All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
All the King’s Men has been touted as the best book written on American politics because of the portrayal of Willie Stark, the politician whose life and career resemble that of Huey Long of Louisiana. But after reading the book, it seems to me that it is much more the story of the personal journey of Jack Burden, one-time reporter and long-time aide to Willie, told by Jack himself as he records the different stages of his personal pain as his relationship with Willie unfolds. There is no question that Willie’s career and evolution from populist to corrupt politician is a vital apart of the book, but more as a subplot and background to what Jack experiences because of his involvement.
What gives power and poignancy to the story is Jack, his family, and his childhood companions: Judge Irwin, Adam and Ann Stanton, his father who abandons the family, and others. In particular, his relationship with Adam and Ann Stanton, which is almost an incestuous triangle, constitutes an insistent background, like a basso continuo, to the public, political events surrounding Willie Stark, elbowing its way into the foreground as the story progresses relentlessly to the powerful and what seems like unavoidable climax. It’s as if a Greek tragedy were taking place in the back country of Louisiana, with the “wooly hats”, the poor country folk on whom Willie built his political empire, serving as the chorus. Jack, as narrator, is able to evaluate Willie’s actions from the point of view of an insider, even though he himself is helpless to influence any of the events.
Warrren’s prose style reflects the fact that he was also a poet. The sentences can be dense and convoluted, making effective use of repetition to convey an image:
Close to the road, a cow would stand knee-deep in the mist, with horns damp enough to have a pearly shine in the starlight, and would look at the black blur we were as we went whirling into the blazing corridor of light which we would never quite get into for it would be always splitting the dark just in front of us. The cow would stand there knee-deep in the mist and look at the black blur and the blaze and then, not turning is head, at the place where the black blur and blaze had been, with the remote, massive, unvindictive indifference of God-Almighty or Fate or me, if I were standing there knee-deep in mist, and the blur and the blaze whizzed past and withered on off between the fields and the patches of woods.
Prose poetry, and much of the book is written in this fashion. At times, however, it seems to me that Warren, perhaps in an attempt to establish local color, becomes a little “cute” in his writing, particularly in the early part of the book’s dialogue. The few times that he does so wring false; he doesn’t need cuteness to convey authenticity. However, this is a minor quibble, and Warren, after the story becomes more developed, never makes the mistake again.
A powerful, absorbing story. Highly recommended.