Thursday, 9 April 2015

Lev Butts Reviews All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren



Don't let the new edition fool you;
this is the version that won a Pulitzer.  
When I was a grad student working on my Masters of English degree, I met the man who would become one of my most important academic/professional mentors, Dr. Randy Hendricks (Ha! bet you thought I was going to say Richard Monaco, didn't you? Hang in there).

Dr. Hendricks was (and is) everything I ever hope to be as an English professor: soft-spoken, encouraging, brilliant, a literary memory like a steel trap, and one hell of a funny guy after a few drinks. Every grad student I knew wanted to be just like him when we finished our programs. 

He was (and is) a Warren scholar, and in an attempt to jump start a conversation with him one night after class (I was taking a Melville course from him) I asked him what I should read if I wanted to read Warren. He recommended I start with All the King's Men.

This book tells the story of the political rise and fall and the moral decline and rebirth of Willie Stark, an idealistic hick who eventually becomes the corrupt governor of Louisiana during the Depression. It also tells the story of Jack Burden, Willie's friend whose primary job is to blackmail Willie's opponents, his descent into world-weary cynicism, and his eventual acceptance of his world and its flaws. While the story ostensibly follows Jack Burden's attempt to dig up blackmail material on his godfather, Judge Irwin, the plot, in good noir fashion, quickly spirals into mystery after mystery. How did the judge get his money? Why did Jack's father leave his mother? As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the every aspect of Jack's life is interwoven with Stark's career: "The story of Willie Stark, " Jack claims at one point, "and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story."

Willie Stark is equal parts Huey Long and Julius Ceasar. Jack Burden owes much to Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and other hard-boiled heroes of the 1930's pulp magazines. Their story, though uniquely Southern, is also uniquely human.

As a Warren scholar myself, I realize this plot summary does not begin to do justice to the rich plot and intricate philosophical themes of this political novel, but it's the best I can do without giving away too much. 

All the King's Men, is not my favorite Warren novel (that honor goes to his next novel, World Enough and Time), but it is the one I come back to the most. It's also the one that I, like Dr. Hendricks before me, recommend to anyone who wants to read Warren's work.

Avoid this edition, though. "Restored" here does not mean" put 
back into its intended form." Here the publishers intend its less 
common definition: "fancy word so you'll buy the book twice;
actually it's mostly a rough draft."