The fictionalized account of Louisiana's colorful--and notorious--governor Huey Pierce Long, All the King's Men follows the startling rise and fall of Willie Stark, a country lawyer in the Deep South of the 1930s. Beset by political enemies, Stark seeks aid from his right-hand man Jack Burden, who will bear witness to the cataclysmic unfolding of this very American tragedy.
The story revolves around the lives of Willie Stark, governor of an unnamed Southern state and Jack Burden, the narrator of the story. Willie’s rise to fame from a poor farmer who is used by the reigning politicians to further their own ambitions, to his own political career as a populist governor whose corrupt ways he tries to justify by the results produced for the working class, is supposedly based on the rise and fall of the Louisiana governor Huey Long.
Jack Burden, the narrator, is a cynic at heart. He was an historian, a newspaper writer and, for most of the novel, an aide to “the Boss,” Governor Willie Stark. He propels the narrative forward with his descriptions of life with a politico and his entourage.
“But I first must tell you about the first excursion into the enchantments of the past. Not that the first excursion has anything directly to do with the story of Willie Stark, but it has a great deal to do with the story of Jack Burden, and the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story.” (Page 236)
And that was the key to the whole story for me. Although this book has been described as “the finest novel ever written on American politics,” it was more a story about Jack Burden than Willie Stark. The story takes place in the 1930’s and dwells on personal responsibility, original sin and total depravity. Willie’s got his own thoughts on all of these but its Jack whom we watch and see change over the course of the book. And the book has it all. As well as packing an emotional wallop, Warren can write like nobody’s business. There are actually websites devoted to quotes from this book, the writing is that good. Like this description of the common struggling man in the 30’s as Jack looks up from the street at a building:
“The shade of a window was up and I looked in where a heavy, bald man in shirt sleeves sat at a table in what is called a ‘dinette’ and slumped above a plate like a sack propped in a chair, while a child stood at his elbow, plucking at him, and a woman in a slack, colorless dress and hair stringing down brought a steaming saucepan from the stove, for Poppa had come home late as usual with his bunion hurting, and the rent was past due and Johnnie needed shoes and Susie’s report card wasn’t any good and Susie stood at his elbow, plucking at him feebly, and staring at him with her imbecilic eyes and breathing through her adenoids, and the Maxfield Parrish picture was askew on the wall with its blues all having the savage tint of copper sulfate in the glaring light from the unshaded bulb hanging from the ceiling. And somewhere else in the building a dog barked, somewhere else a baby was crying in automatic gasps.” (Page 358)
Best of all are Warren’s characterizations of the people that surrounded Willie and Jack and the eventual connections between the two. I felt like I was in the Cadillac traveling down the road to Mason City with Jack and Willie, with Sugar-Boy at the wheel, and Tiny Duffy in the back seat. I could smell the hot tar from the road, and the cigarette smoke wafting back from the front seat and feel Sadie Burke’s eyes burning through me. What a ride!
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 ring 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.
"Cousin Willie" is a local representative with dreams of making it to the governorship after a corrupt contract job collapses and kills some local kids, but he's going to need to become "The Boss" if he wants to win. His transformation from patsy to patriarch is faster than lightning over the bayou, and before long the state is in his hands. Jack Burden, one-time historian, journalist and now political aide is the cynical and bemused chronicler to all this.
But Jack himself - like most of the people around Willy - is a flawed and unhappy person. The story is as much about Jack - striving with an urgency that at times makes the prose hum like live wire - to make sense of the world, and his place in it.
Faulkner's writing casts a very long shadow indeed over All the King's Men. Warren's prose is rushed, all long sentences and descriptions falling over each to get to your eyes. Every sentence has emotion coming off it like alcohol vapour and it's about as heady. Warren can barely finish a paragraph without launching into the next one, straining to capture every sight, thought and feeling. It lends the novel an incredibly vivid aspect; you'll be riding along with the Boss and Sugar Boy when they take to the hustings and wandering the lonely streets at night with Jack.
By the same token, however, you'll also be taking the long highway journeys with endless bitumen riding resinous in your nostrils, aimlessly plunging into Jack's aborted Phd (was this the key to the novel? I don't know. It sure was a long sixty-odd pages though), and drifting through an existence that lacks much meaning at times. Also, you're going to get very intimate with Jack - for a novel of 550 pages, there's only about 20 people in the entire book, and none of the others are sketched so well.
I cannot lie; the long digressions, endless descriptions and existential ennui of Jack, whilst they make the book so unique, also make it feel like damned hard work at times. The narrative, echoing the cadence of real life, is largely purposeless and seemingly arbitrary through many patches, its conlcusion somewhat foregone and pat.
This is not a political novel, and those looking for one will be bitterly disappointed; the ins-and-outs of power-taking and making are left unexamined and uncared for. Ironically for the state's top aide, Jack is an apolitical animal. His almost instinctual attachment to Willie rings true, but it's primarily an emotional attachment. What Jack believes in is unclear, even to Jack himself, and it's not much clearer in Willie - whose transformation from hayseed to powerbroker happens largely off page.
What All the King's Men reminded me of most was actually Maugham's Of Human Bondage. The threadless narrative, wandering scope and fairly banal metaphysical musings counterbalanced by the brilliance in capturing feeling, the sympathetic, almost lambent gaze cast on its motley crew of characters, and its plaintive, young, daring in _feeling_ its feelings to their full power.
It's a big book; literally, thematically, linguistically, and when you cast a net so wide you cannot help indiscriminately drawing in the boots next to pearls. But a strength of that is there's something in there for everyone. You don't see many books published with such fire in the belly, such a go-big-or-go-home mentality. It's exhilarating to read, and undeniably exhausting at times. But All the King's Men will stay with me, I know that much.
King's Men is a fine novel, probably very relevant in this Year of the Cock [Chinese, but also our political leader]. Perhaps if I reread it, I'd add the last star. I withold it because as a political novel, it may not equal, say, Oliver Twist or even FM Ford's The Good Soldier or A Man Could Stand Up, or Mailer's Catch-22 or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five or Proulx's Shipping News (though set among Newfies, really about the US) or even the other great Newfoundland novel, Johnston's the Colony of Unrequited Love. Since my specialty has been drama, I have never taught these novels in the same course, so perhaps I err.
I cannot now find King's Men on my shelf, though I know what the jacket looks like, and where it was for decades, Modern Library, 1953, seven years after its first appearance. The frank, offensive racist language, a discouraging reminder to read, may be preferable to the veiled racism we now see behind the victory of the Clown Prince, who may be our first prez with certifiable mental illness, evidently "Malignant Narcisissism" analyzed by Dr. Otto Kernberg (Cornell Med) in 1984. (Seems to me Kim Jung Un may also suffer from it. A dangerous twain to meet.)
Red Warren's first few pages are a tour de force of the American motoring and working experience, and the sawmill's wasting of the pine forest until all the work is gone, and the long cycle, the forty year softwood tree cycle, the economic cyle now interrupted by robots. But Willie Stark will make America great... As Red Warren wrote of the Boss in his first version of Ch 1, "The real son-of-a-bitch is the rarest work of God." That's what the US apparently voted for in Nov 2016, but now they're finding what makes a Sobakievich (the Russian for that rarest work) makes a miserable and cruel leader.
I was misled going into the novel. But, when I allowed myself to realize what kind of novel I was actually reading, I allowed myself (and the writer allowed me) to become involved in these lives. (Next stop; watch the original movie with Broderick Crawford, then the remake with Sean Penn. I’m putting money on the former over the latter.)
Huey Long was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928
Though he provided hospitals and free textbooks and highways, he was impeached (and acquitted)
He was elected U.S. Senator in 1930, but didn't let go of the Governorship till 1932
He picked his own successor and by all acounts basically acted as Governor and Senator simultaneously
He continued making a ruckus in the Senate, feeling that the New Deal wasn't nearly radical enough, until he was assassinated in 1935.
Kinda makes you wonder don' it?
Well, the novel takes a few liberties, but the similarities are clear. Willie Stark is a powerful Louisiana governor in the early thirties, who is impeached but not convicted, who aspires to the Senate and is assassinated at an early age. But where the book can go much further is exploring the hidden side of politics. The way Warren pictures it, and it has the ring of truth, Stark will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He will use his power to blackmail and bribe and otherwise muscle the corrupt legislature into providing education and health care and transportation for the poor folks of Louisiana! It's a bizarre setup where the ends are so obviously good and the means so poor. But it works! And it's almost inspiring in a deeply disturbing sort of way.
This book is sometimes described as a fictionalized account of Huey Long's life but it doesn't really focus on that character. Stark is the big mover and shaker behind the scenes, but the focus is on our narrator, Jack Burden. As one of Stark's lackeys, he has an inside eye, but more than that, you see the effect of Stark on an ordinare Joe, the pooling of disaster. Burden is Stark's goto man. He's not a thug, but he can find out the dirt on even the cleanest citizens. Jack spends half the time with his feet on a mahogany desk and the other half of his time criss-crossing Louisiana and asking the right people the right questions. The real art of this novel in following the change that takes place in Burden. At the start he is a total machine, a tool, beyond right and wrong. But when Stark finally spits on one too many faces and his enemies outnumber his friends by one iota, when all falls apart and the blood is spilling out on the floor, Jack snaps out of it. He doesn't snap exactly. It takes several months. But he goes from feeling everyone is the same, everyone has dirt on them, everyone is out to save themselves, to an understanding of choice. It is a fascinating transformation from total power with no power of choice (because of the complex network of blackmail) to no power with freedom of choice. The world carries on its way, the legislature is still corrupt, the new governor even more so, and yet you feel in the end that integrity has been restored, even if only to our protagonist, even at the cost of blood, even if only in the end.
Warren's style is a bit dense. It is somewhat reminiscent of film noir styling, and he takes his time setting up the atmosphere. But it does lead to some heartwrenching moments. He describes as I have never seen described the pain of dwindling love, where something is just not quite right and you don't know whether it's you or them or Fate. And his characters, steeped in cigarette smoke and disgust, are painfully real.
This was a very good if not uplifting book. It doesn't try to moralize, it simply tells it like it is.
Even if you haven’t read ALL THE KING’S MEN, you must have heard of it. Your impression may be like mine was: this is a book about a politician who began with good intentions only to grow into a man who acts out of a lust for power. But while this IS one of the characters (Willie Stark), his story is really the background for Jack Burden’s story.
Burden narrates. He begins when he was a reporter who came across the young Willie Stark, then goes back and forth in time, studying how he acted as Stark’s right-hand man and how he related with old friends and family. You may want to reread this; Robert Penn Warren discusses so much, you may catch the second time what you missed the first time.
ALL THE KING’S MEN doesn’t get my highest rating for that reason. I don’t like to reread. But I think I need to. Robert Penn Warren took many breaks from the story to discuss and philosophize. This went on for many paragraphs before he resumed the story, causing me to forget it.
This is a style that can be good, especially if the discussions are as thoughtful as Warren’s. The problem I have here is the length of the discussions. His tangents are too wordy.
But this is minor. The book is exceptional.
As it turns out, the actual novel is only partially about political corruption. Politics is mostly a framing device for the real story. The meat of the book is about how actions have consequences, and that there's no getting around that. Reporter-turned-political-staffer-type Jack Burden (it's hard to describe what it actually is he does for Willie Stark, the Huey Long analogue referenced above, and don't think for a second that surname isn't symbolic) burned out of his Ph.D. program when he uncovered a story that made the consequences of heedless actions too real, and tries to hide behind inaction to save him from having to deal with that kind of responsibility. His work for Stark means that he mostly doesn't have to make decisions, until it intersects with his personal life in a way that starts forcing him to do just that and refusing to let him slip quietly away from the results.
That central conceit, though, isn't really clear until you get about halfway through with the story. The first part of the story feels very much like a standard issue dramatic story about yes, politics and corruption. We learn the story of Willie Stark, how he made it from a bumpkin, to a young political appointee fighting a shady, kickback-laden county contract, to a stooge goaded into running for Governor by people using him for their own purposes, to a morally questionable Governor himself. That part of the novel is interesting and easily digestible enough, but the real power of it comes from the later, more philosophical part that shifts Stark's story into the background and brings Jack's story up front.
The storyline wrangling and plot development is masterful, but where the real beauty of this book is are the words. Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, but he also won one for poetry, and you can tell. Picking out a highlight quote was torture...I read this on the Kindle and digitally underlined about half the book because I was so in love with the language. It's a page turner, but not in a suspenseful kind of way. You just want to keep reading it to keep basking in the glory of the writing. I was sad to put it down when it was over.
This book was a 1947 Pulitzer Prize winner and, as a film, it won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Picture. I enjoyed it a lot and highly recommend it!
Furthermore, I don't think that Willie Stark's story is a study of personal corruption. On the contrary - Willie remained almost saintly in his convictions and behavior until his end. The novel indicts the Southern nobility and the world of politics in general, rather than Willie in particular.
A couple of chapters (the civil war chapter, and the trip to Long Beach/ teenage romance chapter) could've been cut right out with no detriment to the book. In fact, the book would have been better if it focused on Willie and not on Jack Burden.
The narrator of the story, Burden, seems to wander aimlessly through the events of the book, often as not doing much of the Governor’s dirtiest work, while seldom seeming to question the morality or legality of his actions. There is much talk of good, bad and evil between repeated scenes of political graft, bribery and corruption.
Much of the book is fascinating in its portrayal of raw political power and manipulation. However, far too frequently the author diverts to almost stream of consciousness prose with little or no advancement of the underlying story line. One hundred pages of such florid drivel could have easily been excised from the novel, resulting in a far more captivating tale. As it was, I’d immensely enjoy fifty pages of narrative only to be faced with ten pages of garbage that could literally be skimmed over.
So, how to rate such a book? I give the approximately 80% of the book that contained actual narrative, five stars. The remaining 20%, which consisted primarily of meaningless babble, earns one star. That comes to 4.2 stars. Read the book, skim the garbage.
The story is set in the 1930s and is told in first person by Jack Burden, former journalist-turned-aide to Willie Stark, a southern governor in the Huey Long mold: broad, brash, and bold. But now that I’ve gotten that out of the way you can stop worrying about it, because what this book is really about is Original Sin/corruption/moral compromise. Literally every character in this tale faces some sort of moral/ethical dilemma. A small handful (for instance, the governor’s wife Lucy) manage to navigate the morass of existence without falling from grace, but the vast majority slip and fall – some out of a genuine lack of morality (for instance, the assistant governor, Tiny Duffy, a true Tammany Hall villain), but most of them gradually, one ethical compromise yielding inevitably to another, like a Jenga tower from which pieces are systematically removed until the whole thing collapses. I’m not sure whether Penn himself is clear whether this is the result of free will or a manifestation of Original Sin. One of the governor’s favorite quotes, repeated often throughout the tale, is that “man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something [corrupt in their nature]” – suggesting that at least a part of him comes down on the side of Original Sin. But it’s hard not to want to kick many of the (largely unsympathetic) characters in the butt every time they wittingly make choices that are obviously going to lead to catastrophe.
Students of Ethics in Politics will relish the examination of how Governor Stark’s noble motives become gradually corrupted by the realities of the political system in which he operates. Originally convinced to run for office by corrupt politicians counting on him to split the “rube” vote so that the state’s Political Machine can continue to churn unmolested, Stark eventually turns the tables on his manipulators, but in doing so finds himself resorting to increasingly unethical methods (threats, blackmail) in order to achieve his well-meant ends. Which begs the question that seems to arise every time someone like Huey Long – or, more recently, DC Councilman Marion Barry – ends up on trial for corruption, even as thousands of deservedly grateful, devoted constituents picket the courthouse steps: can even the noblest of intentions ever justify ethically questionable means?
Meanwhile, students of rhetoric and logic will be kept busy by page after page of cascading syllogisms. No topic seems too vast or intimidating to escape Penn’s scrutiny, from life, death, and fate, to the nature of good, evil, and God. The narrator, Jack Burden, uses these syllogisms as justification for a series of increasingly dubious acts; what’s less clear is whether he is self-aware enough to realize the extent to which his syllogisms are laced with sly and intricate fallacies, enough to keep a class of grad students huddled over pints of ale for months, hashing them all out.
And, lest students of Modern American Lit feel left out, there’s plenty left for them in examining the parallelism between ancient Greek tragedy and Stark’s gradual fall from grace (substitute Judge Irwin’s fall from grace, or Adam Stanton’s fall from grade, or Jack Burden’s fall from grace, if you prefer), culminating in a series of climaxes as horrific as they are undoubtedly hubristic. Even the names of the characters in the story – Jack Burden, Tiny Duffy, Willie Stark – are loaded with symbolic and metaphoric relevance. No – English lit students needn’t feel slighted; there is more than enough here to keep them churning out papers until final exams week.
In other words, this book is stuffed full of juicy, complex content – which makes it a capital book for studying, but perhaps doesn’t much contribute to creating a diverting or entertaining reading experience. The characters aren’t particularly likeable, the plot is largely introspective rather than event-driven, and – believe me – I’m not spoiling anything by letting it slip that no one lives happily ever after, which can make portions of this tough slogging. Guess I’m saying that while there’s plenty of meat here, definitely requires an investment in energy, attention and cognition on the part of the reader in order to appropriately digest.
However, unlike Primary Colors, All the King's Men is not really about politics, and the politician whose career narrator Jack Burden discusses is less important than the narrator himself. Perhaps a theme closer to its heart is the interaction between the past and the present and future through the counterpoised conduits of truth and falsehood. But Warren is a poet (I read his poetry before I knew he wrote prose), and what ultimately makes this an excellent novel is its poetic ability to connect with something deeper and more universally than such a theme. To put it more simply, I cared what Jack Burden had to say.
And then there's the poetry disguised as prose. Warren is sometimes purple, and often reiterates word-for-word a description which loses its power in repetition. But there are also passages like this one (page 9):
"... the clammy, sad foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him. There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know."
Or this (page 17):
"Not that I much blame Duffy. Duffy was face to face with the margin of mystery where all our calculations collapse, where the stream of time dwindles into the sands of eternity, where the formula fails in the test tube, where chaos and old night hold sway and we hear the laughter in the ether dream. But he didn't know he ways, and so he said, 'Yeah.'"
The pacing and poetry start to lag at the end. Nonetheless, the novel as a whole is well worth reading.
Warren's book is an epic book in scope, language, character, depth. From page one, his language sucks you in, and this book kept me up reading on more than one night. Besides having an intricate and engaging plot that you can't help getting involved with (which you can't predict), and that you can't help feel is as relevant today as it was sixty years ago--the book was originally published in 1946--the characters Warren creates are heartbreakingly real.
Yet, for an epic and serious tale, there's humor on nearly every page, and the dialogue Warren creates is utterly memorable. I can't remember the last time I left a book feeling so full and satisfied, so renewed by language and poetry, and so much looking forward to exploring the rest of an author's library (for yes, this was my first dive into Warren).
In closing, I can't really do the book justice. This book is what every literary author strives for, and what so few reach, and it is both beautiful and awesome in every respect. It is without doubt something to read, remember, and return to.
Somewhere I read that this is the greatest American novel of the post-World War II era. I don't quite accept that, my money is on To Kill a Mockingbird or Lonesome Dove, but I can see why some would vote for All the King's Men. There's a lot here I missed in my haste to get on with the story, some day hopefully I'll read it again.
"I felt that I was right on the verge of knowing the the real and absolute truth about everything. Just one instant and I would know it. Then I got my breath. 'Jesus,' I said out loud, 'Jesus!' I stretched my arms out as wide as I could, as though I could grab the whole empty air."
Yeah. That's pretty much what it feels like.
I agree with the other reviews here that the Cass Mastern material is a confusing digression, but I cannot help but think that someday I'm going to figure out its place in the overall sweep of the novel.