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Historical Novels: The Readers’ Turn

June 2024
1min read

I thoroughly enjoyed and was greatly edified by the discussion of learning history through reading literature in your October issue.

But one repeated misconception must be corrected. When George F. Will, speaking in effect for many of the other contributors, cites All the King’s Men as an example of “novels obviously telling the story of a real life,” he is in disagreement with the book’s author.

In his 1953 introduction to the Modern Library hardback edition, Robert Penn Warren states that “for better or for worse, Willie Stark was not Huey Long. …

“Now in making the disclaimer again, I do not mean to imply that there was no connection between Governor Stark and Senator Long. Certainly, it was the career of Long and the atmosphere of Louisiana that suggested the play that was to become the novel. But suggestion does not mean identity, and even if I had wanted to make Stark a projection of Long, I should not have known how to go about it. For one reason, simply because I did not, and do not, know what Long was like. … And in any case, Long was but one of the figures that stood in the shadows of imagination behind Willie Stark. Another one of that company was the scholarly and benign figure of William James.”

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