“The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him.”
So I’ve already finished All the King’s Men. I’m done. But I haven’t written about it while I’ve been reading it because, well, I really didn’t know what to say. I was stumped for what to write about. Not because the book is boring, or uninspiring, or lacks content to write about. If anything, the opposite is true; there is so much to write about this book, so much going on and happening within its 661 pages, that it was incredibly difficult to write about it as I was reading it.
But now I’m done. So I’ll try to sum up what I thought about the book, and how it went down.
All the King’s Men is the story of two people, flip sides of the same coin. One is Willie Stark, Governor of a unnamed Southern State (I’m pretty sure it’s Louisiana), a character based on the real Huey Long, a popular demagogue from the 1920s and 1930s. The other is his ‘hired help’, Jack Burden, a man who performs all of Stark’s political dirty work throughout his time as Governor. The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Burden. It is Burden’s consciousness that we are inhabiting. And he is an enormously complex and thoughtful individual; he comes across as a mix between Chandler’s Marlowe, a kind of hard-boiled wise-cracking sleuth, and a 19th century philosopher, perhaps most notably Hegel. Throughout the book, we witness Burden’s philosophical treatises on just about everything and, most crucially, witness his development from an essential nihilist to a rational human being, who comprehends the ideas and responsibility of his own actions, which often lead to tragedy.
And here’s where my difficulty in writing about All the King’s Men came from; I expected, from what I had heard and what I had read, for this to be a political novel. When you go into a book, and hear that it is a ‘political’ novel, you have certain expectations. I thought the book would be a depiction of the essential realities and corruptions of mid-20th century Southern politics. I had read all about Huey Long, about his popular idealism, and thought the book would be a depiction of the rise and fall of a great political figure. But the book is so much more than that. Willie Stark, despite being the central figure of the novel, the man whom the plot revolves around, is something of a secondary character. The novel is certainly about his rise and fall, from idealistic change-maker to corrupted political figure; yet it is much more than this. It is a comment on every human action, on the human condition.
There are two real questions in All the King’s Men, each pertaining to one of the main characters, and both are enormously complex. For Stark, the question is: what makes a good man, how can a man do good and is it possible to do good within the realities of our society and still remain a good man?
At the beginning of the novel, Stark is an idealistic young man who is played for a fool by a gang of politicians, used as a ‘patsy’ to the split the vote during an election. Stark has a grand plan for the state. He wants to change politics, change people’s lives. He wants to tell the people about his grand tax plan, his grand education plans, and he stands up before them and gives them the cold hard facts about how he is going to make their lives better. But nobody wants to listen. They don’t seem to care about the facts. It is not until he learns how to give them what they want, in the form of populist rhetoric, that Stark comes to political power. And when in power, he begins to see that a man can only perform good acts through corruption, by working within the realities of the political system. He collects information about individuals in order to blackmail them; even as he is doing ‘good’ for the state, building a great free hospital, and new schoolhouses, his actions are not the actions of a good man.
This understanding is conveyed to us in an electrifying scene where Stark describes his understanding of good and bad:
“What the hell else you think folks been doing for a million years, Doc? When your great-great grandpappy climbed down out of the tree, he didn’t have any more notion of good or bad, right or wrong, than the hoot owl that stayed up there. Well, he climbed down and began to make Good up as he went along. He made it up for what he needed to do business, Doc. And what he made up and called the Good was always just a couple jumps behind what he needed to do business.
And folks in general, which is society, is never gonna stop doing business. Society is just going to cook up a new notion of what is right every time they need to do new business.”
Furthermore, Penn Warren, the author, has stated his intentions of the novel and its political scenery is to show that ‘man is a fallen creature’, thus espousing the Calvinist theological position of Original Sin. At the beginning of the novel, Burden is told that he must find something on a man named Judge Irwin, in order for Stark to blackmail him. Burden states that he doesn’t believe they will find anything on the Judge, who is an upright citizen. Stark scoffs at this idealism, and states:
“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.”
Stark’s belief in Original Sin, in every man’s weakness and sinfulness, allows him to blackmail people. It is his undying faith in Sin that sees him become the most powerful man in the state, and he uses every man’s weakness against them. Similarly, Burden can do his dirty work for Stark because he does not believe in the responsibility of action and consequence; he calls himself, at the beginning of the novel, an Idealist, but he is not an idealist in the Hegelian sense. He simply believes that man, and their actions, are essentially separate from objects and things that they come into contact with. Thus, he can do the dirty and still have a clean conscience. He attempts to embody this in his career as a journalist, a mere observer, and his relationships with others, including Stark; we also see an episode in his life where Burden attempts to write his historical thesis about a man named Cass Mastern, a slave-owner and emancipator, but abandons his project, unable to comprehend the responsibilities of the man.
Throughout the novel, this deep nihilistic belief becomes ever stronger, until Jack witnesses a full frontal lobotomy performed by his friend, a doctor, and comes to label his philosophical viewpoint ‘The Great Twitch’:
“…all the words we speak meant nothing and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog’s leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through… all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve.”
Essentially, he believes that life is meaningless, a series of scientific processes, and thus nobody can be in charge of, or directly responsible for, his own destiny. Yet, by the end of the novel, his task of discovering the secret of the Judge has led directly to tragedy, and he is forced to accept the responsibility of his actions; he abandons his Great Twitch idea and adopts another:
“soon now we shall go out of the house and into the convulsion of the world, out of history and the awful responsibility of Time…”
So for Burden, the question is even more complex and philosophical. It is simply this: do all actions have consequences, and can man have responsibility for his actions, good or bad?
Coming to grips with the ideas in this novel was a difficult path. It is an enormously full and richly constructed book, and tackles enormous philosophical questions, all with a fast-paced, enjoyable plot. Yet there was always something niggling me about the book, as I was reading it, and even now I’ve finished. I still can’t quite place my finger on what I didn’t love about the book. I recognise that it is a classic, and it certainly deserves that status. Yet, all too often, the book feels strangely disjointed and unsure of itself; most notably, the poetic, beautiful sections clash directly with the political aspects of the novel. Penn Warren was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, so who the fuck am I to complain, and the language is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. It just feels oddly squeezed in to the novel. At other times (for example, when Burden is describing the summer of his first love) the poetry takes on a life of its own, uninterrupted by plot or action, and then it feels more natural, without anything to constrict the pure descriptive power.
In addition, it is a very slow moving book. I understand its structure, though it is a little convoluted, but the lack of movement and the endless deliberations and treatises of Jack Burden kind of wear down the impact of the text. His is not a classic voice either, like Scout or Huck Finn; his very aloofness tends to disinterestedness, and you get the sense that he could have been an omnipresent third person narrator, with no loss of textual impact.
And then there is the character of Anne Stanton, who is just fucking terrible, whether due to Warren’s inability to write a believable female character or simply because she is simply a plot mechanism. But she is terrible. Just awful. Every time she appeared, with her melodramatic bullshit, I felt like switching off completely. It’s rare for me to have such a reaction to a character. But she sucked big time. The novel would have been so much better without her.