Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wrong About All the King's Men

I've been wrong before about classic works of literature (like the Odyssey), but in my defense, this is what it says on the back of the book:
Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is generally considered the finest novel ever written on American politics. Set in the 1903s, this beloved book traces the rice and fall of Willie Start, who resembles the real-life Huey “Kingfish” Long of Louisiana. Stark begins his political career as an idealist man of the people but soon becomes corrupted by success.”

Let's start at the end of this summary. At the end of the book, Willie Stark's ultimate goal is to build a state-of-the-art hospital who's care would be free to all residents of Louisiana. He's willing to twist arms, use his influence, bribe, and blackmail whoever gets in his way to get it done. Previously, he's used questionable techniques to raise taxes on the owners of coal miners and land owners. Regardless of how he accomplished his goals, every single won of his goals was populist at the very least and quite often altruistic.

One might then argue that the corruption of the summary is evident in his methods, but he never once believed in the primacy of morally pure techniques in achieving goals. He is introduced into Louisiana state politics when he is asked to run in the Democrat gubernatorial primary, not because the askers actually wanted him to win, but in order to draw rural votes away from a different candidate. From then on he knows, as he later explains, “you've got to make the good out of the bad.”

But that makes it seem as though All the King's Men is about Willie Stark. Willie Stark is a dynamic force of action in the story of Jack Burden. The vast majority of the actual words that make up the novel are the observations, philosophies, emotions, memories, and thoughts of the narrator himself, Jack Burden. It is a story about becoming the person you are meant to be, finding yourself in relation the world and people around you, and confronting the questions posed by both the problems you face and how you face them. Big questions. Small moments. What could be considered the most tortured love story in American literature. And it's all told in a style not that far from Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson.

Early on, I was reminded of The Great Gatsby, and there is certainly some similarities between the relationships of Nick Caraway and Jay Gatsby and Jack Burden and Willie Stark. However, Caraway does his best to vanish into the story, projecting all of the tough questions onto Gatsby. But Burden confronts everything. Stark shows up, makes some things happen, and Burden processes all of the implications of the action. If this is a title to be proud of, Jack Burden might be American literature's greatest and most prolific brooder.

There are lots of different possible sources for an entire culture being completely wrong about a book it values. In this case, I think it comes back to America's obsession with action. Willie Stark is a character Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would write. He bangs on desks. He gives speeches. He does things. He is filmable. For more reasons than can be explored in a blog post, we've come to identify ourselves as doers. So even though the book has very little to do with, well, doing, we latch onto the doer and convince ourselves he is the hero.

Which is too bad, because Jack Burden is one of the most interesting and compelling characters in American literature. He doesn't always understand the people around him, but it's not for lack of trying. Furthermore, he has a commitment to thought, to understanding, that we rarely see in our pop culture. He left his career as a historian because he realized he could not understand the man whose story he was trying to tell. And without that understanding, every word he put down would have been a lie.

Near the climax of the book, Jack learns something that shakes him to the very core of his being. And in response he drives from Louisiana to California, stays in California for a few days and then drives back with a clearer mind. In doing so, he is aware of recreating the escaping American's journey, for since the colonizing of the land by Europeans, those of its citizens who have found themselves with no options in or understanding of their home have moved West. Over the course of those couple of weeks, Jack confronts things about himself and about the world around him that are beyond specific terminology. They are the experiences and feelings you cannot share with the rest of the world because the act of sharing them alters them so radically as to be rendered meaningless. If knowing thyself can be heroic, Jack Burden is a hero of it.

Of course, this whole business might come down to something even simpler. And what implications this has I shudder to draw. But the reason we might all be so wrong about All the King's Men is because it is called All the King's Men. We assume it's about Willie Stark, because is the king in the title. And though taken as a whole, the title tells you Willie Stark is the character this book is most likely to be least about, it's hard not to latch on to that key word. And though Jack Burden is many important things, he is not a king.

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