by Robert Penn Warren. Originally published in 1946. San Diego: Harvest Books, 1996. 672pp. Paperback $15.00. ISBN: 9780156004800.
Reviewed by Susan McWilliams, Department of Politics, Pomona College. Email: susan.mcwilliams [at] pomona.edu.
ALL THE KING’S MEN begins, quite literally, on a straight and narrow path: Highway 58, “with the black line down the center coming at and at you.” Driving down this road, “if you don’t quit staring at that line and you don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself” and lose control. You will crash and burn, not because you were distracted from your original goal, but because you were too intent upon it. You were looking too far down the straightaway. Focused on the end of your trip, you neglect to be careful about how you get there.
For students who know Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt” only in its most austere variation – “power corrupts” – Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel can be both a deepening and complicating read. While the conventional wisdom suggests that all politicians are corrupt, and therefore politics is a particularly grim and unsavory business, ALL THE KING’S MEN explores the relationship between political power and corruption on much more multifaceted and unnerving terms.
In those first few sentences, on the dangers that attend traveling a straight and narrow path, Penn Warren suggests that in practice, political corruption does not always arise from selfishness, ignobility, or base greed. Against thinkers dating back to Aristotle, who define corrupt regimes merely as those in which the ruler thinks of private gain rather than public good, ALL THE KING’S MEN suggests that the path to corruption may begin with an opposite, and more noble, impulse. If you focus on the glimmering end of the road with too much intensity, you might lose your grip on the wheel. If you focus on your political ends – even moral and public-spirited ends – with too much intensity, you might lose your grip on the means of getting there. You might lose your grip on yourself.
The very memorable public official at the center of the narrative, Willie Stark, emanates his real-world prototype Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, Jr. in his unfailing populist commitments and his grand public visions. (Witnesses said that after he was shot, Long’s last words were: “God, don’t let me die. I have too much left to do.”) From his first awkward stump speech on, Stark remains constant in his assertion that all citizens have a right to decent health care. He sets his sights on building a hospital, a majestic and technologically advanced hospital, which will serve all those who need it. Stark amasses and manipulates power not merely for the sake of the power itself, but for that gallant and public-spirited goal. His disturbing transformation, from a temperate and naïve country boy into a hard-drinking and harder-bargaining boss man, happens in the service of his highest ideals, not in the abandonment of them. [*371]
This may in part explain why, even as Stark’s descent into sleaze begins to anguish and even betray those closest to him, most of those same people continue to see him in something of a hallowed light. Unlike his nemesis, Tiny Duffy, Stark does not occupy political office just for his own sake; he is always driven by his vision of public good. So even when he is at his most corrupt, in all conventional ways, there is a core of belief in him that remains noble if not transcendent. After all of his corruption and damage is done, even the people who he hurt the most continue to believe that he was “a great man.”
In teaching ALL THE KING’S MEN, I have made it a habit of asking my students how they responded to the catalytic moment of Stark’s political career, when he has learned that the party officials are running him as a gubernatorial candidate only to split a vote and prevent their enemy’s election. Stark spends a highly liquid evening, weeping and railing at the realization that he is a “decoy.” The next morning, hung over or maybe still drunk, he fumbles his way to the local fairgrounds and gives a raging diatribe in which, much to the party bosses’ chagrin, he tells an enraptured audience of what he has learned. To the people he calls “hicks,” he announces, “That’s what they think we’re for. To fool. Well, this time I’m going to fool somebody.” When I ask my students what they were thinking during this scene, inevitably they say that they were rooting for Stark. They were hoping he would go for the jugular, that he would say whatever he had to say to damage the party bosses as much as they had damaged him. They were hoping that Stark would fight, and they were hoping that Stark would win.
Of course, in rooting for Stark during this scene my students – like anyone else who reads the book – are rooting for the very behaviors and postures that enable and define his corruption. What makes Willie Stark admirable is difficult to extricate from what makes him contemptible. To the extent that Penn Warren gets his readers to root for Willie Stark in such moments, he demonstrates the extent to which certain kinds of political charisma trade on a simmering iniquity. The corrupt man is often a seductive man; what seduces you may well be what corrupts you.
The corruption in this story, accordingly, is not Stark’s alone. Perhaps the more important character in ALL THE KING’S MEN is Jack Burden, the former graduate student and newspaper columnist turned aide to Willie Stark, from whose perspective the novel is written. At no small cost to himself, Burden becomes complicit in some of Stark’s more dangerous plots. One of the most powerful dynamics in the novel is the Burden-Stark relationship, and the question of why a man as smart and pedigreed as Burden would give himself so wholly to Stark, even when it is clear to him that there are massive problems with Stark’s method. The answer has something to do with the fact that Burden, for all his privilege, is deeply alienated. He is rootless. Like so many Americans, Burden feels disconnected, disinherited, disenfranchised. And he finds in Stark a figure of order. Stark offers Burden the connection to a communal vision, and connection and communion are what Burden dearly lacks. Communion and connection on terms that are corrupt may be preferable, we learn, to no communion and connection at all. [*372]
As so many have testified, ALL THE KING’S MEN is a great American political novel – perhaps the greatest. There are many ways to incorporate it into the political science classroom, of which I have indicated only one. But given the conventional cynicism about politicians and politics which dominate so many students’ views, it might be a particularly important one. The common notion that “power corrupts,” that power and corruption are not just friends but equals, leads to a dim view of political life. In comparison, Penn Warren crafts a picture in which political corruption exists and maybe pervades, but in which politics retains – as does Stark – both force and charm.
Interestingly, Penn Warren may give Willie Stark the final word on these questions. From the book’s first pages, Stark seems fond of recounting the 51st psalm, albeit with some poetic license. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” runs his refrain. “There is always something.” In other words, Stark says, there is no such thing as an uncorrupt person. Willie’s challenge to the maxim that “power corrupts” is the assertion that human life itself is already corrupt. Politics does not do the corrupting. Politics is just one of many human crafts, and it is the humanity rather than the craft that is the trouble. For a democratic citizenry, this teaching may be most disturbing. But it also may be most true.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Susan McWilliams.