‘All the King’s Men’ by Robert Penn Warren

1946, [reprint 1974], 479 p.

You have to hand it to New English Library publications – they have the most hideous covers. (I’m not the only one who thinks this: check out this posting on ‘Risque and Exploitative New English Library Covers from the 1960s and 70s‘. I now realize that the cover of this book is positively tasteful in comparison.) There are many other editions of this Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, originally published in 1946, but it was republished ‘Complete and Unabridged’ for a British readership in 1974. I’ve had in on my shelf for years and no doubt picked it up at some fete or something, having seen it mentioned on several people’s lists of ‘Great American Novels’ or suchlike. I really had no idea what it was about

From the blurb on the back, and the 1974 introduction, I learned that it was loosely based on Huey Long, who was planning on challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1936, but was gunned down by an assassin the year before. I had heard mention of Huey Long in passing, in one of the excellent Heather Cox Richardson’s history chats, but I only knew him as a corrupt populist. I resisted the temptation to Google him, and I’m glad that I did, because I just took this book on its own merits.

The Huey Long character in this book is Willie Stark, a man who starts off as a small-town ‘squeaky wheel’ agitating for a straight deal to build a new schoolhouse in his town. He ends up Mason County City Treasurer, and it’s at this point that he meets Jack Burden, a journalist for the local Chronicle newspaper. Burden is a failed PhD candidate, brought up in the small town named for his family, Burden’s Landing. Burden starts following Stark’s career, as he takes on the entrenched political machine. At first Stark is unsuccessful and used as a pawn in other people’s political machinations. He is a poor public speaker, too focussed on facts. Burden gives him some off-the-cuff advice and Willie Stark, the populist politician and political boss is born.

Burden believes that he can be just a disinterested observer, like the historian he aspired to be, but he finds himself drawn into Stark’s orbit. When Stark asks him to ‘find some dirt’ on Judge Irwin, an older family friend from Jack’s hometown Burden Landing, Jack complies, although at first he holds on to the information that he uncovers. Jack’s childhood friends Anne and Adam Stanton are also drawn into Willie Stark’s machinations, and it is the compromises that Jack asks them to make at Willie’s behest, that leads to the climax of the novel.

This is a novel just as much about Jack Burden as narrator as it is about Willie Stark, the ostensible main character. It is about populism, power and political games, and I can well see why so many people have seen parallels with Trump, another populist ‘outsider’ to Washington. It’s also about history and personal choice, ethics and compromise. It reminded me a little of The Great Gatsby, with its narrator off to the side as Nick Carraway is, and also of Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory in its exploration of politics and power.

It really is beautifully written. Warren is a confident author, with convoluted but always controlled sentences and an incisive eye. How about his description of a man who has just been shafted by Willie Stark? “[His eyes] were as numb and expressionless as a brace of gray oysters on the half shell”.(P. 155) [I shall not look at oysters the same way again!]

The book was written in 1946, echoing events which had occurred ten years earlier, so it was a contemporary book that, for us as 21st century readers, is set in an earlier time. As a contemporary author, however, Warren feels no need to set up the stage as in a historical fiction. It is jolting, however, to encounter the frequent and unembarrassed use of n—– and an insouciant racism that would disqualify it instantly as a school text.

Because, surprisingly, that’s what it has been. My hideously-covered book belonged to ‘A Major’ of 6C, (Form 6 later became Yr 12), and from his/her notes at the front, the book was obviously read. It is 479 pages of very dense print, and I just can’t imagine that you would ask any 17 year old to read it today, notwithstanding the racist language.

This was the ‘complete and unabridged’ version. The earlier version, for American readers, omitted a long chapter about Jack Burden’s PhD thesis. Even though if found it personally interesting, the book would not have suffered from its omission.

I can see why this book has appeared on ‘100 Best American Novel’ lists. It is well written, it has a complex chronological structure, and it carries its dual main-character nature well. It might have sat on my bookshelf for years, but it was well worth keeping and reading.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: My own bookshelves!

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