My immediate reaction to All the King’s Men was that Robert Penn Warren’s profoundly vivid prose is more akin to music than text, and experiencing his story makes one realize that reading other books is like listening to music in mono. A quick taste:
“The season was like the fine big-breasted daughter of some poor spavined share-cropper, a girl popping her calico but still having a waist, with pink cheeks and bright eyes and just a little perspiration at the edge of her tow hair (which would be platinum blond in some circles), but you see her and know that before long she will be a bag of bone and gristle with a hag face like a rusted brush hook.”
Warren’s strength as a writer aside, the story of Willie Stark—the Boss—is one of humanity, more so than politics. While many would be turned away from a story that is billed as “The definitive novel about American politics” within 1920’s deep south (as I was), a few chapters quickly dismisses any hesitation.
Jack Burden, the story’s narrator, brings the reader into the personal life of Stark, a highly charismatic, morally ambiguous politician nicknamed, aptly, The Boss. At times the story focuses on Jack’s personal life and philosophy; at other times the story shifts to the Boss’s interaction with those around him and his desire to enrich (or at least propagate the perception of enriching) the lives of the populace he serves. Both are fascinating in their perceptivity, depth and wit—i.e., “I was traveling through the part where the flat-footed, bilious, frog-sticker-toting Baptist biscuit-eaters live.”
In terms of the basic storyline, Jack accompanies the Boss through a variety of political struggles as his ‘student of history’, digging up proof of moral impurity (or as Jack likes to call the Truth) which is used to insure political supremacy by ruining opponents at the hands of threats and bribes. Luckily for the Boss, “man is prone to evil as the sparks fly upward,” and Jack has an obsession with unearthing the effect vices of “ambition, love, fear, money” upon his contemporaries. However, in the end, we are shown that the Boss’s ambitious desires and golden elocution only serve to forestall comprehension of his own vices.
Jack, on the other hand, is less concerned with power, and instead lives by a starkly nihilistic philosophy called ‘Great Twitch’, or the “dream that all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve.” In the ultimate test of his viewpoint, Jack is asked to dig up dirt on his Father, and in the process ends up directly responsible for his death. Needless to say, his philosophy fails the test, and Jack’s nihilistic Dream remains as such. After these events, Warren is clear in emphasizing that while human experience is imprisoned within an unrelenting morally neutral, constantly changing world, it is framed by “the agony of will.” He adds that only through blood do we fully understand that “history is blind, but man is not.”
While championing the agony of the will, Warren takes great pains through the Boss to put forth the argument that what we call Progress requires a mixture of both ‘good’ and some measure of lying/cheating/stealing, defying society’s notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ In support of his point, Warren posits that the works of man, regardless of their original intention, can be beneficial to society. “A thing is good in itself—if it is good. A guy gets ants in his pants and writes a sonnet. Is the sonnet less of a good—if it’s good, which I doubt—because the dame he got the ants over happened to be married to somebody else, so that his passion, as they say, was illicit?”
What did you think of this review?