In writing there are only two things, matter and treatment. In Abbott Joseph Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana we have matter so interesting that it still holds the attention fifty years later in itself, and treatment so virtuosic one is tempted to proclaim Liebling a literary figure rather than a journalist.
As far as matter goes, all you really need to know is that this book is about Louisiana. Louisiana attracts nonfiction the way rotting trees attract fungus. A visit or two to Louisiana easily takes the place of what is today called imagination. Finding something interesting in Louisiana is like shooting a hanging possum with a shotgun. All you need to do is get close enough to see it.
Liebling’s theme was the reelection campaign of Earl Long in 1959. Earl was the brother of Huey, the populist who fought Standard Oil and scored political victory after political victory until he was assassinated in the Louisiana State Capitol building. Huey had been considered a likely eventual candidate for president. Liebling had met him twice:
Both times he received me in his pajamas, lying on top of his bed and scratching himself. It was a routine he had made nationally famous in 1930, when, as Governor of Louisiana, he so received the official call of the commander of a German cruiser visiting New Orleans, causing the Weimar Republic to make diplomatic representations. (7-8)
His brother Earl was no less curious. By spirit of the law he should not be allowed to run for reelection; Louisiana had a term-limit statute which prevented a governor from “succeeding himself.” His answer to this was that he would resign on his last day in office, be succeeded by his lieutenant governor, and then succeed him. It was unclear whether the state courts would permit this. This, however, was the least interesting part of his reelection campaign. He had just returned from a stint in an insane asylum, having been carted off from the floor of the legislature against his will and institutionalized (while governor). Even then there was disagreement as to how much of this was medicine and how much politics. When he was campaigning, he was thus introduced by one of his political attaches (Liebling uses italics and bold to represent elevated terraces of volume):
“When our beloved friend, the fine Governor of the Gret Stet of Loosiana, sent for me in his need… his condition had been so MISREPRESENTED … that people I knew said to me, ‘Don’t you go up there, Joe Sims. That man is a hyena. He’ll BITE YOU IN THE LAIG.’ But I went. I went, … and before I could reach my friend, the armed guard had to open ten locked doors, and lock each one of ’em after us. And theah, theah, I found the FINE Governor, of the GRET Stet of Loosiana… without SHOES, without a stitch of CLOTHES to put awn him, without a friend to counsel with. And he was just as rational as he has ever been in his life, or as you see him here today. He said, ‘JOE SIMS, WHERE THE HELL YOU BEEN?’” (34-5)
Liebling doesn’t let good material like this go to waste. From this point on he calls upon the spelling Loosiana at need, or replaces it entirely with the term “the Gret Stet.”
As for Long’s actual mental condition, the operative description is “as rational as he has ever been in his life.” Liebling describes him as wildly eccentric but probably compos mentis. He was also shrewd, but more than anything he was endlessly colorful. He once interrupted an assemblyman in the middle of a speech on the floor, asking him his name, and when he received it, he said, “Well, well, you look like a fine man. Don’t let nothing run over you” (25). In a huge crowd he rebuked the Louisiana representative of the Democratic National Committee (Long, like all Southern politicians at the time, was a Democrat) as a “common hoodlum” and said: “I knew your daddy, Camille Gravel, and he was a fine man. But you trying to make yourself a big man, and you nothing but a little pissant” (90). Piss-ant is the local dialectical form of “peasant.” One of his major opponents in the race for governor was DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison, the highbrow New Orleans mayor Liebling immortally describes as “halfway in appearance between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy” (and if you see a photo of him you will know why). His name was pronounced “DELL-uh-SEPS.” Long referred to him as “old Dellasoups.” He finished second for governor in 1956.
“I hate to say this – I hate to boost old Dellasoups – but he’ll be second again…. I’d rather beat Morrison than eat any blackberry, huckleberry pie my mama ever made. Oh, how I’m praying for that stump-wormer to get in there. I want him to roll up them cuffs, and get out that little tuppy, and pull down them shades, and make himself up.” (26)
“Tuppy” is Louisienglish for “toupee.” There is no evidence that the hair on his head got there any way but by growing from his scalp. But Long enjoyed tweaking him for the punctiliousness of his self-presentation:
“I see Dellasoups has been elected one of the ten best-dressed men in America. He has fifty-dollar neckties and four-hundred-dollar suits. A four-hundred-dollar suit on old Uncle Earl would look like socks on a rooster.” (92)
Some more examples of Long’s oratory:
“Maybe some of you are here because you’ve never seen a man out of a nuthouse before,” the Governor said tolerantly. “Maybe you want to see a man who has been stuck thirty-eight times with needles. Oh, the first man stuck me right through the britches. He didn’t get me in the fat part, either, and oh, how it hurt! Maybe I lost a little weight, but you would have too. Occasionally I say hell or damn, but if it had happened to you all, you’d say worse than that. Christ on the Cross himself never suffered worse than poor old Earl.” (101)
“They snatched me out without even enough clothes on me to cover up a red bug… and a week after I arrived in Texas I was enjoying the same wardrobe.” (127)
“I’m glad to see so many of my fine Catholic friends here – they been so kind to me I sometimes say I consider myself forty percent Catholic and sixty percent Baptist” (this is a fairly accurate reflection of the composition of the electorate). “But I’m in favor of every religion with the possible exception of snake-chunking. Anybody that so presumes on how he stands with Providence that he will let a snake bite him, I say he deserves what he’s got coming to him.” The snake-chunkers, a small, fanatic cult, do not believe in voting. (93)
As is so often the case in Louisiana, Liebling merely has to describe what happens in order to make it ridiculous:
“And first,” he [Long] said, “I want to introduce to you the man I have selected to serve under me as Lieutenant Governor during my next term of office – a fine Frenchman, a fine Catholic, the father of twenty-three children, Mr. Oscar Guidry.” … Mr. Guidry, a short, stocky man who reminded me of a muscular owl, arose from his chair … he appeared embarrassed, and he whispered rapidly to Uncle Earl.
“Oscar says he has only fourteen children,” the Governor announced. “But that’s a good beginnin’.”
Mr. Guidry whispered again, agitated, and Earl said, “But he is a member of a family of twenty-three brothers and sisters.” He turned away, as if washing his hands of the whole affair, and sat down.
Mr. Guidry, throwing back his head and clasping his hands in front of him, as if about to intone the “Marseillaise,” began with a rush, sounding all his aitches: “I am honored to be associated with the Gret Governeur of the Gret Stet on his tiquette. Those who have conspired against him, fearing to shoot him with a pistol-ball…” and he was off, but Earl, seated directly behind him, was mugging and catching flies, monopolizing attention like an old vaudeville star cast in a play with a gang of method actors. Pulling his chair slightly out of line, he crossed his legs and turned his profile to the audience, first plucking his sleeves, which came down about as far as his thumbnails, then, when he had disengaged his hands, picking his nose while he looked over at Alick’s leading hotel… He stared at it as if it contained some absorbing riddle. When he had finished with his nose, he began to bathe his face, his temples, and the back of his neck with Coca-cola from the cold bottle, sloshing it on like iced cologne.
“Cool yourself off, Earl,” a voice piped up from the crowd, and the Governor shouted back, “I’m a red-hot poppa.” (98-9)
You can understand why “large tears appeared in the lovely violet eyes of my beautiful blond dinner partner” (another one of Liebling’s great brief sketches) as she considered the sorry situation of the Gret Stet:
“I shivah when I think of what you are going to write about us,” she said, “having a man like Earl Long for Govunuh of the State of Loosiana. Oh, please tell the fine people up North that we ahnt all like that! There ah fine, decent people in the State of Loosiana, just as there ah in New York and Chicago.” (116)
Yet after a brief time with him, Liebling calls him “my favorite American statesman” and “the most effective civil rights politician in the South.” Another contestant in the primary was the segregationist Willie Rainach. Long attempted to prevent segregationists from purging the voting rolls of blacks:
“You got to recognize that niggers is human beings! … There’s no longer slavery!” Long shouted at Rainach. “There wasn’t but two people in Winn parish that was able to own slaves – one was my grandpa, the other was my uncle – and when they were freed, they stayed on” (here his voice went tenor and sentimental, then dropped again) “and two of those fine old colored women more or less died in my Christian mother’s arms – Black Alice and Aunt Rose.” He sounded like a blend of David Warfield and Morton Downey. “To keep fine, honorable grayheaded men and women off the registration rolls, some of whom have been voting as much as sixty or sixty-five years – I plead with you in all candor. I’m a candidate for Governor. If it hurts me, it will just have to hurt.” He didn’t believe it would hurt, but it did. In any case, he was taking a chance, which put him in a class by himself among Southern public men. (30)
One of Liebling’s contacts gives him this invaluable story about the Longs’ curious method of improving the lives of blacks in Louisiana:
“Earl is like Huey on Negroes,” Tom said. “When the new Charity Hospital was built here, some Negro politicians came to Huey and said it was a shame there were no Negro nurses, when more than half the patients were colored. Huey said he’d fix it for them, but they wouldn’t like his method. He went around to visit the hospital and pretended to be surprised when he found white nurses waiting on colored men. He blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn’t fit for white women to be so humiliated. It was the most racist talk you ever heard, but the result was he got the white nurses out and the colored nurses in, and they’ve had the jobs ever since.” (23)
If you want a textbook case of compromising ideals but achieving objectives, look no further than the Longs.
As good a story as the Longs make, they are merely a small portion of the endlessly interesting Gret Stet, and Liebling’s portrait of it is still extraordinarily useful today, despite half a century of change. He gets a New Orleanian to explain it thus:
“It’s the most complex state in the South…. In just about every one of the others you have the same battle between the poor-to-middling farmers on the poor lands – generally in the hills – that didn’t justify an investment in slaves before the war, and the descendants of the rich planters on the rich lands, who held slaves by the dozen to the gross…. We had that same basic conflict, and it lasted longer than anywhere else, for reasons I’m going to give, but in addition, we have a lot that are all our own. In the other states it was just between poor Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites and rich Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites. But here we got poor French Catholic whites and poor Anglo-Saxon whites and rich French Catholic whites and rich Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites…. And there’s always been another problem in Louisiana that no other Southern state has. There are other large collections of people living close together in the South, but they are not big cities, just overgrown country towns like Atlanta. They may have corruption, but not sophistication. They lack the urban psychology, like ancient Athens, that is different, hostile, and superior, and the countryman resents and distrusts. So you get a split along another line – you got not only poor rural French Catholic, rich rural white Protestant, rich rural French Catholic, and poor rural white Protestant, but poor urban Catholic, not exclusively French, rich urban Catholic, poor urban Protestant (mainly Negro) and rich urban Protestant. Making out a ticket is tricky.” (83-4)
Blacks at this time were mostly prevented from voting, and so play a small role in this map of constituencies. But race relations were one of Liebling’s interests and he spends a good deal of time discussing segregation, equality, the integration of schools, and the like. Another large factor which he analyzes in excellent detail is the oil industry – Louisiana is one of the largest energy-producing states in the country. Politics, eccentricity, race, and oil – an American jambalaya, no doubt.
Liebling’s treatment is virtuosic throughout. You are always aware as you read that you are in the hands of a master (at the time of writing, Liebling was two years away from his death after a lifetime as a correspondent). You have tour-de-force descriptions all around:
Jim Comiskey’s headquarters was a one-story clapboard building with a store front. Inside, there was a web of junk around the walls: ladders, lathes, Coke bottles, paint cans, ruptured Venetian blinds, tangles of electric wires, a water cooler, a clothesline with clothespins and wire coat hangers, all these objects except the clothesline looking as if they had been simply kicked against the walls to clear a space in the middle of the room (61).
Brother Larry was out on the loading platform, squatting on a kitchen chair, like a great, wise, sun-freckled toad, an old straw hat down over his eyes, his fat red arms akimbo as he watched the outgoing loads of lovely liquor… (58)
Liebling’s greatest skill is his mastery of simile. It is his signature technique. Hardly a page goes by without one. Frequently they draw on special knowledge not available to all, and occasionally they go flat, but taken as a whole they are superb. The simile is the superior man’s technique, and behind it is always the implication “this is nothing new to me; I have seen something like it.” It comes across as urbane and even a bit snide, precisely as you want a city-slicker to write about rural politics. And the imaginative leaps good similes require make them entertaining the way trapeze artists are entertaining.
We climbed into Tom’s battered station wagon and raced out to where
the Comiskey Brothers’ sheds and loading platforms lay under a sun
like the Sahara’s. The heat bounced visibly off the concrete like a
rubber ball. (58)
Describing one of the poorer sections of New Orleans: “it was like a cross between Paterson, N.J. and Port-au-Prince” (61). He describes another political Long, but a quiescent one, as “Samson with a store haircut” (251). At his best, Liebling uses the simile to cap off a description the way Shakespeare uses a rhyming couplet to send a villain offstage:
The distance from New Orleans to Alexandria is about 190 miles. The first 90 miles, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, are on a throughway, a straight, fast road on the east side of the Mississippi, far enough back from the back to avoid meanders, and high enough over the marshes to obviate bridges. There is nothing worth a long look. The bayous parallel the road on either side like stagnant, weed-strangled ditches, but their life is discreetly subsurface – snapping turtles, garfish, water moccasins and alligators. The mammals are water rats and muskrats and nutria, a third kind of rat. The nutria, particularly ferocious, is expropriating the other rats. Bird life, on the day we drove through, was a patrol of turkey buzzards looking down for rat cadavers. There pressed down on the landscape a smell like water that householders have inadvertently left flowers in while they went off for a summer holiday. (82-3)
He follows this up with: “It was an ideal setting for talk about politics.”
At times you are amazed by how quickly a professional writer can extricate himself from a potential verbal knot. “He would boast of free schoolbooks, which we had had in New York since before he was born, and good roads, which ditto” (8). That sentence would be very difficult to finish without that “ditto,” which is an iffy word in formal composition. But Liebling has the bravado to make it come off. He even allows some space for a stylistic appreciation of Long himself:
Mrs. Dixon, handsome, stable and strong, has a firm, serene personality. She is the kind of woman motherless drunks turn to instinctively to tell their troubles with their wives. “Earl is funniest man in the world,” she said over her shoulder as she drove…. He has a style of his own – he’s a poet. He said he was so groggy when he got off the plane that took him to Houston that he felt ‘like a muley bull coming out of a dipping vat.’ I don’t know why it should, but the ‘muley’ makes that line sound a hundred times funnier. It just means without horns.” (121-2)
Long lost the election, for a host of reasons which Liebling thoroughly analyzes, particularly race (the ultimate victor, Jim Davis, allied himself with the segregationists very strongly and ran on opposing the Federally enforced school desegregation). Louisiana was entering the tumult of the 1960s with the rest of the country.
All in all, this is tour-de-force writing, immersed in the lovely stinking rot of life in the place where it is loveliest and stinks the most, the Gret Stet of Loosiana.
I would like to close this with the bit of the book which I felt was most precious, a fragment of Long’s oratory Liebling records which reads like a Russian peasant’s Christian fable filtered through the worldview of American shopkeeper capitalism. It also captures, in brief span, the economic resentment the underclass have for the pittance charity of the wealthy. It is truly a little gem and deserves wider currency.
“We got the finest roads, finest schools, finest hospitals in the country – yet there are rich people who complain. They are so tight you can hear ’em squeak when they walk. They wouldn’t give a nickel to see an earthquake. They sit there swallowin’ hundred-dollar bills like a bullfrog swallows minnows – if you chunked them as many as they want they’d bust.”
“Amen, Earl,” the old man said. “God have mercy on the poor people.”
“Of course, I know many fine rich people,” the Governor said, perhaps thinking of his campaign contributors. “But the most of them are like a rich old feller I knew down in Plaquemines Parish, who died one night and never done nobody no good in his life, and yet, when the Devil come to get him, he took an appeal to St. Peter.
“‘I done some good things on earth,’ he said. ‘Once, on a cold day in about 1913, I gave a blind man a nickel.’ St. Peter looked through all the records, and at last, on page four hundred and seventy-one, he found the entry. ‘That ain’t enough to make up for a misspent life,’ he said. ‘But wait,’ the rich man says. ‘Now I remember, in 1922 I give five cents to a poor widow woman that had no carfare.’ St. Peter’s clerk checked the book again, and on page thirteen hundred and seventy-one, after pages and pages of how this old stump-wormer loan-sharked the poor, he found the record of that nickel.
“‘That ain’t neither enough,’ St. Peter said. But the mean old thing yelled, ‘Don’t sentence me yet. In about 1931 I give a nickel to the Red Cross.’ The clerk found that entry, too. So he said to St. Peter, ‘Your honor, what are we going to do with him?’”
The crowd hung on Uncle Earl’s lips the way the bugs hovered in the light.
“You know what St. Peter said?” the Governor, the only one in the courthouse square who knew the answer, asked. There was, naturally, no reply.
“He said: ‘Give him back his fifteen cents and tell him to go to Hell.’” (96-7)