Throughout All the King’s Men, narrator Jack Burden portrays Stanton as a brilliant, hard working doctor, avoiding the politics of surrounding characters. In his introduction, Jack Burden notes, “you grow up with somebody, and he is a success, a big-shot, and you’re a failure, but he treats you just the way he always did and hasn’t changed a bit.” This encounter frames the character of Stanton for the majority of the book; those around him see him as a high-minded man with his own ideas of morality and goodness, though the storyteller often views them as worthless.
Meanwhile, Adam remains immersed in medicine and piano playing until much later in the novel, when Jack delivers Willie Stark’s proposal that Adam be the director of a new medical center he is building. Adam’s peculiar smile is a telltale sign of his feelings. Jack cannot read him, saying, “If he had not smiled the smile which humbly, but with dignity, begged me to forgive him [for not being like me], then things might have been different. But he smiled that way out of the fullness of whatever it was he had, out of the depth of the idea he lived by – whatever the hell it was or whyever the hell he lived that way.”
“Whyever the hell he lived that way,” becomes an increasingly difficult question when weighing the information given to the reader by Warren. The narrator of the story is Jack, thus giving him license to portray Stanton as he wishes. While in some places, it seems the doctor is acting out of a sense of higher moral goodness, questions of honor, backed by pride, must also be asked. A tension between the men’s outlooks on goodness is explained more fully as Willie explains his beliefs, views Jack echoes. “Goodness,” he says, “You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. And you know why? Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of.” Later, Jack believes he has uncovered the source of Adam’s quiet confidence while on his trip West. He laments, “I had often envied people, people [like] Adam Stanton. I envied the people who seemed to have a secret knowledge. But now…I was sure I had the secret knowledge, and with knowledge, you can face up to anything, for knowledge is power.”
If Adam were acting out of a sense of honor, taking the medical contract from Stark would only make sense. Theorist Bertram Wyatt Brown discusses the ideology in Honor and Violence in the Old South, specifically noting the role honor played in Southern child rearing; honor “required self restraint, but based upon pride, not divine commandment. Honor reconciled both habits – to make due allowances for another’s provocations with self-denial and restraint, and to react impulsively for the sake of self-esteem and public reputation.”
As a celebrated physician, the furthering of his practice and the esteem of helping people would be of particular appeal. It seems the two possibilities begin to bleed together as Adam struggles with the political corruption entailed in accepting. The first strands of madness are seen when Adam punches Hubert Coffee. “I hit him. I didn’t mean to hit him. I never hit anyone before.” Jack observes him to be “in the grip of an instinctive withdrawal, which took the form of moral indignation and moral revulsion.” This cause of this behavior originated in Coffee’s attempted persuasion of Adam to influence the Boss to throw the medical contract to Gummy Larson. Perceptions of honor enter the story once again as Adam learns of the affair between Willie and his sister Anne. Entering a rage, Adam travels to the capitol where he immediately guns down Stark for defaming his family’s honor through moral disgust.
Attempting to draw a concise conclusion on Adam’s motives becomes impossible when taking into account the nature of the tale; Jack’s synthesizing of Adam creates a barrier with reality, while Adam’s own internal disposition disallows any decisive answers. Warren, as a writer of fiction, obscured motive to complicate Adam’s history, thereby removing the ability to draw any conclusion on causation.
Similarly, many of the same issues arise when looking at Stanton’s historical counterpart, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss. A prominent ear, nose, and throat doctor based out of Baton Rouge, Weiss was a promising young physician in the early 1930’s. Weiss was also proficient in music and deeply interested in political theory. While many admired his talents, some colleagues described him as a brooding and intense man who kept to himself. Widely accepted to be Huey Long’s assassin, Weiss had never met Long until their encounter in the corridor of the Capital. A convoluted historical memory accounts for a spectrum of stories, ranging from a very calculated murder with Weiss hiding his gun – purchased in Belgium as a medical student – under a straw hat to Weiss not even having a gun.
Like Stanton, the motives of Weiss in whatever action he might have taken are difficult to ascertain. Deeply rooted in conviction, his mother remembered his views on life to be very important. “All we know is that he took living seriously,” she says. “Right with him was right; right above everything else.” Weiss also disagreed with Long’s political habits, expressing disgust over “the puppet show in the Capital.” Honor again plays a role when considering Long’s treatment of his family in weeks leading up to the altercation. In the opening pages of his book, Brown notes, “since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from the defense of family blood…requiring the rejection of the lowly, the alien, and the shamed. Such unhappy creatures belonged outside the circle of honor. Fate had so decreed.” Benjamin Pavy, Weiss’ father-in-law, was a prominent judge in Baton Rouge whose job had been threatened by Long because he would not comply with the gerrymandering of the administration. Long had also threatened to publicize a rumor stating the family had “coffee-blood” coursing through their veins. According to historian William Hair, “in the Louisiana of 1935, few calamities could be worse than being stigmatized as ‘colored.’”
These facts indeed corroborate the historical narrative for the night of September 5, 1935. However, microfilm data from official FBI records reveal a different account of the evening including theories long hidden by the Administration. Offering three scenarios, the report states the Administration persistently advanced the story recited by historians: Weiss shot Long because of the action being taken by the governor towards his father-in-law. The second states that Weiss went to the Capital that evening and asked Long to leave his father-in-law alone, upon which Long began cursing Judge Pavy and Weiss punched him in the mouth. This agrees with a young nurses report that, upon reaching the hospital, Long pointed to his lip, stating, “that’s where he hit me.” FBI records state Long was either purposefully shot by one of his own bodyguards “since he did have a lot of enemies,” or that Long was in the line of fire and was accidentally shot. The report concludes, “Everyone in the state, outside of the Administration, believes Long was killed by his bodyguard.” Strangely, no bullets were submitted for testing after being pulled from Long’s body and no inquest ever held, “everything being very mysterious.”
The conclusion of historian William Hair is quite different. Mr. Welsh, the mortician, extracted a large piece of lead from Long’s body that “looked bigger than the caliber Dr. Weiss’ [type of] gun could have fired.” While this seems to point to the FBI’s findings, Hair remains adamant Weiss was guilty, stating, “that question shifts attention from the essential point. The Kingfish died as a result of Dr. Weiss pointing a pistol at him.”
Again, the differing memories of the story lead to problems in knowing the motives behind Dr. Carl Weiss’ actions or what really happened at the capitol. Nietzsche uses the phrase “shaping power” to express the limitations of the situation. As witnessed in the account, both parties mended loose ends to make a bearable history. Just as the Long administration portrayed a tale of a mad gunman bent on revenge, so Weiss’ family also shielded their own memories, as evidenced by the family’s handling. Carl’s father spoke for the family when he said, “Whatever happened there, whatever brought him there, will always be between him and his Maker.” Historical memory, then, became the “seeking of salvation in a process.”
Holistically, All the King’s Men and the character of Adam Stanton serve as a historical example of what the country needed in the era it was written. The United States had been beaten and bruised by the Great Depression and World War II; historical memory easily fits into the mentality of escapism so prominently embraced during this time in American experience. The stories of the fictional and the historical, then, become fragments of the past for all to analyze and grapple, with each person ultimately shaping his own historical reality. Warren’s mysterious Adam Stanton will continue to be debated and characterized by scholars, while historians will carry on, sewing together details of Carl Weiss’ life to present their own wonderfully shaped story. For as Jack Burden pointed out, “all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gave them life. That is what all of us historical researchers believe.”