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All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

December 2, 2012


I decided to listen to the audiobook of All the King’s Men as the presidential election was approaching. It’s rated #36 on the Modern Library’s Greatest Novels and is considered one of the greatest political novels of all time. It won the Pullitzer Prize in 1947.

The narrator is Jack Burden, an intelligent but cynical former newspaperman who works as the assistant to Willie Stark, a fiery, populist governor of an unnamed southern state. Though Stark is similar in many ways to Louisiana governor Huey Long [1928-1932], Warren denied that they were the same. “Willie was only himself, whatever that self turned out to be,” he said in 1964. What Willie turns out to be is a corrupt governor who will resort to anything—dirty politics, bribery, blackmail—to accomplish his goals and protect his power. He occupies the governor’s mansion as a twisted form of his young, idealistic self, believing that the end justifies whatever means because there is only bad in the world, until someone takes that badness and makes good out of it. “Do you know what good comes out of? Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else.”

Burden, too, is a fascinating character. He is born into an aristocratic family (his hometown, Burden’s Landing, is named for his family) who is not pleased by his association with the Stark machine. Jack has developed a hardened, amoral cynicism. He turns a blind eye to some of the corruption but serves Stark loyally, using his skills as a researcher to dig up blackmail fodder for the boss. At the same time, he’s a thinker at heart, a philosopher constantly asking himself big, existential questions and coming up with theories about man’s motivation and how responsible a man is for the events he sets in motion.

This notion of responsibility, of whether it is right or wrong to take part in a morally corroded system because it is the only option if one wants to take part, is a central theme of the novel. As is the tendency of power to corrupt even the most pure of ideals. It is not an optimistic worldview that Warren lays out, yet he does it with such poetry and elegance that it is beautiful even in its wretchedness. And the novel operates masterfully on both the human and political levels. Sixty-five years after its publication, its themes of civic ideals as well as individual ideals are as relevant and true as they were then. I’ll have to let it sink in for a little longer before placing it on my list of favorite novels, but it definitely deserves consideration. I haven’t come across such masterful storytelling in quite some time.

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