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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

DENNIS PATRICK: BOOK REVIEW OF “ALL THE KING’S MEN”

JIM’S TRUCKS

 

 

Everyone needs a summer reading program: young and old, student and professional. At some point, whether on vacation or after work on a summer’s day, time weighs heavy. It is then a reading program helps to fill idle hours.

Here is a suggested American classic of somewhat recent vintage. In this day and age, “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren is “must” reading. This piece of twentieth century American fiction offers insights as fresh today as they were three quarters of a century ago.

know the author and you will better understand his work. Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), a stranger to many today, distinguished himself as a truly great twentieth century American man of letters through his poetry and novels, teaching, and as a critic.

Warren is the only writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize once for his fiction (“All the King’s Men”) and twice for his poetry. In 1986, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, chose Warren as the official American Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to Congress.

Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, Warren won early acclaim for his verse at the age of sixteen. “The Fugitive”, a monthly journal of poetry, first published Warren’s work in 1922. Warren completed his undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University. Then he moved on to the University of California and, later, to Yale for graduate work. A Rhodes scholarship led him to Oxford, England, where he completed his studies.

Following his return to the United States, Warren taught English at Louisiana State University. In 1942 he accepted a professorship at the University of Minnesota where he taught English. Eventually he moved to Yale where he taught play writing at the Yale Drama School.

Among his varied works, Warren co-authored a textbook, “Understanding Poetry” (1938), together with Cleanth Brooks. College English instructors throughout the United States used this text in the 1960s and 1970s. It remains a great reference on poetry.

Warren wrote his award winning novel “All the King’s Men” in 1946 earning him the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1947. In this classic novel about American politics, Warren deals with the moral dilemmas in the modern world. Set in the 1930s, the theme centers on the rise and fall of a Southern political demagogue -- purportedly the character of former Louisiana Governor Huey Long.

The story, told by former newspaperman Jack Burden, portrays an idealistic back-woods lawyer taken in by the greed for power and lust for control. Willie Stark, the protagonist, endures his comeuppance early in his political career when defeated in his first bid for public office. It is then that he realizes facts, figures, truth and logic do not mean a thing to the general public. What matters is the emotional bond between the people and the office seeker. Stark’s rising popularity with the voters confirms the bond when he sees the purpose of government as a provider of “things.” This principle, among others, sustains Stark in public office. Warren best illustrates this through Stark’s promise to his constituents to build and staff a state hospital, the best money can buy. (Might this envision government health care proposals of future years?)

Another principle effectively employed is the leverage gained by digging dirt on one’s opponent. Adept public officials and their aides manipulate public opinion as a means to an end. Using this principle, Willie Stark keeps his people in line and exonerates himself throughout the tenure of his administration.

Ultimately, Jack Burden, working as aide to Governor Willie Stark, digs dirt on the governor’s friends and enemies alike and learns the extent to which flowers grow in manure.

Although written seventy years ago, the book amazingly mirrors scandal-ridden administrations today. All themes are represented -- the rise of a Southern lawyer to high political office through dubious means, the sex with an aide, his wife’s response, the dirt, the blackmail, the gullibility of the electorate, the manipulation of public opinion -- it is all there.

So what makes this book stand out among other political novels? “All the King’s Men” rises to the level of Pulitzer Prize material through the very effective use of English prose describing the climate of the period and the historical setting. Warren portrays his unforgettable characters vividly as he draws them into the flawed life of Willie Stark. Together the cast moves toward mutual destruction. Some critics have gone so far as to claim the portrayal of Willie Stark as one of the greatest of American literary creations. Let the reader judge.

Requiring high school students to read “All the King’s Men” could complement government courses and otherwise fill a void. Don’t hold your breath. This novel would offer students a comprehensive insight into the real world of governance in action, otherwise known as politics. Such insight includes the fickle, emotional, and gullible behavior of the electorate. A wary generation of young people might learn something about avoiding the election of characterless public officials.

For those who still enjoy reading, however, Robert Penn “Warren’s All the King’s Men” is “must” reading for summer 2017.

 

Dennis M. Patrick can be contacted at P. O. Box 337, Stanley, ND 58784 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 

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