Book 45: A book that won the Pulitzer prize, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In graduate school, we read Night Rider in one of my classes. Once I realized it had nothing to do with the television show, my interest slid right out of the window and I went into the novel with low expectations. I found myself pleasantly surprised with the experience; I was dazzled by Warren’s writing. For this year’s book challenge, I was extremely happy to read another of his novels, and I went into the experience with a light and happy heart. Once again, I did not leave disappointed.
The key strength of Warren’s writing is his ability to write prose that is just shy of poetry. Warren wrote excellent poetry in addition to his novels, and you can tell that he has a poet within by the gorgeous, flowing prose in his novels. Give yourself a lot of time to read a Warren novel, not because it is particularly dense or difficult, but because you will want to enjoy the delicious words and descriptions that read like a poem but are even better, because it’s actually prose.
All the King’s Men takes place in America’s Depression era South and focuses upon the rising politician Willie Stark, who is believed to be a loose version of former Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long. Most people categorize All the King’s Men as a political novel; in fact, you will see it labelled as one of the greatest political novels ever written. However, while it appears to be the main focus, the political arena serves as a well-crafted backdrop for the main themes of the novel. As with any great piece of literature, you can analyze the piece and find so many underlying themes and messages. My major takeaway from Warren here is the elusive search for Truth, or finding the truth of Truth–and what better arena to study the numerous shades of Truth than Politics?
We investigate the philosophical conundrum of Truth through the perspective of Jack Burden, a member of Willie Stark’s inner circle (or, one of the King’s Men). Formerly a reporter on the trail of the ambitious but naïve Willie Stark, Jack follows Willie’s political trajectory closely, eventually becoming part of his tight inner circle and his right-hand man. Jack admires the young but idealistic Willie, who attempts to win over the public by giving them truth. Willie soon discovers that people don’t actually want the truth; they much prefer whatever version of the truth suits them at that moment in time. As Willie increasingly learns that being a successful politician means giving people what they want, he begins transforming himself into the man the people want, not the one that they need (because when do we ever want what is good for us?). He increasingly loses himself and the ideals he once held as he plays the political game. Like so many before him that started out to do good deeds in a failing world, he becomes corrupt and justifies it as getting one’s hands dirty for the greater good.
Jack struggles alongside Willie as he, too, comes to grips with sacrificing his long-held beliefs of right, wrong, and Truth for the so-called greater good. As time passes, Jack struggles on shifting sands to find an increasingly elusive definition of Goodness and Truth. Subtly, the novel shifts from Willie as the primary focus and moves onto Jack and his moral struggles. Warren artfully uses the political arena, infamous for its deceit and slippery morality, as a means to highlight the absurdity of man’s struggle for a singular truth in an increasingly complex world.
As a side note: this seems like the perfect timing to read All the King’s Men given the current political climate in America. Whatever side you fell on in the election last month, every voter had to make hard decisions and put aside some of their ideals to choose a candidate that would do the best job–for the greater good–and put aside some of the deeds and words you may not have agreed with to do what you truly felt was “right” for the nation. I felt like this election in particular had less hope and more of a “lesser of two evils” scenario than other elections past, which fits nicely into the points Warren makes throughout the novel.