I blame Christopher Caldwell, I really do. A few years ago, Caldwell dropped a bunker-buster of a negative review on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
All the King’s Men … won the Pulitzer Prize for Robert Penn Warren half a century ago. Since then it has been lauded as an “American classic” by two sorts of people: lachrymose Southern chauvinists, who have a stake in its themes and its lawdy-lawdy-god-amighty prose; and political junkies, who cull it for points of contact with, or divergence from, the contemporary scene. (“Like the corrupt governor Willie Stark,” begin dozens of thumb-sucking op-eds, “President Clinton has …”) All the King’s Men, in other words, is the favorite novel of those for whom novel-reading is the 26th or 27th most important thing in the world. That is the only explanation I can offer for how this lazy, long-winded piece of pseudo-intellectual palaver could have remained in print for 55 days, let alone 55 years. …
[It’s the Warren’s] Purty Language that is the most striking—and off-putting—part of the book. Sometimes it is merely the kind of gassy pontification you can find in any bad novel. (“How life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaf of the willow.”) Sometimes it is a kind of Bad Hemingway. (“But back then there was always the afternoon.”)
Most often, though, it is a kind of sloppy, metaphor-mad overexuberance peculiar to Warren: “… her face seemed to smooth itself out and relax with an inner faith in happiness the way the face of the chief engineer does when he goes down to the engine room at night and the big wheel is blurred out with its speed and the pistons plunge and return and the big steel throws are leaping in their perfect orbits like a ballet, and the whole place, under the electric glare, hums and glitters and sings like the eternal insides of God’s head, and the ship is knocking off twenty-two knots on glassy, starlit sea.”
The paired review by Erik Tarloff delivered a not much gentler verdict.
The novel’s effectiveness depends on a convincing portrayal of the nobility and villainy, courage and venality, dignity and vulgarity, of [Willie Stark]. Everything else must flow from that. We need to find him as fascinating and compelling and confusing as the novel’s characters do. We need to be continually torn between admiration and disdain. …. But we don’t get enough of it. Not nearly. …
Indeed, for a political novel, the political stuff is awfully sparse. I hesitate to suggest the novel should be longer, but the structure of the A story is at least three or four important scenes shy of wholeness. It would benefit from more wheeling and dealing on [Stark’s] part, more scenes of gritty in-the-trenches governance. And it needs at least one act of genuinely unforgivable nastiness. Otherwise, [Stark] comes across as merely a man with crude manners who wants to build better schools and a hospital for poor folks and is sometimes prepared to use ungentlemanly tactics in order to achieve these worthy ends.
These searing verdicts prodded me to reread a book I’d long loved – but also frightened me away. What if they were right? Better not to know.
Then Audible.com released an audio version of the book, and I realized: I had to try again.
Verdict? I have to concede the validity of every one of the prosecution’s arguments. And yet in the end … the decision goes to the defense.
In some ways, things are even worse than Caldwell and Tarloff say. I learned from them that Robert Penn Warren had originally intended to name his corrupt southern governor not Willie Stark, but Willie Talos. This is very bad news. Talos calls to mind the Greek word, “telos,” meaning goal, purpose or destination, and a word used by Greek philosophers to refer to man’s ultimate purpose in living. This is very heavy-handed indeed, especially when Willie’s name is contrasted to that of the narrator: Jack Burden – the “burden” here being the burden of the past, and indeed Jack is sadly burdened by his. A failed historian, a renegade from his genteel family, prevented by guilt and propriety from consummating his passion for the woman he loves even as she lies naked on his bed, Jack Burden seeks his “telos” in Willie Stark. Instead, he finds corruption and betrayal. Stark steals Burden’s desired woman and sets in motion a complicated plot that makes Burden the instrument of a man he discovers only too late to be his own father.
Along the way, Warren offers many observations about the contrast between past and future, the man of mind and the man of action, God and humanity. The influence of T.S. Eliot lies heavy upon these pages, much too heavy.
But not only Eliot. When Jack Burden narrates, he sounds like one of the hardboiled tough guys so popular in 1940s detective stories: like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe perhaps, Marlowe with a few too many drinks in him and his mean streak showing. Burden may be obsessed with the past, but he lacks an ordinary conscience. After triggering his father’s death under circumstances that make the story of Oedipus look like an unfortunate happenstance, Burden accepts the inheritance of the man’s house and money without qualm or question. This complacency is not Burden’s, but the author’s – just as the novel’s lack of interest in the black people who serve the main characters their meals and drinks is a blindness not only of the characters, but of the author too.
So how can I defend this flawed work? I defend it because despite everything it remains magnificent, an evocation of a vanished South before air conditioning, before highways, before standardized hotels and restaurants, before civil rights, before prosperity drew people away from their farms and crossroads towns to cities and suburbs. And for all the lines and lineaments missing from the portrait of Willie Stark – he still stands there, alive and real, a model of how politics works and a warning of how it goes wrong. We never see Stark do anything supremely evil, but we are left in no doubt that he can and does. In one of his climactic speeches, he charms a crowd, then incites them, and ends by promising “buckets of blood” and shouting: “Give me a meat-axe!” You feel who he is even without being shown.
And you feel too the baffled goodness in him, the desire to do right – a desire so strong that it leads Stark to trample all rules and law – and of course it is Stark’s trampling of rules and law that also prevents him from doing right in any enduring way. The one great good deed that he intends to atone for everything, a free hospital for the poor, becomes the occasion for some of the worst actions in the book: bribery, blackmail, and ultimately Stark’s own assassination. You can’t defend All the King’s Men against its critics. Everything they say is true, so far as it goes. But nothing goes far enough to obliterate this book’s merits: Its portrait of politics and people, of town squares and village courthouses that have vanished into time and of the maneuvering and manipulating that will continue as long as democracy itself. Perhaps that’s why All the King’s Men so enduringly fascinates people who work in politics. This is American politics, not exactly as it is, but as we all fear it might be.
And also to some degree … as we hope it might be. As Caldwell notes, Stark is often described as “corrupt,” but he is not, not exactly. True, by the time he becomes governor he has picked up some money and put aside his country boy Puritanism to indulge himself in whisky and women. True too, he tolerates a certain degree of graft in those around him. But only a certain degree: We see him crush a state official he catches in outright theft. We see him appoint a crusading attorney general who wages legal battles against the big interest groups that had previously owned the state legislature. We see him resisting pressures to assign construction contracts on political grounds. And we come to see that Stark’s high-toned political opponents are more corrupt – at least more financially corrupt – than he.
The great Gothic plot turn of the book has Jack Burden unearthing a secret in the past of Judge Irwin, his mentor and guardian. This secret drives Irwin to suicide, after which Burden discovers that Irwin was his true father. Irwin is brave and upright, a man who can face down a gun-brandishing criminal without a twinge, who shrugs off Stark’s most sinister threats, who continues the grand Bourbon political traditions celebrated in the bronze statues on the Statehouse lawn. One other thing though: Twenty years before, Irwin took a bribe in order to preserve his genteel plantation lifestyle from the debt collector.
Stark never does anything remotely like that. His fortune is made, as best we can tell, from John Edwards style jury swaying. Not a high-toned livelihood, but all within the law. It is political power he seeks, not great wealth, and he seeks power in order to achieve a social welfare agenda that Warren accepts as laudable. The moral question posed by the novel is that of good ends pursued by wicked means.
When I said that Warren depicts politics as we hope it might be, it is this wrenching moral paradox that I had in mind. Good ends/bad means is an issue to inspire deep thought and intense feeling. In real life, however, the ends are seldom so very fine and the means are rarely so very wicked. The compromises are squalid rather than desperate; the achievements more uncertain and dependent on point of view.
For all of Warren’s flaunted cynicism about politics, at his core he thrills to a Progressive/Populist vision of politics as a struggle of “the people versus the interests.” Warren’s cynicism leads him to expect the people to be betrayed. It leads him to fear that the only way the interests can be defeated is by adopting their own (hypothetically) brutal methods. Had Warren ever questioned this primitive political scheme, he might have confronted Burden with a less melodramatic moral dilemma. And yet it’s the melodrama that endows the book with its enduring appeal. Better dark than dull!