Time Reading Program: All the King’s Men

Cover illustration by Jerome Martin

Cover illustration by Jerome Martin

I am surfacing again after a long, slow, delicious reading of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. What a gem this book is! I can see why it won the Pulitzer in 1947 and why it is still well-known today — although I think it deserves to be more widely read.

Penn Warren was one of the great writers of the early 20th century, and a distinctly Southern one. All the King’s Men is certainly his best-known and most important novel, but he was also a poet and won two more Pulitzer’s for his poetry. I believe he remains one of the only writers to have won the P for both poetry and fiction. He was also a member of a critical literary movement called the New Criticism. Briefly put, the New Criticism movement advocated close reading of a text, relying on an understanding of the words and structure to give meaning, rather than framing a piece of writing in external context such as history, the author’s biography, or aesthetic judgments such as beauty.

Considering Penn Warren’s participation in the New Criticism movement, it’s not surprising that he consistently resisted the equally consistent comparison of the central character in All the King’s Men, Willie Stark, to the controversial Louisiana governor Huey Long. However, in the introduction to the TRP edition, Warren acknowledges being influenced by the myth of Huey Long–though notes that he wrote the book first in dramatic verse in shade of an olive tree in Umbria, Italy.

Like Long, Willie Stark is portrayed as a populist politician (or perhaps a demagogue) whose high-minded championing of the everyman with public works programs, a hospital, education reform, etc. was often the result of unsavory political strong-arming behind the scenes. Willie Stark’s intentions are generally good, but how he gets things done is dubious if not downright illegal. Blackmail is one of his favorite tactics.

While the story of ATKM revolves around Willie Stark, the main character is really our first person narrator Jack Burden. Jack, works for Willie as his right-hand man, digging up dirt and greasing the wheels for Willie’s constant politicking. Jack grows up in the eponymous Burden’s Landing where he is raised in a kind of alienated comfort by his mother and a series of wealthy husbands/stepfathers. His mentor is an upstanding judge, and his best friends are the siblings Adam and Anne Stanton, children of the former governor. Despite his genteel upbringing, Jack takes a rather “dirty” career path, first as a newspaperman and then as Willie’s aide. What he experiences as Willie’s dirt digger leaves him cynical and wounded to point of emotional numbness, something the author calls the Great Twitch, one of the recurring themes of the novel. His inner transformation and reconciliation of the Twitch deeply involves all the characters I have mentioned.

Even though the novel is hailed by critics as THE political novel on which all political novels are based, I found the book to be as much about love and family relationships (particularly father-son) as politics — though in the hands of Willie Stark they may be one in the same. The characters feel like they stepped from an old 40s movie of the very best kind — Jack, replete in rumpled suits and probably a two-day shadow, has a bit of swagger and devil-may-care about him which hides his wounded, confused core. Willie is a dogged, unassuming man who can light up like a theatrical spotlight with when publicly speaking or delivering his particular brand of persuasion. And the women are tightly drawn, self-contained, and enigmatic.

At the same time I was reading ATKM, I started reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Prose also advocates close reading, and her discussion moves from an examination and appreciation of the construction of a fine sentence to an exceptional paragraph, to character development, dialogue and beyond. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it seemed serendipitous that I was reading the sections about sentences and paragraphs just as I started ATKM. Prose gives examples of several very long, circuitous sentences and describes their effectiveness and and nuance. I found many of these in ATKM which I savored with newfound appreciation. The same is true for paragraphs. The opening of ATKM hurtles you at full speed into the novel as the narrator is hurtled down the highway to a Willie Stark public speaking scene. It’s a remarkable opening. My memory of reading it is akin to being strapped to the radiator of a car going full speed down a rural highway and then delivered, breathless, into the dust of a hot, rural Southern town.

There are many, many quotable sentences and sections in ATKM. My copy is ruffled with sticky notes. Uncharacteristically, I also had to look up many unfamiliar words and kept a running list on my bookmark. These comments about long sentences and unusual vocabulary might give you the impression that the book is hard to read — it’s not at all. Its’ quite engaging, but it really does, somehow, demand to be savored, sentences reread, words looked-up, and sections lingered over.

Prose advocates creating a book shelf where you keep novels that are examples of spectacular writing that you can pick up and find inspiration in from time to time. All the King’s Men will be the first on mine.

Great sentence:

She wasn’t going to add the weight of her thumb to what closely resembled a tidy package of disaster lying on the scales with blood seeping through the brown paper.

A crazy-long great sentence (note the cow):

A month from now, in early April, at the time when far away, outside the city, the water hyacinths would be covering every inch of bayou, lagoon, creek, and backwater with a spiritual-mauve to obscene-purple, violent, vulgar, fleshy solid throttling mass of bloom over the black water, and the fist heat-breaking, misty green, like girlhood dreams, on the old cypresses would have settled down to be leaf and not a damned thing else, and the arm-thick, mud-colored, slime-slick moccasins would heave out of the swamp and try to cross the highway and your front tire hitting one would give a slight bum and make a sound like ker-whush and a tinny thump when he slapped heavily against the underside of the fender, and the insects would come boiling out of the swamps and say and night the whole air would vibrate with them with a sound like an electric fan, and if it was night the owls back in the swamps would be whoo-ing and moaning like love and death and damnation, or one would sail out of the pitch dark into the rays of your headlights and plunge against the radiator to explode like a ripped feather bolster, and the fields would be deep in that rank, hairy or slick, juicy, sticky grass which the cattle gorge on and never get flesh over their ribs for that grass is in that black soil and no matter how far the roots could ever go, if the roots were God knows how deep, there would never be anything but that black, grease-clotted soil and no stone down there to put calcium into that grass–well, a month from now in, in early April, when all those things would be happening beyond the suburbs, the husks of old houses in the street where Anne Stanton and I were walking would, if it were evening, crack and spill out onto the stoops and into the street all that life which was now sealed up within.

Great string of sentences (yes, the man had a thing for cows, decay, and adjectives):

Between the regularly spaced oaks stood pedestals on which classical marbles–draped and undraped, male and female, stained by weathers and leaf acid and encroaching lichen, looking as though they had, in fact, sprouted dully out of the clinging black-green humus below them–stared out an the passer-by with the faintly pained, heavy, incurious amazement of cattle. The gaze of those marble eyes must have been the first stage in the treatment the neurotic got when he came out of the sanatorium. It must have been like smearing a cool unguent of time on the hot pustule and dry itch of the soul.

Great paragraph (and shorter than the one sentence) which also shows how Penn Warren tends to repeat words and phrases in a rolling, lyric way to build to his overall description:

I studied her face. It was a beautiful face–or if not beautiful, better than beautiful, a tense, smooth, spare-modeled, finished face, and it was chalk-white in the shadow and the eyes were dark gleams. I studied her face, and for the moment just did that and let all the questions just slide away, like something dropped into the mist and water below us to slide away in the oily silence of the current.

personal copy

Copyright 1946, Robert Penn Warren
Reprinted with permission from Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
1964, Time, Incoported


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