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Jazz Age Dictator

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

Louisiana Hayride, By Harnett T. Kane. William Morrow and Company. $3.00.

Huey Long dies on page 136 of this 455-page book. To go on engagingly thereafter for 319 pages of “Louisiana Hayride” required of Harnett T. Kane much talent and much to tell. He has both. As a thoroughgoing newspaperman on the job in New Orleans during both the Long and the post-Long periods, he reports with a faithfulness and perception that should make his volume a permanent source book. And what went on in Louisiana in the period between Long’s death and the election of Sam Jones by a finally aroused people is at once so much uglier and less well known than what went on under the Kingfish that it needs telling if the moral is to be effective.

Nevertheless there is a let-down in the story when Huey dies. Not to be made aware of it would be to miss the real point of this fantastic and depraved episode in American history. Huey had political “it” to the nth degree. His magnetism and imagination (Eugene Talmadge has neither, thank God!) took everybody’s attention. He was a great show and he began in the top days of a decade when the play was the thing. (Big Bill Thompson had already made threats to “punch King George in the snoot,” and gestures with the threats, which were factors in Chicago elections.) Huey Long offered bread with his circuses, it is true, and as all the sociologists have told us, the offer came when the hill-billies of Louisiana and their impoverished counterparts in other places were in just the condition of desperation and awareness to welcome one of their own crying out against the old regimes and promising new things in new words. The promise of bread was partly filled, for Huey Long did do many good things for the people of Louisiana, but the price in money and liberty and decency was too high. The promise of circuses was wholly filled, for rarely have the people of this country been so entertained as they were by this brilliant, unscrupulous, nimble-witted vulgarian. As a bread-giver he was impractical and probably a cynic. As a circus-maker he was without a peer.

Mr. Kane subtitles his book “The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship.” I am glad not to think so. I think a subtitle nearer the fact would have been something like “Jazz Age Hangover.” Huey Long was not at all like Hitler or Mussolini. He was much more charming and much more corrupt. He is related not to a day when Fascism might come to America but rather to those closing days of the 1920’s from which we are gradually rescuing our morals, tastes, manners, dress, music, literature, economics, politics, and little children.


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