The Book Club

Back, and Crummier

Dear Erik,

All the King’s Men, a slightly altered version of which we’re reviewing here, won the Pulitzer Prize for Robert Penn Warren half a century ago. Since then it has been lauded as an “American classic” by two sorts of people: lachrymose Southern chauvinists, who have a stake in its themes and its lawdy-lawdy-god-amighty prose; and political junkies, who cull it for points of contact with, or divergence from, the contemporary scene. (“Like the corrupt governor Willie Stark,” begin dozens of thumb-sucking op-eds, “President Clinton has …”) All the King’s Men, in other words, is the favorite novel of those for whom novel-reading is the 26th or 27th most important thing in the world. That is the only explanation I can offer for how this lazy, long-winded piece of pseudo-intellectual palaver could have remained in print for 55 days, let alone 55 years.

The novel is misunderstood. It is not a political but a philosophical novel. The career of Gov. Willie Stark is merely backdrop to the philosophical explorations of the narrator, his aide Jack Burden. There isn’t much of a plot, aside from one nice gothic twist that causes a cataract of consequences—Burden blackmails his boss’s political opponent Judge Irwin, only to discover after he commits suicide that Irwin had been his father. Nor is there any character development at all. As a result, all the pivotal scenes are wholly unconvincing: Willie’s conversion from political  patsy to demagogue; the revelation that Burden’s love, Anne Stanton, is sleeping with Stark. Whenever Burden/Warren gets particularly pedantic, he falls into speaking of himself in the third person. “As a student of history, Jack Burden could see that Adam Stanton, whom he came to call the man of idea, and Willie Stark, whom he came to call the man of fact, were doomed to destroy each other …” and blah, blah, blah. Thus it becomes apparent that the characters are mere stand-ins for terms in a not particularly interesting philosophical argument, empty vessels into which Burden/Warren pours his Purty Language.

It’s this Purty Language that is the most striking—and off-putting—part of the book. Sometimes it is merely the kind of gassy pontification you can find in any bad novel. (“How life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaf of the willow.”) Sometimes it is a kind of Bad Hemingway. (“But back then there was always the afternoon.”)

Most often, though, it is a kind of sloppy, metaphor-mad overexuberance peculiar to Warren: “… her face seemed to smooth itself out and relax with an inner faith in happiness the way the face of the chief engineer does when he goes down to the engine room at night and the big wheel is blurred out with its speed and the pistons plunge and return and the big steel throws are leaping in their perfect orbits like a ballet, and the whole place, under the electric glare, hums and glitters and sings like the eternal insides of God’s head, and the ship is knocking off twenty-two knots on glassy, starlit sea.”

But there’s another, more carnal element. Nowhere will you find such a close pairing of bloodless pedantry and scatological obsession: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” says Willie Stark. (The “didie”?) “It is possible that fellows like Willie Talos are born outside of luck …” Burden reflects. “They are what they are from the time they surprise Mumsie with the first kick inside the tummy until the end.” (Mumsie? The tummy?) I will leave aside the frequent and obsessive references to turd that bespatter the book, almost always gratuitously. This book teeters on the edge of being the Diary of a Weirdo.

Just as there’s a tension among infantilism and scatology and eroticism, there’s a confusion between Burden’s prissy “philosophical” voice and his filthy roughneck one. This tension is usually resolved by jamming the two of them together. “Listen, pal,” Burden says to his surgeon friend Adam Stanton, “there was a man named Dante, who said that the truly proud man who knew his own worth did never commit the sin of envy. …” So let me stress this: It is not that Warren wants to show that man is a mass of contradictions, that love (and intellect) have pitched their mansion in the place of excrement. It’s that Burden’s narrative voice—which is all there is in this novel—is out of control.

Noel Polk’s new edition of Warren’s novel is a fool’s errand. Polk thinks that a penultimate version of All the King’s Men, as it existed before Warren’s editor Lambert Davis got his hands on it, is much better than the book we know. “We … with the benefit of over half a century of serious study of All the King’s Men,” Polk writes, “are in a better position to understand and appreciate the full range of the novel’s complexities and the full scope of its accomplishments.”

Au contraire. This new edition will convince the careful reader that if Warren had had his way, the novel would have been even worse than it is already. If the largest problem is the tension between the narrator’s pomposity and his crassness, then by taking out a bit of each, Warren’s editors produced a slightly less crummy book.

What really upsets Polk is that Davis was able to prevail on Warren to change the name of his main character from Talos to Stark, despite Warren’s feeling that the strange name Talos had “metaphorical overtones.” (As if the book didn’t have enough of those already.) “Talos is indeed much richer than Stark in the ‘metaphorical overtones’ and in literary resonances than even Davis recognized,” Polk notes. “Talos was the bronze man in Greek mythology …” The name Talos, Polk explains, “adds numerous dimensions to Willie’s very complex relationship to the state he both serves and exploits.” No, it doesn’t: It just replaces a memorable name with a gimmicky one and adds another unproductive puzzle to a novel that is full of them.

In general, the changes are minor—colons instead of commas in conversation, one long chapter cut into two short ones. It is essentially the same book we know. But Polk has restored plenty of evidence that Warren had the sexual maturity of a 13-year-old. Having decided not to make a front-seat play for Anne after a wispily romantic summer and an evening driving around sharing dreams, Burden blurts, “Hell, somebody had probably hosed her already.” (And hosed her right good, I reckon.) Obviously, such passages were penciled out not because they were sexy but because they were not.

Polk has also let stand all of the hard-boiled touches that the editors removed—like “the sad Goddamned poetic festoons of spanish moss.” Of course Davis cut “Goddamned” not because it was obscene but because it was embarrassing. (And he rode off into the fucking sunset.)

You know what you say to an editor who cuts such things? You say, “Thank you.”