Thursday, February 13, 2014
February 13, 2014: I Love All the King’s Men
[Last year, I wrote a Valentine’s Day-inspired series on some of my AmericanStudier loves. I had fun, so I’ve decided to do so again this year. I’d love for you to share some of the things you love for a crowd-sourced weekend post full of heart!]
On two of the things that make one of our most under-appreciated novels so great.
I haven’t done a poll or anything, but it seems to me that when we Americans think about Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) at all, we tend to do so through the lens of its portrayal of a fictionalized Huey Long, the popular and controverial Louisiana governor. That’s an entirely understandable perspective, not only because the novel does focus much of its attention on Willie Stark (its Long figure), but also because the Academy Award-winning film (1949) featured a bravura performance from Broderick Crawford as Stark. The book has a lot to say about Stark, not only as an individual and a representation of his own place and era, but in relationship to enduring questions of power and corruption, hope and cynicism, democracy and demogoguery. But my love for Penn Warren’s novel, which is one of my favorite American texts, stems from other, and to my mind even more impressive and important, elements.
For one thing, there’s the narration. Penn Warren’s narrator, Jack Burden, sounds like a combination of the best hard-boiled private detective narrators and H.L. Mencken (or other similarly critical and whip-smart commentators on American society and human nature). I could say more, but instead I’m just going to transcribe one paragraph from the opening chapter, in which Burden is all of those things and then some: “The Boss was down at the other end of the yard where the crepe myrtles were, prowling up and down on the dusty grass stems. Well, it was all his baby, and he could give it suck. I just lay there in the hammock. I lay there and watched the undersides of the oak leaves, dry and grayish and dusty-green, and some of them I saw had rusty-corroded-looking spots on them. Those were the ones which would turn loose their grip on the branch before long—not in any breeze, the fibers would just relax, in the middle of the day maybe with the sunshine bright and the air so still it aches like the place where the tooth was on the morning after you’ve been to the dentist or aches like your heart in the bosom when you stand on the street corner waiting for the light to change and happen to recollect how things once were and how they might have been yet if what happened had not happened.”
Penn Warren wasn’t a hugely talented poet for nothing, after all. But he was also one of our most interesting and meaningful historical philosophers; and, as I’ve written at length in this (free and downloadable!) article, All the King’s Men is also a complex treatise on the limitations and possibilities of historical research, knowledge, and engagement. I won’t restate that article’s arguments here, but will simply say this: prior to the events of the novel, Jack Burden was a PhD candidate in History, and in one of the novel’s most successful set-pieces he recounts the story of his Civil War-era ancestor, Cass Mastern, into which he was digging for that thesis. It doesn’t seem to me that we can possibly remember Penn Warren’s novel without remembering the amazing Cass Mastern section—and even if the rest of the novel (to which that section certainly connects) didn’t exist, the Mastern narrative would be one of our most compelling and powerful historical fictions. For that reason, and so many others, I can’t recommend Penn Warren’s novel strongly enough.
Final AmericanStudier love tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you love about or in American history, culture, identity, community?