Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is an American classic. First published in 1946 the novel details the life of Jack Burden and his relationship with the meteoric politician, Willie Stark. Set in the 1930s American South the novel is a non-linear retelling of Burden's life, from his boyhood growing up in Burden's Landing to his first meeting with Stark and the conclusion of their relationship. While definitively a piece of political fiction the story, like most political stories, is about the personal relationships of the people at the heart of the drama. Warren's small cast are all connected to one another and their actions damage and ricochet ending in unexpected outcomes.

Given the non-linear nature of the story any sort of summary is difficult, but I will do my best. Jack Burden is a capable but idle man, born of privilege but without ambition. He has wiled away his youth and in college spent some time studying history and the law before dropping out. He worked odd jobs in journalism and politics finding not much satisfaction in either. A cynical, weary Burden meets Willie Stark, then a minor official from a poor, backcountry county.

William Stark enters the story as a teetotaling, straight-edged minor figure. He seeks bond money to build a new school for the county and works hard to keep graft out of the process. He fails and the contract is awarded to a construction outfit with poor performance. The school collapses and Stark is hailed as a hero for warning the community of the problem. Years later Stark's notoriety is parlayed by the rival political machines to turn him into a dummy candidate to steal votes away from a rival. Burden reveals the nature of the scam to Stark, he gets roaring drunk and delivers a firebrand populist speech to the waiting crowd, far different from his normal dull, policy wonk lectures. Stark uses his leverage to sway the election to his opponent and when  he fails successfully runs for the governorship himself. Jack Burden is by his side for the journey.

Most associate Willie Stark as an interpretation of Huey Long and the unnamed state as Louisiana. Stark is a cynical populist with a left-wing agenda. Given Stark and Huey Long's reputation I expected to hate Willie when I began with the book, but I found myself incredibly sympathetic to his point of view. Perhaps that is the nature of the opposition to Stark. Warren doesn't criticize Stark through liberal characters, but instead those with a vested interests to maintain the status quo. Jack Burden is a man of privilege and his family and friends find Stark's rough demeanour and treatment of business and the upper-class deplorable. I cannot help but think that many modern leftist readers would end up feeling great sympathy for Stark who in my eyes transformed from assumed villain to tragic hero brought down by his own flaws.

Politics is about relationships and the dynamics between a small group of people. This is ultimately what destroys Willie and, to a lesser extent, Jack Burden. I appreciate that the novel showed how intimately all these people were connected to one another. Another aspect of the story is reconciling one's past. Burden's central mission in the first half of the novel is to investigate the past of a family friend and mentor, Judge Irwin. In the process he explores his own past, his mother's, and Stark's. The theme of the burden of the past is ever-present in the story. Secrets, betrayals and decisions haunt people on and on forever and return as ghosts to those it impacts indirectly.

Reading this novel in 2017 raised some interesting questions. It was a very different form of populism than we are currently used to. At the same time, Stark's strong-arm political methods are becoming increasingly familiar. In light of recent events it is perhaps worthwhile to explore this novel now if you have not already. Regardless it offers a fascinating snapshot into America's past and politics. 

No comments: