All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winner, is considered a modern classic for good reason.
First published in 1946, it intertwines the stories of Willie Stark, a fiery populist based on real world Louisiana politician Huey “Kingfish” Long, who rises from obscurity to become a controversial state governor, and narrator Jack Burden, an ex-newspaperman from a “good” family who becomes Stark’s closest aide and confidante. Moving fluidly back and forth between eras (mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s), the story charts the dramatic intersection of the men’s lives, as events lead to a seemingly inevitable tragedy.
The two things most people will note about All the King’s Men, that’s it’s a story about Willie Stark and American politics, are perhaps not quite as central to the book as they would appear. Certainly Willie’s rise to power and controversial political career are the engine that drive much of Warren’s plot; he looms over the proceedings, even during the long stretches when he’s not on the page. As for politics, the complexities of that world are certainly a key part of the overall mix.
But All the King’s Men is just as much Jack’s story as Willie’s, if not more so. As the narrator and gateway to this world (Warren went out of his way never to actually say the book was set in Louisiana, though all indications point to it), readers get a deeper insight into Jack than of any of the other colorful characters populating the cast. The author spends a lot of time tracing Jack’s path from his privileged childhood to his role as the right hand of the most powerful man in their state. Lengthy, beautifully-crafted digressions explore various eras of Jack’s life, particularly his relationships with siblings Adam and Anne Stanton and wary co-existence with his complicated mother. Willie has a significant impact on Jack and Jack’s ruminations are the mechanism for the viewer to learn key information about Willie’s life and rise to power, the two men’s lives eventually becoming inextricably intertwined. Various plots turns provide some high class soap opera moments, but much of the lengthy page count is far from plot-driven, exploring Jack’s contrary psyche and Willie’s subtly encroaching influence. It’s a well-balanced character study that requires both Jack and Willie, and their difficult connection, to succeed.
And while the world of politics provides the backdrop, with several scenes of shrewdly observed details about the ups and downs of the sometimes unsavory political lifestyle, the novel is about much more than that. Its stories and characters transcend their specifics to sketch a portrait of the American South at a key turning point in its history, when the region was still trying shake off the ghosts of its infamous past but hadn’t quite yet made the jump to modernity. Warren’s elegant prose crafted a vivid tableau that gave readers some crucial insights into a particular time and place, subtly dramatizing the tensions between a past whose dark underbelly was unavoidable and a future as yet not clearly defined.
And the writing is gorgeous. The late Warren was a gifted crafter of sentences, never rushing the pacing or failing to stop to shine a light on intriguing corners of a very specific corner of the world. The overall effect of the writing is rich and enveloping, making the author’s frequent digressions into the past or the lives of minor characters welcome developments and not distractions.
Its stature and reputation notwithstanding, it’s not difficult to understand why All the King’s Men has frequently found itself on banned book lists. The book’s rather straightforward approach to matters of sex, including adultery, were surprisingly frank for the time of its initial publication and would be enough to give pause to some parents of younger readers. More troubling for others would be the book’s period-accurate depiction of racial attitudes and free usage of various epithets that are understandably hurtful to many readers. But those elements are necessary to provide an accurate portrait of the time and place dramatized, and to show that the region Warren was exploring still had a long to go in terms of evolving into modernity. While awareness of elements that readers could find problematic is appropriate, they’re also necessary to understanding the characters and their environment.
All the King’s Men is a definitively American tale that’s as worth reading seven decades on as it was when it was first published.