Robert Penn Warren: All the King’s Men

There are those books out there that one hears of frequently but has no desire to read. All the King’s Men (1946) was one of those for me. Nevertheless, one day my interest was piqued by the “Restored Edition” put together from the original notes by Noel Polk, textual editor of the works of William Faulkner, and published in 2001. Polk has an editorial afterword in which he explains some of the differences between this version and the one published in 1946. One obvious difference is that the infamous name of Willie Stark has been changed back to Warren’s original: Willie Talos. A less obvious change, and one I’m personally thankful for since I think Warren has a better feel than his editors, is the replacement of passages deleted to make sure the novel conformed to the era’s sense of “taste.” For example, this sentence, written by the intense, jaded James Burden: “To hell with Adam, I told myself, did he think he could put lead seals on his sister’s drawers. Hell, somebody had probably hosed her already.” Burden says this in retrospect, and it is a very ironic statement, not simple prurience. Now, I haven’t read the original version and cannot comment on whether this restoration is really warranted. I can say, however, that reading the book is.

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As I said above, I never wanted to read this. Seeing this edition, however, I pulled it from the shelf and read the first paragraph, which, incidentally, is different from the original’s, which I have since read and which did not pull me in. But here we have the restored version:

You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of your neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lord Gawd, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!” And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull-and-cross-bones. Later in love-vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.

Here we meet one of my favorite narrators, Jack Burden, riding in the car with his boss, the governor and political powerhouse Willie Talos (or Stark for most of you). Jack’s job: to dig up dirt on people in Willie’s way. Warren’s gifts in poetry (he is the only author to have won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — for this book — and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) are used to great effect to introduce Burden, a jaded former history student. He reminds me of one of my other favorite narrators, Nathan Zuckerman, both equally capable of saying, “Goodbye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.”

But first, let’s look at what I think is the pseudo-subject of the novel: Willie the politician. After rising up from nowhere as a young idealist, now that Willie is in power, he has let it overtake him. Now corrupt, it’s much less about the politics and much more about kickbacks and maintaining power in the power game.

“My God, you talk like Byram was human! He’s a thing! You don’t prosecute an adding machine if a spring goes bust and makes a mistake. You fix it. Well, I fixed Byram. I fixed him so his unborn great-grand-children will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why. Boy, it will be the shock in the genes, and their teeth will be set on edge. Hell, Byram is just something you use, and he’ll sure be useful from now on.”

Jack Burden watches in awe as his larger-than-life boss dominates every relationship he enters. Indeed, Willie is an interesting character, and Warren draws him up well. There are moments we truly feel pity for him and wish him well along with moments when we begin to plan our own assassination attempts.

But to me the true subject, and a far more interesting subject, is Burden himself. Once a history student who quit because he got a bit to close to some unattainable truth, he now delves into other’s pasts for Willie. However, as disinterested as he is, he can never completely separate his own existence and identity from his ventures into the past. Burden’s struggle to come to grips with his own identity in a world he despises enough that he doesn’t care to help even when he can are by far Warren’s most penetrating insights. It is in these passages that Warren lets his poetic pen slip into the stream of his prose:

There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is who you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.

But Jack’s philosophical meanderings don’t deal with identity only. While attempting to complete his first major venture into the past, this time for a research project at school, Jack comes upon philosophical realizations that make him quit out of fear and adopt his uncaring attitude about his and other people’s lives. Now called upon to do another large venture into the past to find some dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins to distinguish between facts and truth. Judge Irwin played a large role in Jack’s youth; indeed, Jack’s past includes most of the book’s central characters: his lost love Anne Stanton, her brother Adam, and Judge Irwin himself. And Jack is now smart enough, or at least cynical enough, to know that the people he knew in the past no longer exist but that the actions of the past have ramifications that ripple out forever:

The friend of your youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore, speaks a name — Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave — which belongs to that now non-existent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger.

As the book marches and flows on, the stories of Willie and Jack dance around each other and the whole of the novel is a powerful look at human nature and corruption. Notice I haven’t said a lot about politics, though this is considered the preeminent novel on American politics. In fact, Willie is based on real life governor Huey P. Long. Sure, politics is in the mix, but Warren’s book is not so limited.

19 thoughts on “Robert Penn Warren: All the King’s Men

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    A most interesting, and useful, review that convinces me this is a book that I don’t need to read. I’m certainly glad that you liked it.

  2. Glad to help in any way I can, Kevin! I guess my job is to push people off the fence, even if it’s in an unintended direction!

  3. KevinfromCanada says:

    Actually, convincing me that I don’t want to read the book is a significant aid — think how much time you have saved me for other books.

  4. And I definitely benefit from your reading, Kevin. I’ll gladly clear your schedule for you so you can bring good books to my attention.

    By the way, when looking at Javier Marias’s novels I found Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (with an awful cover that makes it look like a book based on a fantasy computer game). The premise looks really interesting and it has good reviews – have you checked it out yet? Any good?

  5. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’ve looked at it, but haven’t read it. I’m waiting for the final volume of Your Face Tomorrow (now apparently scheduled for July) and will probably follow that with this book. Marias is confusing enough to follow that I don’t want to upset the trilogy. I’d be interested in your opinion of Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me if you do read it.

  6. I know I would have bought it if not for the awful pixellated cover and gothic font. I’ll have to get around that!

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    I just found the cover — it really is terrible. That’s strange because the other covers from his North American publisher (and it is the same one) are quite good.

  8. John Self says:

    Marias was originally published in the UK by Harvill Press, so a good or at least elegant cover was more or less guaranteed. Here’s the edition I remember seeing in the shops a dozen or so years back. The current UK edition is a variation on the same illustration. Agree that the US one is pretty bad.

    Trevor, I think I mentioned elsewhere that I started reading All the King’s Men last year – Christmas 07 in fact – when it was released as a Penguin Modern Classic in the UK. I didn’t get far though, and I am afraid I didn’t keep the book so I can’t even discover if that was the ‘restored’ edition. The opening paragraph you quote is familiar though. Do you know if the original edition was completely different in its opening, or just a variation on this? (Which would help me work out if the UK edition was the restored one.) Either way I am unlikely to revisit it soon, but it would be nice to know!

  9. Do you know if the original edition was completely different in its opening, or just a variation on this?

    The original edition’s first chapter is different in it arrangement and syntax, but I think the first paragraph is more or less the same. It is different in some subtle ways, however, and I like the restored edition’s subtle differences better. For example, I like the repetition “coming at you and at you,” which is edited out of the original.

    I tried to look on Amazon.co.uk to see if your edition was the restored one and I can’t tell. When I click on the “look inside” button, it takes me to a facsimile of the cover of my restored edition. Hmmmm. I also looked at the two reviews and both refer to Willie as Willie Stark, though one acknowledges that he was Willie Talos in Warren’s original manuscript. So no real clue there either.

    By the way, for anyone interested in buying the book from Amazon.com, the non-restored currently has a bargain price of $4.99.

  10. John Self says:

    I tried to look on Amazon.co.uk to see if your edition was the restored one and I can’t tell. When I click on the “look inside” button, it takes me to a facsimile of the cover of my restored edition. Hmmmm.

    Yes I saw that too, Trevor. I hate that, particularly as I often just want to see the cover up close, and then it takes you into a different edition. Maddening!

  11. coatesn says:

    Great comments on Warren! He’s my favorite writer for some of the passages you cited (also the passage about having to open the letter because “the end of man is to know”). It’s a perfect blend of philosophy and action. Did you see the Sean Penn adaptation?

  12. What else by Warren do you like, caotesn? I have read only this, though perhaps a piece or two of his poetry has found its way to me over the years and I just don’t remember it. If other things he’s written are this good, I must find them too.

    As for the film adaptation, I didn’t see it. I rented it and watched the first five minutes of it before I turned it off because something else came up. I didn’t start it up again, though, because I didn’t like the feel of the small amount that I watched. The glossy, artsy production I saw didn’t have the right feel for me. I’m not unwilling to try it again on someone’s recommendation, but so far no one who’s seen it has said I should – quite the opposite, in fact. And I hate to spoil a good book with a poor movie, even if it has six of my favorite actors in it.

  13. Hm, unlike Kevin this has made me more inclined to read this, your work in pushing people off fences continues Trevor.

    I have the 1949 film on DVD, apparently regarded as an absolute classic though I’ve not watched it yet (and now, having an interest in the book, I have the question about whether I should before reading the work). Film remakes tend not to be so great, so I’ll probably dodge the 2006 version. That said, a quick check of wikipedia suggests it may be the more faithful. Whether fidelity to the book is a good thing in movies is an interesting question in itself, but perhaps not wholly on topic.

    Anyway, great review Trevor, I’ll take a closer look at this one.

  14. coatesn says:

    World Enough and Time is sort of epic with the same intensity of language and action. I liked Night Rider (about tobacco wars) and A Place to Come To, but I’m partial to southern novelists like Warren, Percy, etc.

    The new film is just okay…it focuses more on Jack and the old one is more about Willie. Both have some good moments.

  15. KevinfromCanada says:

    I should explain for Max that I have an aversion to fictional works (books, movies, television) about American politics. My previous life as a journalist and editor continues in the present with an attention to real-time U.S. politics (they keep starting wars and killing people). So I find that when you have a vice-president effectively running real life things from a bunker, any fictional version is a useless distraction for me. (Obviously, the last eight years have been hard on me — I am hopeful about the next four.) In no way is this a comment on the value of those creations. I’d just rather devote my “fictional” time to something more rewarding for my tastes.

  16. That makes sense Kevin, on a tangentially related note I work as a lawyer and I struggle with television and film portrayals of the profession which tend either to be accurate (and therefore uninteresting to me) or woefully innacurate (and therefore irritating).

  17. Stewart says:

    The opening paragraph from the Penguin Modern Classics edition is the same as quoted above, the only difference being that it opens “To get there you follow Highway 58…” rather than “You follow Highway 58…”

  18. Hmmm, then I don’t know what version that one is. Perhaps a restored restored version. Do you have it, Stewart? Does it say Noel Polk anywhere? Is it Stark or Talos?

  19. Stewart says:

    Nothing about Noel Polk. It’s Stark.

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