Robert Penn Warren’s Political Novel: “Is he a demagogue who regularly flouts the rule of law? Or is he a great man?”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Michael Dirda headlined “A Political Novel for All Eras”:

Half a lifetime ago, I read Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” and thought it just breathtakingly wonderful. . . . Last week I decided to reread it, partly because the book is widely viewed as our finest novel about American politics. How, I wondered, does this Pulitzer Prize winner look in the tumultuous fall of 2020?

Short answer: It’s still amazing.

As many people know, if only from the Oscar-winning 1949 movie, this is the story of Willie Stark, fictional governor of an unnamed Southern state whose political career loosely recalls that of Louisiana’s real-life Huey Long. Narrated in 1939 by Stark’s chief lieutenant, Jack Burden, the book depicts the transformation of an idealistic backwoods hick into a consummate political operator. . . .

But when you start the book, the first thing you notice is Warren’s prose, which glories in its showstopping, even showoffy magnificence and virtuosity. There are long, rolling sentences like coloratura arias and passages that would do a tent-preacher proud, as well as conversations among good ol’ boys that are sheer vulgar poetry, and, throughout, an irresistible narrative exuberance riding on an undercurrent of nostalgia and wistfulness. . . .

Willie Stark rises to power by reminding small-town yokels that he is one of them. He learns to retain power, however, through favors, deals, bribes, threats and blackmail. When one of his appointees turns greedy, he “fixes” the offender so well that “his unborn great-grandchildren will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why.” When threatened with impeachment, Willie rallies his supporters for a raucous protest march on the capital. He even installs his own yes-men on the state’s Supreme Court. And yet, above all else, this sweating, blubber-lipped rascal yearns to build a completely free, absolutely state-of-the-art hospital.

In this, Willie is utterly sincere. He truly wants to help folks who never got anything but promises from previous elected officials, especially ineffectual, lily-white Southern aristocrats. Unlike them, Willie is willing to get his hands dirty, sometimes very dirty. Thus Warren raises that most fundamental of political questions: Do the ends justify the means? Is Willie Stark a redneck demagogue who regularly flouts the rule of law? Or is he, as all the most sympathetic characters in the book maintain, a great man?

Not that he isn’t a flawed human being: Willie cheats on his schoolteacher wife, crows about the gridiron prowess of his oafish son, and shows himself to be nothing if not ambitious, already envisioning a run for the presidency. He emerges, in short, as that ambiguous American archetype: The romantic dreamer with a ruthless core. “All the King’s Men” belongs on the same shelf as “The Great Gatsby” and “The Godfather.”. . .

Almost 75 years have now passed since “All the King’s Men” first appeared, yet Warren’s book continues to deserve its reputation as a great American political novel. And actually, it’s something even better: a great American novel, period.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist for the Washington Post.

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