Published in 1946 “All the King’s Men” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. It tells the story of a demagogic politician who is assassinated. The fictionalized tale is loosely based on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. He, too, was assassinated.
In 1963 I was in high school. I had borrowed “All the King’s Men” from the school library in early November. It’s due date was November 22, 1963.
That day, President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I was so shocked by this coincidence that I never returned the book to the school library. I paid the school $1.85 so I could own it in perpetuity.
An odd fact was its due date – November 22, 1963 – was stamped upside down. A photo of that stamp is pictured above.
Wall Street Journal review of All the King’s Men – Michael Dirda
Half a lifetime ago, I read Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” and thought it just breathtakingly wonderful, so much so that I spent money I didn’t have to buy the 1946 first edition in a fine dust jacket. Last week I decided to reread it, partly because the book is widely viewed as our finest novel about American politics. How, I wondered, does this Pulitzer Prize winner look in the tumultuous fall of 2020?
Short answer: It’s still amazing.
As many people know, if only from the Oscar-winning 1949 movie, this is the story of Willie Stark, fictional governor of an unnamed Southern state whose political career loosely recalls that of Louisiana’s real-life Huey Long. Narrated in 1939 by Stark’s chief lieutenant, Jack Burden, the book depicts the transformation of an idealistic backwoods hick into a consummate political operator. While chronicling the rise of “the Boss,” Jack—a former newspaperman and onetime Ph.D. candidate in American history—gradually reveals pieces of his own past, notably his memories of idyllic summers spent with his childhood friends, Adam and Anne Stanton. Structurally intricate, the novel effortlessly segues back and forth among various periods of the 1920s and ’30s, climaxing in a succession of shocks and revelations. When you finish “All the King’s Men,” you feel, like its surviving characters, that your soul has been tried in the furnace.
But when you start the book, the first thing you notice is Warren’s prose, which glories in its showstopping, even showoffy magnificence and virtuosity. There are long, rolling sentences like coloratura arias and passages that would do a tent-preacher proud, as well as conversations among good ol’ boys that are sheer vulgar poetry, and, throughout, an irresistible narrative exuberance riding on an undercurrent of nostalgia and wistfulness. A smidgen of the book’s style can be heard when the Boss orders Jack to dig up some dirt on the upright Judge Irwin. What if there isn’t any? Not possible, says Willie: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
Willie Stark rises to power by reminding small-town yokels that he is one of them. He learns to retain power, however, through favors, deals, bribes, threats and blackmail. When one of his appointees turns greedy, he “fixes” the offender so well that “his unborn great-grandchildren will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why.” When threatened with impeachment, Willie rallies his supporters for a raucous protest march on the capital. He even installs his own yes-men on the state’s Supreme Court. And yet, above all else, this sweating, blubber-lipped rascal yearns to build a completely free, absolutely state-of-the-art hospital.
In this, Willie is utterly sincere. He truly wants to help folks who never got anything but promises from previous elected officials, especially ineffectual, lily-white Southern aristocrats. Unlike them, Willie is willing to get his hands dirty, sometimes very dirty. Thus Warren raises that most fundamental of political questions: Do the ends justify the means? Is Willie Stark a redneck demagogue who regularly flouts the rule of law? Or is he, as all the most sympathetic characters in the book maintain, a great man?
Not that he isn’t a flawed human being: Willie cheats on his schoolteacher wife, crows about the gridiron prowess of his oafish son, and shows himself to be nothing if not ambitious, already envisioning a run for the presidency. He emerges, in short, as that ambiguous American archetype: The romantic dreamer with a ruthless core. “All the King’s Men” belongs on the same shelf as “The Great Gatsby” and “The Godfather.”
To enlarge his book’s scope Warren surrounds Willie and Jack with a picture gallery of Southern “types”: a street-corner evangelist; an aging, much-married belle; a hardscrabble dame with Machiavellian political savvy; an almost saintly doctor. Today’s readers, however, will notice that the only Black characters are nameless “colored” servants. Still, Jack’s transcription of a pre-Civil War diary does partly confront the South’s racist past. In it a slave learns the truth about her master’s death, with consequences that underscore the brutality and horror of her condition.
I mention Jack Burden so often because much of this story is also his. The account of how he and Anne Stanton fell in love and then lost each other may be the most lyrically beautiful piece of writing in all American literature. When Jack does uncover “something” about Judge Irwin, he also learns something about his own past and, following a time of sorrows, frees himself from recurrent existential despair.
Almost 75 years have now passed since “All the King’s Men” first appeared, yet Warren’s book continues to deserve its reputation as a great American political novel. And actually, it’s something even better: a great American novel, period.
—Mr. Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist for the Washington Post.