Book #58: All The King’s Men
Several years before I went back to school to get my English degree, I actually graduated from college with a Political Science degree.
I planned on going to law school and blah, blah, blah, and Political Science was just one of the degrees you got if you were going to law school. It was a bad decision, but that’s another story for another day.
But to say the only reason I majored in Political Science was because of my ill-conceived law school aspirations wouldn’t be entirely true. As a teenager and young adult, I had always been strangely fascinated by politics.
I never had any desire to be a politician, but I was fascinated by the game of politics, the organized farce of it all, like a rubbernecker who can’t stop looking at a fatal car crash.
The psychological aspect of politics, the cyclical nature of elections (the public gets tired of one party and votes the other one in—rinse, wash, repeat), and the willingness of the public to believe a man just because he has a nice smile and a convincing tone has always amazed me. Ninety percent of politics is just marketing—plain and simple.
So all of that to say I was heavily predisposed to enjoy All The King’s Men, and it didn’t disappoint. Robert Penn Warren crafted a novel that, in the 1940s, showcases many of the same problems we have with politics and politicians in 2013.
Willie Stark is a small-town southern politician who scraps and claws his way from a local administrator to wildly popular governor. In my edition of All The King’s Men, this character’s name was actually “Willie Talos”—read more about that here—but since most of you know him as Willie Stark, I’ll go with that.
Stark is a womanizer, a manipulator, and a bully behind the scenes. But out in the public, he’s a “man of the people.” He gets stuff done. He pushes for government programs to “share the wealth” and fight against the rich, greedy people, as he sees them.
His right-hand man, the narrator in the novel, is Jack Burden. Jack’s a clever guy, a journalist and historian. He’s much smarter than Willie Stark, and you get the sense that he doesn’t always agree with Stark’s tactics. Burden (appropriately named) is the only guy who will take Stark’s crap and then dish it back at him.
There’s always a love interest, and in All The King’s Men it’s Anne Stanton. She’s Jack Burden’s childhood sweetheart, the one who got away, the one who still has a hold on him. There’s her brother, the doctor, Adam Stanton, an idealist, a guy who loathes politics and politicians like Willie Stark—but who can’t seem to stay away.
And then there’s Tiny Duffy. He’s always around, and you never know whether The Boss can trust him. That turns out to be a vital point of tension in the plot.
I love the characters in All The King’s Men, and I love the plot. But there are some downsides to the book too.
The pacing is off. Whether it’s because RPW is a poet or because it’s just his style of writing prose, he’s a verbose guy. Sometimes it takes Warren 5 pages to say what it would take Hemingway 5 sentences to say.
It’s just a matter of style. It’s not that RPW is a bad writer—absolutely not. He just focuses on detail and setting much more than a writer like Hemingway. Warren is definitely not a minimalist.
He sets the scene, and he’s very detailed in doing so. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of that style—that’s why I like Hemingway so much. RPW can write some seriously long sentences, too. Case in point:
We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind that become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.”
Surprisingly, that wasn’t a huge negative for me in All The King’s Men. I can’t really tell you why. Maybe it was because I was so drawn to these characters and to this story, which caused me to overlook his wordy style.
Ultimately, I love what Orville Prescott from the New York Times Book Review had to say about the novel.
[It] isn’t a great novel or a completely finished work of art. It is as bumpy and uneven as a corduroy road, somewhat irresolute and confused in its approach to vital problems and not always convincing. 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 sparks, a book so drenched with fierce emotion, narrative pace and poetic imagery that its stature as a ‘readin’ book,’ as some of its characters would call it, dwarfs that of most current publications.
That’s the way I feel. All The King’s Men is far from being a perfect novel. It’s raw and even unpolished in places, but the positives outshine the negatives here. And I disagree with Orville Prescott on one point: I would call this a “great novel.”
All The King’s Men is truly a classic. It’s a novel I would have no problem reading again.
The Opening Line: “Mason City. To get there you follow Highway 58 going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it.”
The Meaning: The title is taken from the Humpty Dumpty nursery and is very telling if you know that line from the poem: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty back together again.”
Highlights: These characters…oh, these characters. I’ve read novels with a lot of flat characters while journeying through the Time list, but All The King’s Men isn’t one of them. From Willie Stark to Jack Burden, Anne Stanton and Adam Stanton, and Tiny Duffy. These are some of strongest, most memorable characters I’ve come across in a novel.
Lowlights: The pacing in the novel is slow. It feels about 200 pages too long, and that is owed to Robert Penn Warren’s wordy and descriptive style. Sometimes while reading I wanted to politely ask him, “Would you just get to the point?”
Memorable Line: “And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”
Final Thoughts: All The King’s Men is the most accurate political novel I’ve ever read. I’m now a big fan of this novel, and I would definitely read it again. Sure, Warren isn’t the most concise writer, but he’s a superb storyteller and he crafts some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered in a book. I would highly recommend this one.