It’s been a while since I visited the American South in literature. I think my last sojourn was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, some time ago. That’s how I came to reach for All The King’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. I was actually surprised, looking at the inside cover, to find it was written so long ago; it reads like a far more contemporary novel and as recently as 2006 the New York Times called it “the definitive novel about American politics” (though, that was pre-Trump, so it’d be understandable if their position has changed).
Our narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and newspaper columnist turned personal aide. He recounts for us the meteoric rise of Governor Willie Stark in the American South in the 1930s. He’s fascinated, and at times disgusted, by the larger-than-life populist leader. Stark transforms over the course of the novel from idealistic lawyer to hardened (and extremely powerful) politico. Burden faithfully documents the evolution of “The Boss”, and the role of his doctor friend Adam Stanton, who is not-very-subtly painted as the polar opposite of Stark. Stanton is the man of ideals, the angel on one shoulder, while Stark is the pragmatic and corrupt devil on the other.
The chapters are loooooong, and intense. Warren really doesn’t give the reader many opportunities to pause and catch their breath. He also uses decidedly non-chronological storytelling, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (think more Mrs Dalloway than The Narrow Road To The Deep North). Warren uses the shifts in time to highlight the connections between characters and continuities in their stories, how Burden and Stark and Stanton’s lives all weave together. That means there are a few stories-within-the-story, most notably a detailed history of Jack’s uncle (whom he researched in pursuit of his American History degree), and also Jack’s own life (which he tells, bizarrely, in the third person). Jack wouldn’t have been much fun at parties, actually, with his penchant for endless nihilistic philosophising. It takes the deaths of a few of his mates, and his biological father, for him to even contemplate the notion that he has to take some personal responsibility for what happens in his life, instead of attributing it all to what he calls “the Great Twitch”. That said, some of his introspective bullshit was actually quite funny:
“‘Can I see the cutting?’ I asked. I felt all of a sudden that I had to see it. I had never seen an operation. As a newspaperman, I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot. But this operation was going to be more radical even than what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. So I asked could I see the operation.”pg. 477
All The King’s Men is very dude-centric, if that’s not already obvious: it fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion, with nearly 700 pages of white dudes talking to one another about power, clapping themselves on the back for gaining power, and ever-striving to become more powerful than some other white dude. There are a couple of love interests and mistresses, and these are the only appropriate roles for women in that world, it would seem. Jack devotes quite a long passage to his regret at never having fucked his first love, and of his wife he simply says “Goodbye Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you,” (pg. 462).
Warren fills the hole where the women should be by making a Very Big Deal of biological paternity, and how one’s father affects one’s sense of identity and morality. It’s central to every plot-line and character arc; the book would perhaps be more accurately called All The King’s Daddy Issues. Stark, in becoming a Governor through patronage and intimidation, becomes a surrogate father for all of them: deeply flawed, but influential, and impossible to ignore or reject. The thrust of the story, it would seem, is that Jack comes to realise that no man or father (not the man who raised him, not his bio dad, not Willie Stark) is invulnerable to corruption or temptation. Oh, and it’s impossible to remain a passive observer of anything, no matter how hard you try. Whatever you do, it will catch up with you, etc. Such profound, very wow…
The character of Stark is famously rumoured to have been inspired by the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that All The King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics” (fucking lol, alright mate, odd choice of subject matter then).
There’s a surprisingly happy ending, all things considered. Yes, there’s a lot of death and bloodshed, but Jack gets the girl, reconciles with his father(s), and carries on living the good life. I was expecting something far more bleak, but Warren managed to pull a Happily Ever After out of his hat.
Tl;dr? A bunch of white dudes chase political power in the Great Depression-era American South, in the hopes that it will help them all overcome their Daddy Issues (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work).
My favourite Amazon reviews of All The King’s Men:
- “I am a business professor so the long involved descriptions of his angst drove me crazy.” – CP
- “Somewhat tedious” – Carol Weidensaul
- “Greek drama set in depression era Louisiana. Sad,” – Martha Failing
- “This edition appeared to have been translated by a child. I got a real book from the public library. Very disappointed.” – Gwen Luikart
- “Thought it stunk.” – Barbara J Mason
- “Had to read this for my AP English class. -10/10 stars, would not recommend, take regular english instead.” – Emmy
- “I AM ALSO A TINA FRIEND AND HER INSIGHTFUL AND TRUE COMMENTS INTO THIS MONSTROSITY OF A BOOK MAKE ME PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” – A customer