Title: All the King’s Men

Published: 1946

Author: Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), named USA’s first poet laureate in 1986

Challenge status: Pulitzer Prize winner in 1947 and #38 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #14 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Challenged in Dallas, TX in 1974, the challenge is somewhat vague but the complaint cited the book contained a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”.

First line: “Mason City.”

Synopsis:

I had no preconceptions reading this book. For some reason I thought it was about journalism, but then came to understand it was about politics. Coming off of The Jungle, which is all about corruption and graft it seemed like a natural next step in a progression. But oh, what a magnificent book. The Jungle is dispassionate and dehumanizing, in its treatment of every poor soul doomed to play out their role under the crushing will of capitalism, but All the King’s Men – is about the passion and very human flaws that draw us into the endless, (soiled?) traps of politics and power.

The flaws of powerful men. Those that are large, obvious, superficial — like greed — easily worked-out and factored into the complex calculus of strategy. But what’s awesome in this book are the tiny, secret flaws deeply driven into the characters’ characters – tiny though they may be, they become a pivot point around which their whole reality ends up cartwheeling in the most dramatic fashion. A man’s character is his destiny. is a common proverb, and seems like we can follow it up with “but his choices are his legacy”. (Or to reuse my favorite quote from Batman Begins: “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you”

There isn’t every anything to say to somebody who has found out the truth about himself, whether it is good or bad. – Jack Burden in “All the King’s Men” (Warren)

What is heartbreaking about this novel is how it builds so inexorably to a point where the bottom drops out. All along we are thinking “this isn’t a good idea” and then that piece of the puzzle ends up ok, everything kind of settles down into a “new normal”. And then the more innocent threads are the one that garrotte us at the end of the book.

The main character Willie Stark appears to be based roughly on Huey “The Kingfish” Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928-1930. Both Stark and Long are set up as champions of the common man (Stark refers to his himself and his constituency as rednecks) and programs of social reform (access to education, healthcare), but are heavily critiqued for their methods of driving change (kickbacks, blackmail, extortion) – and then are finally assassinated. In this book we are able to follow the rise of a man who runs for office – at first naively, to do good and also due a bit to ego – through a transformation into a major political force. Riding into office on a swell of popular support, Stark quickly finds that in order to stay effective, to break through bureaucracy  to wrest power back from the wealthy and corrupt; popular support doesn’t hold a candle to force and fear, and quickly becomes just as corrupt as the influences he’s been railing against. But a benign dictator, behaving badly but all for good? Wronging wrongers to make right?

In the book we observe Stark through the eyes of our narrator Jack Burden, a lapsed investigative journalist who becomes Stark’s right hand man. Jack is an interesting character because he is not that interesting. He manages to remain morally blank, and for a man of action (he “gets things done” for Stark) he’s extraordinarily passive. Early on it is clear that he is not particularly ambitious, no real plans for the future. But he doesn’t seem to have much going on in the present either, he is just drifting, pulled along by Stark’s irresistible gravity. His lens for evaluating what is going on around him seems to be grounded in the past – as a historian this kind of makes sense, and so as readers we feel – a bit sad, I guess? a bit sorry for him? – when he starts to realize that his assumptions about the past have made for a terrible foundation to rest upon. But, when the past and the present collide and everything is destroyed, it seems as if Jack is finally going to move forward, at the end of the book he admits “…soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

So I went back down and stood in the garden among the black magnolia trees and the myrtles, and thought how by killing my father I had saved my mother’s soul. Then I thought how maybe I had saved my father’s soul, too. Both of them had found out what they needed to know to be saved. Then I thought how all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood. Maybe that is the only way you can tell that a certain piece of knowledge is worth anything: it has cost some blood. – Jack Burden, “All the King’s Men” (Warren)