Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
All the King’s Men
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (#36 on the Modern Library’s list) is a story of political corruption and of the trickling-down effect of a political machine, the lust for power that drives it and the infection it spreads. Narrated by Jack Burden, a young man enamored of and caught up in the machinations, the novel is complex in characters and plotting and vibrant in its prose.
The opening scene sets the tone and establishes the metaphor of the story. It says, with journalistic immediacy and in zinging, popping style like that of the Beats (though written a decade before them), this: You could go careening off the road, mesmerized as you are by speed, the power of your car, and the gleaming black road – brand-new – laid out before you. You could drop a wheel off the edge, lose control, and go hurtling to an untimely death witnessed by people who don’t seem to matter much to society, who have seen it before, who remark on it briefly and sardonically before returning to their labors. Or you might catch yourself in time and avert your own tragic demise.
The central figure of this story, Willie Stark, quickly became the iconic politician, one who seeks power and more power, manipulating people and ruining lives just because he can. He is the image of the corrupting influence of power, and of the denigration of the notions of a Democracy, which at the time the story is set (late 1930s) was a hot topic the world over.
Just as compelling are the stories dependent on Willie’s, the stories of Jack Burden, his childhood friend, Adam Stanton, the woman he’s in love with, Ann Stanton (Adam’s sister), and his mentor, Judge Irwin. Jack is happy to be taken up by Willie Stark, to be an important person to this important man, to swagger around town with Willie’s gang, who have nicknames instead of real names, like gangsters. He is happy to maintain what he believes is his impartiality as a newspaper reporter. He is happy to reel into this world these other people from his earlier life. He believes he can see through Willie, and keep him in proper perspective. He casts his descriptive judgment on Willie: the man with the Christmas tie and the schoolteacher wife. He sees himself as in-the-know, smart and connected, cool, immune to influence. He’s just as immune to Willie’s growing perfidy as he is to Adam’s high moralism. He knows himself and knows what’s what.
In Jack’s self-delusion is the power of this story. How strong a personality do you have to be to withstand the personality of someone like Willie Stark? How many tiny little compromises to the relentlessness of that personality does it take to break down your own? You take these tiny little steps in the name of picking your battles, in the name of furthering your own career, in the name of avoiding conflict, or even maybe out of moral laziness. And then one day you find you’ve gone a step too far. You find you have put aside your own ethical values and are yourself a corrupt individual, without claim to scruples.
This story takes place on the grand scale of American political office, where the power of corruption is supposed to matter the most. It was supposedly (though the author reportedly disclaimed this) based on a real politician who was big at the time. Over the decades, the story has played out again and again, to the point that it almost goes without saying that government is a machine operated by a small ambitious and unscrupulous group, excluding all of us weary laboring menials. But this story also hits at the level of individual lives, in the workplace, for instance: it is no coincidence that Willie Stark is called “Boss.” In All the King’s Men, Jack’s myriad compliances and appeasements lead to abject tragedy. In life, the outcomes can be subtler. It is a cautionary tale, told with brilliance.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.