All The King’s Men

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

The New York Times called it: “The definitive novel about American politics.” It is seen as a roman a clef, whose hero, Willie Stark, is said to have been based on the Louisiana governor and Senator Huey Long. But I would call All The King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer in 1947, an autobiographical novel where the politics is secondary to the personal element. It is as much about the narrator, Jack Burden, as it is about his “Boss”, Willie Stark.

Of course, there is politics –- and plenty of it –- since Burden is friend, confidant and aide to Willie Stark, a small-town politician who becomes a powerful, populist governor. We see Stark’s rise to power and his transformation from a bumbling idealist to a cynical manipulator who is prepared to sup with the devil to achieve his aim, which is to help the poor and perpetuate his own power.

Naturally he is resented by the old elite, who see their own power and influence slipping away. Conflict is inevitable with dire consequences. 

All The King’s Men is a double tragedy. There is the tragedy of Willie Stark. But what gives the novel poignancy — and turns it into an oedipal conflict — is Burden’s story. Working for Stark, he finds himself at odds with his family and friends. He discovers to his pain how little he knew about them. But, just like Oedipus, he doesn’t realise what he has done until it’s too late. Yet even then he doesn’t blame the “Boss” for the tragedy. For this was a secret known only to three people on earth.

There are surprises, ambiguities, very complex emotions at work in this big novel with a memorable cast of characters. It is unpretentious, unliterary, but deeply felt and all the more poetic for that. It may be “the definitive novel about American politics”, but it is also about a young man’s loss of innocence -– and the upright men and beautiful women who populated his world before he went to work for the “Boss” and the scales fell from his eyes. But even when he sees their real selves, that does not make them any less attractive but all too human.

Oh, did I say this novel is set in the South? What is it about the South that produces such moving stories? If there is any moral to the story, it is simply this: Idealism can be destructive; live and let live.

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