April 2, 2016


The Prescience of a Political Novel : Robert Penn Warren's 'All the King's Men' has never been more relevant. (TERRY TEACHOUT, March 23, 2016, WSJ)

A man I know who used to work for a very famous politician once told me that "All the King's Men" and Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" are the only two works of literary art that tell the harsh truth about politics.

An idealistic young reformer turned ruthless operator, Stark's life is changed utterly when he comes to the reluctant conclusion that all men, however honorable they may seem to be, are both corrupt and corruptible: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." This leads him to treat any political means, however illegal, as acceptable so long as the end is sufficiently desirable. The law, he explains, is "always too short and too tight for growing humankind. The best you can do is do something and then make up some law to fit and by the time that law gets on the books you would have done something different."

Is Stark right to be pessimistic about what he calls "the nature of things"? If so, does that justify his own increasingly monstrous behavior? Or can noble ends be corrupted by the evil means through which we seek to bring them into being? The fact that Warren deliberately leaves this question open is part of what gives "All the King's Men" its permanent relevance, for it is one of those central yet unanswerable questions around which human conduct perpetually revolves.

But the reason why "All the King's Men" is of immediate interest can be found in the scene in which Stark addresses a crowd of poor white farmers who care nothing for politics or politicians, having decided that Louisiana will always be ruled by the rich. His first words fill them with resentment: "Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks." But then he surprises them: "That's what you are. And me--I'm one, too. Oh, I'm a red-neck, for the sun has beat down on me. I'm a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile....nobody ever helped a hick but the hick himself. Up there in town they won't help you. It is up to you and God, and God helps those who help themselves!" By identifying with their feelings of powerlessness and promising to "nail up anybody who stands in your way," he forges them into a populist alliance that puts him in the governor's mansion.

Does this perhaps have a familiar ring? If it doesn't, your TV is broken. Entirely aside from its value as a work of art, "All the King's Men" is timely because of the brilliant clarity with which it shows how a shrewd politician can connect with those working-class voters who believe that the existing parties don't care about them and are looking for a strong, fearless leader to watch their backs.

Posted by at April 2, 2016 7:43 AM