Reading Robert Penn Warren

Like most people, I’ve been trying to get a read on American politics these days. For this reason, I recently picked up Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning classic, All the King’s Men, which I confess I’ve never read. One of its central characters, Willie Talos (Willie Stark in older editions) or “the Boss,” is based on the actual populist politician Huey Long, who served as governor of and then senator from Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. The New York Times once touted Warren’s book as “the definitive book about American politics.”

But reading the book strictly for its political element does a disservice to the book. Warren himself claimed that the book was not primarily about politics, but about using politics to get at something much deeper. Defining what that something is, however, is not easy; for like most great literature, the book is about many things, even about the human condition itself.

Were I compelled to make list, however, I would say that the it’s about the complexity of human desire, virtue and vice, corruption, idealism, the force that the past exercises over the present (and future); it is about love and betrayal, the beauty and limits of language, the murkiness of motivation, the beguiling force of power, and the constrained but real presence of goodness. And this list is only partial.

The story is told through the eyes of Jack Burden, a newspaper man who became a key member of the Boss’s inner circle. In many respects, Burden is a more central figure than Talos, although “the story of Willie Talos and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story”—a pointed made several times in the book.

Burden/Warren’s ability to describe his own emotional state and imbue the landscape around him, and even the weather, with it, I found especially compelling. Describing how vulnerable he felt when in his youth he fell in love with one Anne Stanton, Burden confesses to feeling a certain “tenderness, [but] a tenderness shot through with and veined with sadness, as though the tenderness were the very flesh and body and the sadness the veins and nerves of it.” Rapt, he also describes “the enormous moon-drenched, moon-soaked, sea-glittering night while off yonder in the myrtle hedge a mocking bird hysterically commented on the total beauty and justice of the university.”

The reader attentive to history stands to gain much from the book. Before becoming a journalist, Burden began a PhD in American history, although he never completed it. “Yes, I am student of history,” Burden tells someone, “[a]nd what we students of history learn is that the human being is a complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good-and-bad and that good comes out of bad and the bad out of good, and the devil take the hindmost.” Puzzling over the string of unfortunate events that make up he book’s plot, Burden ponders toward the end: “I tried to tell her [Burden’s mother] how if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future.”

One should read this important book, about which much more could be said. But don’t fall into the well-set trap of thinking it is all or mostly about politics. Rather, politics is merely a medium for Warren, who asks us to think about more profound, perennial things.

In our day and age, we certainly need to think of these things. Doing so might even inform, for the better, our politics.

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