Like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) has come to be read as an emblematic, even an allegorical, text. The idealistic Carol Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the romantic-minded and doomed Jay Gatsby (formerly James Gatz of North Dakota), and the charismatic Southern politician Willie Stark have acquired the status of American archetypes, larger than the historically precise fictional worlds they inhabit; like outsized farcical-heroic figures in a painting by the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, they are more interesting for what they represent than for what they are.
The Great Gatsby, the most subtle of the three, as it is the shortest, sold only modestly at the time of publication,1 while the cruelly funny Main Street and the shamelessly melodramatic All the King’s Men were immediate, runaway best sellers. Main Street was fueled by controversy: before Lewis, no one had written with such satiric verve and pitiless accuracy of small-town Protestant America. All the King’s Men was fueled by its reputation as a scandalous roman à clef based upon the life and death of the flamboyant Louisiana politician Huey P. Long; high-decibel, operatic, shrewdly plotted as Oedipus Rex grafted onto a whodunit, Warren’s big, sprawling novel would seem to have been perfectly matched to its time. It was awarded a 1947 Pulitzer prize, and the 1949 screen adaptation was equally admired. Though Robert Penn Warren ranks somewhere beneath his coevals Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, in the bygone–best seller limbo of James Gould Cozzens and Edna Ferber, and seems to be more highly regarded at the present time as a poet than as a novelist,2 All the King’s Men has long been regarded as an American classic and has been continuously in print since 1946. As its chatty narrator, Jack Burden, prophesies, or boasts, at the end of the novel, “We shall go…into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”
Inspired by the astonishing career and abrupt death of Huey P. Long (1893–1935), All the King’s Men means to be much more than the sum of its disparate parts. Robert Penn Warren took pains to make it clear that the novel isn’t a roman à clef merely:
…If I had never gone to live in Louisiana and if Huey Long had not existed, the novel would never have been written. But this is far from saying that my “state” in All the King’s Men is Louisiana, or that my Willie Stark is the late Senator. What Louisiana and Senator Long gave me was a line of “thinking and feeling” that did eventuate in the novel.3
A young Ph.D. who’d done graduate work at Berkeley and Yale, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Warren had accepted an assistant professorship of English at the University of Louisiana at Baton Rouge (“Huey Long University”) in 1934, a year before the public murder of Senator Long by an enraged private citizen; he came to Baton Rouge from a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, as if stepping through a looking glass into Long’s political kingdom, which clearly fascinated Warren even as it repelled him. (In his youth, Warren fancied himself an Agrarian-aristocrat, a defender of the “culture and economy” of the South; he’d written an essay titled “The Briar Patch” defending racial segregation, which was included in the 1930 manifesto I’ll Take My Stand, later to be repudiated by Warren.) Warren would live intermittently in Louisiana until 1942, absorbing by degrees the legend of Huey Long, whom he contemplated in the light of European fascism; the power of the “man of the people” for both good and evil is a theme that fascinates Warren’s fictional alter ego Jack Burden as well.
We are meant to trust Jack Burden as a man of conscience. A model for All the King’s Men may well have been William Faulkner’s 1940 masterpiece The Hamlet, the first and strongest novel of his Snopes family trilogy, which charts the rise, like a malevolent protoplasm or yeast, of the enigmatic Flem Snopes. Warren acknowledges farther-flung influences, including Elizabethan tragedy, Edmund Spenser, and Machiavelli, but the richness of his novel springs from his firsthand experience of Louisiana during the reign of Huey Long:
There were a thousand tales, over the years, and some of them were no doubt literally and factually true. But they were all true in the world of “Huey”—that world of myth, folklore, poetry, deprivation, rancor and dimly envisaged hopes. That world had a strange, shifting, often ironical and sometimes irrelevant relation to the factual world of Governor, later Senator, Huey P. Long and his cold manipulation of the calculus of power.
Huey Long’s followers were fanatically devoted to him even as the wealthy elite of Louisiana despised and feared him: “He was the god on the battlement, dimly perceived above the darkling tumult and the steaming carnage of the political struggle. He was a voice, a portent, and a natural force like the Mississippi River getting set to bust a levee.”
In 1938, in Mussolini’s Italy, Warren began working on a play titled Proud Flesh in which Willie Stark’s earliest incarnation is a man named Talos: “…The fact that I drew that name from the ‘iron groom’ who, in murderous blankness, serves Justice in Spenser’s Faerie Queene should indicate something of the ‘line of thinking and feeling’ that led up to that version and persisted, with modulations, into the novel.” In 1943, Warren began the novel that is “more realistic, discursive and documentary in spirit (though not in fact) than the play.” Yet the Willie Stark of All the King’s Men is rather more a romantic idealist than a dynamic, still less a demonic, figure; he isn’t plausible as an American cousin of such psychopathic political leaders as Hitler and Mussolini, though Warren seems to have intended him to be so. Nor does Stark exude the mysterious, unnerving because obscure authority of Faulkner’s intransigent Flem Snopes. There are numerous aspects of the historical Huey “Kingfish” Long that might have been developed by Warren to suggest a greater depth and originality than his Willie Stark possesses,4 but Warren’s imagination seems to have led him to simplified, if not stereotypical, resolutions: Willie Stark is shot to death as a consequence of his love affair with a woman from an old “good” family (the daughter of former Governor Stanton, in fact), not for his political machinations, while Long was assassinated for purely political reasons, in more mysterious, quirkier circumstances. It’s as if Warren’s conventionally romantic sensibility couldn’t conceive of political tragedy, only Hollywood melodrama in this climate in which, as Warren said of Louisiana in the 1930s, “melodrama was the breath of life.”
The famous, bravura opening of All the King’s Men has not lost its power. We begin epic-style, in medias res, uncertain of our surroundings as of our destination, or who is in our speeding vehicle with us:
You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, the day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lord Gawd, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!”
This is our narrator Jack Burden at his most lyrical, neither breezily slangy and self-conscious nor pretentiously philosophical, giving us as much information as the cinematic scene requires, but no more: we are in the Boss’s black Cadillac driven at seventy-five miles an hour by his chauffeur “Sugar-Boy” O’Sheean, and with us are the Boss, Governor Willie Stark, his former-schoolteacher wife, Lucy, and his spoiled-rotten football player son, Tom; a seriocomic politico by the name of Tiny Duffy; and Jack Burden, failed journalist and failed historian, failed husband and failed lover, the bearer of another “good” name who has become Willie Stark’s improbable right-hand man, entrusted with the lethal task of digging up dirt on Stark’s enemies. (When Jack wonders why he works for Willie Stark, Stark tells him: “You work for me because I’m the way I am and you’re the way you are. It’s an arrangement founded on the nature of things…. There ain’t any explanations. Not of anything. All you can do is point at the nature of things. If you are smart enough to see them.”) Though we aren’t meant to be aware of it at the time, the cinematic opening scene, indeed virtually all of the novel, is being viewed through the prism of time as Jack Burden tells his story retrospectively, at a time when Willie Stark has become a posthumous legend.
Jack Burden is one whose heightened sense of irony has handicapped him for life. He’s paralyzed—burdened—by the “enchantments of the past,” both his own past and that of his class (of former slave-owning Southern whites). He’s ashamed of his seductive mother “out of the scrub-country of Arkansas” who has married numerous times, for money and social prestige; he’s ashamed of the quixotic, ineffectual gentleman he believes to be his father, whom he calls with quaint derision the Scholarly Attorney; he loses his respect for the gentleman he calls the Upright Judge, who is in fact his father, and whom he inadvertently drives to suicide, in his role as Willie Stark’s vengeful agent. In his diminished sense of his own manhood in a contemporary South governed by ambitious, amoral “hicks” like Willie Stark, Jack Burden is reminiscent of Faulkner’s equally eloquent, and ineffectual, attorney Gavin Stevens, an appalled witness to perversions of nature like the gangster Popeye (of the lurid noir romance Sanctuary) and the ever-burgeoning Snopes clan of The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion. Both Jack Burden and Gavin Stevens are highly educated, intelligent men from “good” families, stricken by a Prufrockian impotence in the face of a rapidly changing South. By the novel’s end, however, after enough plot complications, or contrivances, to fuel a Dickens novel, Jack Burden throws off his lethargy, survives both the suicide of his father, Judge Irwin, and the murder of his boss, Willie Stark, reclaims his love for Anne Stanton despite the fact that she has been Willie Stark’s “mistress,” and comes to a belated realization of his essential worth:
This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too. For I have a story. It is the story of a man who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way. The change did not happen all at once. Many things happened, and that man did not know when he had any responsibility for them and when he did not. There was, in fact, a time when he came to believe that there was no god but the Great Twitch…. But later, much later, he woke up one morning to discover that he did not believe in the Great Twitch any longer. He did not believe it because he had seen too many people live and die.
(Note, in the third sentence especially, the Hemingway prose rhythms, simple, declarative, disingenuous; as if Truth, when it is realized, must be so ploddingly and explicitly started that the slowest of readers will comprehend.)
Before his epiphany, however, Jack Burden is a man of painfully self-conscious irony, something of a caricature. We see him in tantalizing fragments, never as a whole: Willie Stark’s secretary/mistress, Sadie Burke, characterizes him as “a box of spilled spa-ghetti. All elbows and dry rattle.” Fifteen years earlier, as a young man of twenty-one, Jack Burden sees himself without illusions as a
rather tall, somewhat gangly, slightly stooped youth…with a bony horse face, a big almost askew hook of a nose, dark unkempt hair, dark eyes (not burning and deep like the eyes of Cass Mastern, his great-uncle, but frequently vague or veiled, blood-shot in the mornings, brightening only with excitement), big hands that worked and twisted slowly on his lap…a youth not beautiful, not brilliant, not industrious, not good, not kind, not even ambitious, given to excesses and confusions, thrown between melancholy and random violence, between the cold mire and the hot flame, between curiosity and apathy, between humility and self-love, between yesterday and tomorrow.
In its ungainly admixture of tones and its rhetorical excess, this passage is characteristic of Jack Burden, for whom we feel both sympathy and impatience, admiration and exasperation. At times, this mediation is illuminating, as in this protracted description of Willie Stark, verging upon the surreal, working himself up to an impromptu speech:
You saw the eyes [of Willie Stark] bulge suddenly…as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew that something had happened inside of him and thought: it’s coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel like there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses…and sees you huddled way up inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too….
Pursuing a decades-old political scandal, discovering long-buried facts about his (unacknowledged) father, the “upright” Judge Irwin, Jack Burden, not unlike his impetuous predecessor Oedipus, gains self-knowledge at the expense of others’ pain and his own. The political genius Willie Stark has no need to invent scandal, he simply unearths it and blackmails or destroys his enemies, with Jack Burden as his instrument of destruction. Yet Jack Burden is conscience-stricken, trapped in a moral dilemma:
I wondered if what I had dug up were true…. I looked across at [Judge Irwin], and didn’t want it to be true. And I had the sudden thought that I might have his drink of gin and tonic, and talk with him and never tell him, and go back to town and tell the Boss that I was convinced it was not true….
But I had to know. Even as the thought of going away without knowing came through my head, I knew that I had to know the truth. For the truth is a terrible thing. You dabble your foot in it and it is nothing. But you walk a little farther and you feel it pull you like an undertow or a whirlpool. First there is the slow pull so steady and gradual you scarcely notice it, then the acceleration, then the dizzy whirl and plunge to blackness. For there is a blackness of truth, too. They say it is a terrible thing to fall into the Grace of God. I am prepared to believe that.
Yet there are passages in All the King’s Men that reveal so crude, so coarse, so fulsome and bombastic a sensibility, one has difficulty reconciling them with the high-toned Jack Burden. There are too many of these to discreetly ignore:
[Anne Stanton’s] eyes were glittering like the eyes of a child when you give a nice surprise, and she laughed in a sudden throaty, tingling way. It is the way a woman laughs for happiness. They never laugh that way just when they are being polite or at a joke. A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life. A woman only laughs like that when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks. When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you. It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either…. [That laugh] is a spray of dewy blossom from the great central stalk of All Being, and the woman’s name and address hasn’t got a damn thing to do with it. Therefore, that laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bi-focals and ground-gripper shoes and with bands on their teeth.
Abruptly we find ourselves in folksy Norman Rockwell America, in the presence of the most disingenuous prose ever committed by any writer of reputation. Robert Penn Warren repeatedly indulges his narrator in conceits belabored to the point of self-parody:
[Adam Stanton] smiled at me not because I was what I was but because I was the friend of his youth. The friend of your youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name—Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave—which belongs to that now non-existent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy-face and to the time when the boy-voice called thinly across the late afternoon water….
Even the weather isn’t spared Jack Burden’s astonishing rodomontade:
It was a beautiful morning in middle May…. The season was like the fine big-breasted daughter of some poor spavined share-cropper, a girl popping her calico but still having a waist, with pink cheeks and bright eyes and just a little perspiration at the edge of her tow hair (which would be platinum blond in some circles), but you see her and know that before long she will be a bag of bone and gristle with a hag-face like a rusted brush-hook.
Fawning in his tireless admiration for the priggish Dr. Adam Stanton, the friend of Jack’s youth, and for Stanton’s younger sister, Anne, the love of Jack’s youth, Jack Burden is capable of shocking coarseness when alluding to categories of human beings to whom his penchant for windy romanticizing doesn’t extend:
[The Scholarly Attorney] lived… above a spick restaurant, and nigger children played naked in the next block among starving cats, and nigger women like great sacks of bloated black blubber sat on the steps after the sun got low and fanned right slow with palmleaf fans.
Though Robert Penn Warren repudiated his 1930 essay defending racial segregation, it’s clear from such offhand remarks by his protagonist Jack Burden that Warren assumed an unquestioned racial superiority. And his contempt regarding women not of Anne Stanton’s class is equally transparent:
As long as I regarded Lois [his first wife] as a beautiful juicy, soft, vibrant, sweet-smelling, sweet-breathed machine for provoking and satisfying the appetite…, all was well. But as soon as I began to regard her as a person, trouble began. All would have been well, perhaps, had Lois been struck dumb at puberty. Then no man could have withstood her. But she could talk, and when something talks you sooner or later begin to listen to the sound it makes and begin…to regard it as a person.
Except for the Stantons, and others of their social class, the characters of All the King’s Men incline toward caricature. In particular, such allies of Willie Stark as his secretary/mistress, Sadie Burke, who flies repeatedly into jealous rages when she learns that he has been unfaithful to her:
…Sadie burst out of the Boss’s door about the way one of the big cats, no doubt, used to bounce out of the hutch at the far end of the arena and head for the Christian martyr. Her hair was flying with distinct life and her face was chalk-white with the pock marks making it look like riddled plaster, like, say, a plaster-of-paris mask of Medusa which some kid has been using as a target for a BB gun. But in the middle of the plaster-of-paris mask was an event which had nothing whatsoever to do with plaster-of-paris: her eyes, and they were a twin disaster, they were a black explosion, they were a conflagration. She was running a head of steam to bust the rivets, and the way she snatched across the floor you could hear the seams pop in her skirt.
Willie Stark’s loyal chauffeur and bodyguard Sugar-Boy is another comic-strip character, a sucker of sugar cubes with “twisted black little teeth” and “thin little mystic Irish cheeks” whose speech is reducible to “‘The b-b-b-b-b-‘ he would manage to get out and the saliva would spray from his lips like Flit from a Flitgun. ‘The b-b-b-b-bas—tud—he seen me c-c-c’ and here he’d spray the inside of the windshield, ‘c-c-coming.'”
Willie Stark’s football player son is the insufferably self-centered Tom, who “knew he was the nuts, as you could tell from one look at his slick-skinned handsome brown face, with the jawbone working insolently and slow over a little piece of chewing gum and his blue eyes under half-lowered lids working insolently and slow over you, or the whole damned world.” Predictably, the insolent football hero will one day be struck down on the football field, paralyzed for life.
Tom’s mother, Willie Stark’s ex-schoolteacher wife, Lucy, is one of Warren’s “good” women, blandly and flatly characterized:
Lucy looked at me with a confident bird-like lift of her head, as though she had proved something to me. The secondary glow of the light above the circle of light was on her face, and if I had wanted to I could have guessed that some of the glow was given off softly by her face as though the flesh had a delicate and unflagging and serene phosphorescence from its own inwardness.
Well, Lucy was a woman, and therefore she must have been wonderful in that way that women are wonderful.
Willie Stark, too, begins as caricature in Jack Burden’s bemused eyes:
Fate comes walking through the door, and it is five-feet ten inches tall and heavyish in the chest and shortish in the leg and is wearing a seven-fifty seersucker suit which is too long in the pants so the cuffs crumple down over the high black shoes, which could do with a polishing, and a stiff high collar like a Sunday School superintendent… and a gray felt hat with the sweat stains showing through the band. It comes in just like that and how are you to know?
How are you to know, Jack Burden means, that this unprepossessing self-taught country lawyer will rapidly rise through the ranks of county, then state politics; that he will reinvent himself after an early ignominious defeat, like the historical Huey P. Long, a master politician governed not by the extravagant passions he can arouse in his constituency but by an altruistic, unswervingly rationalist vision of what he can do, as governor and as senator, for his people?
The Boss, meanwhile, was making that hospital his chief waking thought. He took trips up East to see all the finest, biggest ones, the Massachusetts General, the Presbyterian in New York, the Philadelphia General, and a lot more. “By God,” he would say, “I don’t care how fine they are, mine’s gonna be finer, and I don’t care how big they are, mine’s gonna be bigger, and any poor bugger in this State can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime.”
Warren’s dramatizing of Willie Stark’s impassioned public performances is convincing, granted that any attempt to convey the delirium of a crowd scene is virtually impossible in prose:
I would wait for the roar. You can’t help it. I knew it would come, but I would wait for it, and every time it would seem intolerably long before it came. It was like a deep dive…. There is nothing like the roar of a crowd when it swells up, all of a sudden at the same time, out of the thing which is in every man in the crowd but not in himself. The roar would swell and rise and fall again, with the Boss standing with his right hand raised straight to Heaven and his red eyes bulging.
And when the roar fell away, he said, with his arm up, “I have looked in your faces!”
And they would yell.
And he said: “Oh, Lord, and I have seen a sign!”
And they would yell again.
And he said: “I have seen dew on the fleece and the ground dry!”
And the yell.
Then: “I have seen blood on the moon!” Then: “Buckets of blood, and boy! I know whose blood it will be.” Then, leaning forward, grabbing out with his right hand as though to seize something in the air before him: “Gimme that meat-axe!”
It could as easily be a lynching that Willie Stark is rousing his followers to commit as a more abstract assault upon the monied elite of the state.
In the interstices of his flamboyantly scripted public life, in the presence of the ubiquitous Jack Burden, Willie Stark reveals himself as mordantly eloquent: “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.” By which Stark means there is always dirt in an individual’s life, if you know where to dig, and don’t mind whom you destroy in the digging.
We expect to learn that Stark is a sham, a manipulator of credulous voters, but in fact Stark is respectful of his rowdy redneck constituency, as he’s sincere in his vision of a state in which education and free medical care would be available for all. In this curious blend of buffoonery and utopian vision, Huey Long is clearly Warren’s model for Stark; but Warren doesn’t explore Long’s courageous, adversarial relationship with the Ku Klux Klan, which he publicly repudiated, or Long’s political relations with Negroes, who overwhelmingly supported him in elections. (Long believed in both segregation and “equal” opportunities for Negroes, virtually alone among white Louisiana politicians of his time.) Set beside Huey Long, Warren’s Willie Stark, while far more than a caricature, is a generic creation manipulated by the author in the service of a plot that becomes anticlimactic after his death, as Jack Burden, now married to Anne Stanton, reassesses his life and begins at last to write the book he has long deferred, about his great-uncle Cass Mastern.5
Though All the King’s Men is a busy, noisy novel, resembling those mid-twentieth-century CinemaScope extravaganzas that boasted of “casts of thousands,” its core cast is minuscule: Anne Stanton, Jack Burden’s beloved, improbably becomes Willie Stark’s mistress; Adam Stanton, Jack’s old friend, is improbably the sole doctor in the state capable of running Willie Stark’s dream hospital, though he seems to have had no administrative experience and his medical specialty is the long-since-discredited quack procedure “pre-frontal lobectomy.”6 The Stantons’ father, aristocratic ex-Governor Stanton, was a friend and political crony of the corruptible Judge Irwin, Jack Burden’s father. After a football injury, Stark’s son, Tom, is operated on by Adam Stanton; and Adam Stanton returns as Willie Stark’s assassin, to be shot down by Sugar-Boy, Stark’s bodyguard. Warren’s model for such claustrophobic hyperactivity may have been Greek tragedy but his execution is sheerly melodramatic. One is left with a sense of the faintly absurd, as in a low-budget theatrical production in which a very small cast of energetic actors must perform multiple roles.
In theory, the “restoring” of classic literary texts would seem to be an excellent, even heroic effort. In recent years literary scholars have given us not one but two competing “corrected” texts of James Joyce’s Ulysses, neither of which has come into popular usage, let alone replaced the 1922 edition of the novel, and a misguided if well-intentioned newly assembled text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon, awkwardly retitled The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. To peruse these earnest texts is to feel oneself in the presence of Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, the madman-scholar who reinvents his text as he edits it, intruding himself on every page. Is the intention to “restore” the original work, or to appropriate it? Or defeat it?
In this new, “restored” edition of All the King’s Men, Noel Polk, professor of American literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, argues that Warren’s original version of the novel, before its considerable editing at Harcourt, Brace, was, or is, superior to the 1946 and subsequent editions:
The typescript (among the Warren papers in the American Literature Collection at the Beinecke Library of Yale University) differs in hundreds of particulars, major and minor, from the published novel, thanks to the original editors who, with all good intentions, altered the novel in ways that made it considerably less than the novel Warren wrote.
“Considerably less” is a dubious, if not frankly erroneous claim; the more reasonable claim is “different.” Readers are likely to disagree on the worth of Polk’s edition, and most admirers of All the King’s Men will probably resent it, for Polk’s bold renaming of “Willie Stark” as “Willie Talos.”
The manuscript of All the King’s Men, typed by Robert Penn Warren and others over a period of years, in a variety of places and on more than one typewriter, is a “ragged composite” comprised of different kinds of paper “from high-quality bond to the cheapest of yellow newsprint and second sheets of the sort normally used for carbon copies.” Both the author and his several editors wrote on the manuscript pages, and many pages are composites, having been glued or taped together, suggesting that Warren never revised the novel from start to finish, but only piecemeal. When he began writing All the King’s Men in 1943, he sent early chapters to Harcourt, Brace, and editorial consultation seems to have been immediate. Among the major editorial changes Polk identifies is the removal of Warren’s repeated colons when introducing Jack Burden’s speech (“I said: ‘What for?'”) and the substitution of commas (“I said, ‘What for?'”). Polk argues that, collectively, the colons characterize Jack Burden’s aggressive narrative style, his “cockiness” and general attitude; to remove them lessens the impact of Warren’s text. Perhaps this is so, though a reading of the new text in tandem with the 1946 text doesn’t indicate that much was lost of any significance; indeed, the reader has more than enough of Jack Burden’s hyperventilated voice, and ends up wishing that Warren’s original editors had blue-penciled more of his prose, including every labored metaphorical conceit and vapid philosophical digression. A paragraph intercalated into the text by Professor Polk, in Chapter Five, is not only badly written but, in its context, nonsensical:
(But, look here, gentle reader, mon semblable, mon frère, you needn’t get upstage with me about it, for you were happy to read that Philip Sidney had pimples, that Jesus Christ may have been sweating from T.B., that Plato was merely defending the interest of his economic class, and that George Washington had false teeth. And Robert E. Lee has never been your favorite hero.)
The scene reads much more smoothly without this passage, which Professor Polk seems to have “restored” simply because he found it amid the shambles of Warren’s manuscript. Warren was hardly a careful writer, let alone a stylist in the mode of Joyce, Proust, or Woolf, whose every quirk and swerve of language might be defended as sacrosanct; contrary to Polk’s criticism of Warren’s editors, we’re left with the distinct impression that they were quite competent overall, if inclined toward the priggish at times (substituting “callous-rumped” for “callous-assed,” for instance), and that Warren was prudent in acceding to their suggestions.
The most radical alteration Polk has made to Warren’s text is the substitution throughout All the King’s Men of the name “Talos” for “Stark,” on the grounds that Warren’s initial choice of a name for his character is superior to the name “Stark,” though it’s likely that Warren himself chose this name for its sound and symbolism. Polk quotes Warren’s editor disapprovingly:
[Talos] represents an ambiguity in pronunciation, and in addition carries a foreign flavor that suggests a different background for the man than is actually the case. I recognize some metaphorical overtones in the word Talos that may be important to you, but I think this criticism of the name has some point on the practical level.
But why is this poor advice? “Talos” is a showy, pretentious, rather silly name in the “Stephen Dedalus” tradition, while “Willie Stark” is effective without being an outright nudge in the ribs. In the course of writing All the King’s Men, Warren obviously outgrew his interest in the mythological Talos figure, the “mechanical man” of “murderous blankness” who lacks human volition as he lacks a soul; “Talos” simply doesn’t apply to Willie Stark the utopian idealist, grieving father of a crippled son and alleged lover of Anne Stanton. Polk seems not to understand that it isn’t uncommon for writers to change the names of characters and the titles of novels as they progress, but a sign rather of their deepening assimilation of their material. Since Warren completed his novel using the name “Stark,” and since in the course of his long lifetime (1905– 1989) he made no attempt to restore the original “Talos,” it seems an act of highhanded zeal to bring into print what amounts to a text to compete with the 1946 text prepared under the author’s guidance. It’s naive to assume that writers even of rare gifts can’t profit from the vigilance of astute editors; an editor’s discreet inquiry will encourage a writer to rethink something of which he may in fact have had doubts. Any serious writer wants to bring into print the very best text of which he’s capable; simply to defend what he has written, because he has written it, is hardly the point.
It’s a measure of the enduring worth of All the King’s Men that Willie Stark has entered our collective literary consciousness, in the company of Captain Ahab, Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Rabbit Angstrom, and very few others. Set beside this Willie Stark, “Willie Talos” hasn’t a chance.
March 28, 2002
The first edition of The Great Gatsby sold about 25,000 copies, far less than Fitzgerald’s first two, considerably inferior novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. In 1927, two years after the publication of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s books earned only $153; in 1929, only $32. Shortly after his death in 1940, Gatsby was dropped by the Modern Library because of poor sales. ↩
Warren’s later poetry, from Incarnations (1968) to Altitudes and Extensions (1985), is generally considered his finest work. In 1958 Warren received a Pulitzer Prize for Promises. ↩
Introduction to All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Time, Inc., 1963), p. xi. ↩
See the definitive biography, Huey Long, by T. Harry Williams (Knopf, 1969). ↩
Cass Mastern, whose letters and journals Jack Burden has inherited, was a visionary antislavery pacifist who nonetheless wore the Confederate uniform and died a hideous gangrenous death as a result of a wound suffered in the Civil War. Positioned midway in All the King’s Men, at a point at which Jack Burden has come to an emotional stasis in his recounting of the “enchantments of the past,” the Cass Mastern section has the feel of being older material Warren has brought into his narrative for thematic purposes, and has frequently been criticized for impeding the novel’s movement. Yet Cass Mastern is a more engaging character than Jack Burden; the very antithesis of the activist Willie Stark, he’s as enigmatic as one of Faulkner’s doomed yet indomitable heroes, like Colonel Sartoris. Warren seems not to know what to do with Cass Mastern, except to present him as a rebuke to Jack Burden; all that Jack Burden, or Warren, can do is comment upon Mastern at a respectful distance: ↩
In this altogether curious interlude, Dr. Stanton operates on a “catatonic schizophrenic” with the intention of giving him a “different personality.” Though lobotomies were discredited as legitimate medical procedures by 1963, when the Time, Inc. edition of All the King’s Men was published, Warren didn’t use the opportunity of a new edition to excise this absurd material; nor does he even comment upon it in his introduction. The allegedly admirable Dr. Stanton starts in this way: ↩