Southern Cultures 11.1 (2005) 96-99
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Who took on the standard oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised he'd do?
Ain't no Standard Oil men gonna run this state
Gonna be run by little folks like me and you—
Once when I was visiting Baton Rouge I happened to witness a keystone cops moment that would have made John Kennedy Toole's patrolman Mancuso blush. I stood on the observation deck of the Louisiana State Capitol Building, Huey Pierce Long Jr.'s monument to ego, the visible remnant of his power, and the site of his death. And in common with the writers he inspired, I had to appreciate the somehow Roman dimensions of it all. From my vantage on the twenty-seventh floor of the concrete dreadnaught, the city appeared to quit gnawing at the swamp edges, or perhaps the swamp quit gnawing back, and I could see the river clearly, gambling barge locked into its harbor snug like a dog-in-coitus. Directly below, my eye fell upon two motorcycle cops, sentries navigating the topiary maze of the capitol grounds. The trainer was scooting around nimbly, but his hypercautious trainee was losing pace and soon found himself boxed in by a weak turn. A Harley Davidson is not easily corralled at low speed and a twelve-point turn proved to be too much. Finally, almost languidly, the motocop in training wobbled into the hedge and fell over. Blue light spinning, the siren wailed once, [End Page 96] emitting a plaintive, descending note, like a child spilled from a tricycle. The senior officer responded expeditiously, but for all their tugging, the hapless fellows could not raise the cruiser again. Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered on one side of the balcony, pointing and laughing. But the most prominent witness to the spectacle was the statue of Huey P. Long, towering darkly over the cops, right hand outstretched beseechingly, as if to say, "Do you see what I'm working with?"
Long's assassination ended only his life, not his ridicule. Whatever good he possessed was interred with his bones, but the character assassination dragged on for years in some circles. Yet a major part of Long's reputation stemmed directly from the way he was fictionalized, and not merely by Robert Penn Warren's pen in All the King's Men. Keith Perry's praiseworthy study, The Kingfish in Fiction, analyzes Warren's take, but it also essays the rest of the story, measuring five less-remarked accounts against the man: Hamilton Basso's Cinnamon Seed and Sun in Capricorn, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, John Dos Passos's Number One, and Adria Locke Langley's A Lion Is in the Streets. As Perry considers each in depth, we come to appreciate Long as a man for all seasons and all writers. And, depending on the writer, he posed as a challenger to the patrician order, a master puppeteer of public credulity, a morally wayward family man, or a recusant philosopher.
In fact, Long may have been all these things, to a degree. Perry archly observes that these creators of Hueys-who-weren't-Hueys sandbagged by disowning the verisimilitude in their fictional analogs, ducking behind the literary equivalent of an "all resemblance purely coincidental" movie rider. Yet the fact remains that the self-made Louisiana politician presented an attractive cultural bellwether to each of them, and his lionized alter-egos attest that he was a figure of great moment. Perhaps ironically and perhaps uninvited, Long's influence piqued intellectual circles. Like all good entrepreneurs, he was a savvy trader in what is now termed the "marketplace of ideas." The intelligentsia looked on with bemusement as Long's socialistic (and perceived fascistic) leanings connected electrically with his electorate. For historians, it is a matter...