From a recent review of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel:
Expecting to read a book about political corruption, I discovered a story with penetrating insights into the human condition. When Warren was writing some 70 years ago, populist rhetoric was common in America. Our current political climate certainly suggests that everything old is new again in American politics... To my mind, the celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning novel reveals something important about who we all are.
Warren’s brilliant story considers politics as a feature of human nature, and he leaves his reader with two options to consider: We are all corrupt and manipulative in the pursuit of self-interest, however noble and good our ends may appear to be; or, we can find (through spiritual regeneration) a new way of being in the world that transcends our fallen humanity.
Protagonist Willie Stark, proletariat turned quintessential politician, comes to accept the former position, but his political goals are shaped by an aspiration to bring about a social condition that reflects that latter. The pervasiveness of depravity is met with the hope of redemption. This hope provides an alternative to nihilism, both political and existential. One episode in the novel is particularly revealing.
When characters Adam Stanton and Jack Burden discuss the similar effects of a lobotomy and baptism, i.e., a new and transformed personality, Jack reveals that, despite his interest in the right things, he is unable to act in any meaningful way. Moreover, he cannot help being implicit in the corruption. In fact, his research uncovers information that leads to the death of his own father and the loss of his one true love. His desire for greater meaning in his life can only take shape in following a man like Willie Stark, because he cannot see the possibility of meaningfully engaging life and acting in the polis in any other way. As tends to be the case, his contributions ultimately lead to his redemption because he is forced to confront the horrific consequences of his actions.
Warren provides his reader with a view of politics as an expression of our nature as social beings. Together, we act with deliberation in pursuit of the common good. He has in mind much more than we typically attribute to politics—so much so that we might to fail to recognize that Warren is not simply telling a tale about ambition and a corrupt politician. To reduce his work to a “political novel” is to lose sight of the world Warren depicts for us that reveals the extent to which we are bound up with one another in our everyday lives.
Warren’s more important comment is about politics as contextualized, an artifact of culture and an expression of our community. Your decision about how to live your life affects me. It shapes the political landscape. The redemption of Jack through his mother is especially poignant. When she renounces her material wealth and exploitation of men to return to her former life of poverty and simplicity, Jack is finally able to be a real presence in the world, who gives authentic shape to his community and is no longer dependent on the system for his identity. Arguably, Jack learns to love when his mother accepts who she is.
Warren’s story is one of love, family, honor, masculinity, the pitfalls and promise of modernity, and salvation. For Warren, something essential has been lost in society, and he reminds us that though we may not even recognize this loss, and even though we have been wounded by it, our hearts yearn for the infinite. All of our hearts—those of corrupt politicians as much as those of the daughters of honorable men.
It seems undeniable that in response to this longing for all that is good, corruption infects even our most noble aspirations. Can we hope to bring about a proper and just ordering of society, a way of life that contributes to our ultimate salvation? Warren seems to suggest both that we can and we can’t—and that any accomplishments we achieve are not likely to take shape the way we expect or think that they should.The tragic narrator and protagonist, Jack Burden, whose life and career are thoroughly intertwined with the larger-than-life Willie Stark, reminds me of someone who gives expression to the exhortation to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” This is truly the challenge for all of us, and even that pursuit is conditioned by our circumstances and experiences. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us: "No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone." Somehow, both are true.
When it comes to politics, Warren’s novel encourages me to refrain from judgment. Even Willie Stark, for all his crooked ways, ruining of lives, exploitation of women, and countless foibles, desired and served the common good. He died as an idealist who lived in pursuit of one dream for something he created to be perfectly pure. Politics demands a reflection of our ourselves, our hopes and our dreams, our tattered nobility, and our conspicuous vice. A conversation about our leaders can never be separated from a conversation about ourselves. This is truly a novel about all the King’s men.
|Painting of Mr. Warren by Conrad Albrizio, 1935|
Robert Penn Warren on the differences between writing fiction and poetry:
"But to poetry — You have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It's more of a prayerful state than writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying. And the prayerful state is just being passive with it, mumbling, being around there, lying on the grass, going swimming, you see. Even getting drunk. Get drunk prayerfully, though."
A few excerpts from the 'NY Times' review when the novel was first published:
It is as bumpy and uneven as a corduroy road... Nevertheless, Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" is magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue spark... Here, my lords and ladies, is no book to curl up with in a hammock, but a book to read until 3 o'clock in the morning, a book to read on trains and subways...
Through the eyes of his narrator, a corrupt and cynical newspaper man enrolled in the dictator's service, he sees Huey Long's career without illusions as to his personal faults, his "tomcatting all over the State," his use of bribery, blackmail and force, his contemptuous destruction of freedom and decency. But he magnifies the roads, schools, income taxes, etc., introduced in Huey's regime. "At least the Boss does something," says one of Mr. Warren's characters...
[I]t is quite possible to argue with Mr. Warren about the meaning of his book and to hold reservations about several of his characters (Anne Stanton, the aristocrat whom Jack loves in his fashion and who becomes the Boss' mistress, is hard to imagine and harder to understand). But such matters in no way impair the superb effectiveness of Mr. Warren's story telling. Jack may be morally as blind as Willie Stark, the Boss, but Mr. Warren has endowed him with his own exuberant skill with words.
"All the King's Men" is really a double story, that of Willie, the hick from the red-neck country who rose to power through eloquence, leadership and ruthless mastery of dirty politics, and that of three aristocrats drawn into Willie's orbit. Jack was one of them, and he betrayed everything he should have stood for. Anne's brother, Adam, was another, a distinguished surgeon whose conception of honor and whose desire to good could not be adjusted to the filthy world where men like Willie got results. And Anne was the third, a well-intentioned waverer between opposing systems.
The two themes are woven together adroitly so that they cross, and recross, with flashbacks in time, with interpolated stories almost completely independent in themselves, with episodes of thundering melodrama. Willie Stark as a man and a politician is superbly well realized. Jack tells his story with a cynical humor, a raw vitality and an awed wonder that are immense. He is equally skillful in suggesting the futility of the old tradition when confronted with men like Willie, and, in poetic passages of pure atmosphere, rushing highways at night, old towns on the Gulf, the noisome aggregate of crawling, subhuman life around the great man...
UPDATE: This site gives some of the background of Huey Long.
(What two men did Franklin Roosevelt consider the most dangerous in America? Senator Long and General MacArthur).
Here's a great clip of "The Kingfish" describing the difference between the Democrat and Republican parties.