The Book Club

“There Is No Humanity to Any of Warren’s Characters”

Dear Erik,

Warren certainly has the requisite sensitivity on the issue of race. One of his remarkable passages is a historical flashback that captures the paranoia of whites in the slave South. A rich young woman, whose husband has committed suicide on discovering her affair with his best friend, suspects that one of her slaves knows her secret, so she immediately takes her down river and sells her as a concubine. (“She will tell. All of them will know. All of them in the house will look at me and know—when they hand me the dish—when they come into the room—and their feet don’t make any noise!”)

And yet you’re right that Warren mostly fails on race. The failure is artistic. One of the changes made by the editors is quite revealing. In Noel Polk’s version of All the King’s Men (the one we have before us), there is a sentence that ends, “… Alex Michel, who approaches the table with an air of command which would deceive only an aged, infirm and unarmed nigger.” This is Purty Writing at its most illogical. Why would a man who was old, sick, weaponless, and black be more likely to be deceived by something? So in the 1946 version (the one we read in college), editors altered that sentence to read, “… Alex Michel, who approaches the table with an air of command which would deceive no one.” The 1946 version, of course, is vastly better—on literary, not political, grounds.

A novel as showily “Southern” as this one would be dishonest if it did not present race as an ever-thrumming subtext. Complacent racism is not just a plausible means of character development here—if this novel is to be true to its period and place, such racism must be present in abundance. The problem is that Warren loses track of whether he wants Jack Burden to be a complacent racist. Early in the book, Warren toyed with making Burden the kind of guy who throws around the word “nigger,” then took the character in a more progressive direction. (In the passage you quote, he’s actually defending—perhaps as bravely as the circumstances would permit—a school-building proposal of Willie Stark’s that would have employed lots of local blacks.) So let me repeat a point I made yesterday and disagree with one of yours: The confusion in this book does not result from the complexity of Jack Burden’s character. It results from Warren’s loss of control of his narrative voice. Warren’s problem is not that he’s a racist. It’s that he’s a bad novelist.

You’re quite right that there is no humanity to any of Warren’s black characters. You know why? Because there is no humanity to any of Warren’s characters. He is misanthropic to the point where he makes Flaubert look like the Salvation Army. You’ll notice, in that vivid description you quoted yesterday, that he is basically comparing Tiny Duffy to a pile of turd. (Those omnipresent turds.) Here is Warren on Stark’s jilted mistress Sadie Burke: “Her chopped-off black hair was wild and her face was chalk white and the afternoon light striking across it made it look more than ever like the plaster-of-paris mask of Medusa riddled with BB shot.”

Now, you can be misanthropic and still humanize the people you hate, as Flaubert and Waugh do. But Burden/Warren uses his misanthropy to dehumanize. Whenever he gets in a moral jam—that is, whenever he must reckon with others’ humanity and his own—he takes a phony-scientific distance, as when his mother asks him whether he said anything to provoke Judge Irwin’s suicide: “I looked into her face and studied it. The light wasn’t any too kind to it. Light would never be kind to it again.” The wizened old bitch! She deserves to be lied to!

If Warren were merely presenting Jack as an unreliable narrator, that would be one thing. But I see no evidence that he ever views Jack’s obtuseness as obtuseness. No—Burden/Warren’s preference is to view people as masses and types and herds, as when he looks into an apartment building at a “typical” poor family: “The shade of a window was up and I looked in where a heavy, bald man in shirt-sleeves sat at a table in what is called a ‘dinette’ and slumped like a sack propped in a chair, above a plate while a child stood at his elbow, plucking at him, and a woman in a slack colorless dress and hair stringing down brought a steaming saucepan from the stove, for Pappa had come home late as usual with his bunion hurting, and the rent was past due and Johnnie needed shoes and …” I’ll stop there, since this goes on for a whole paragraph, but you get the point. Jack’s stepfather, a fairly important figure in the book, is introduced only as “The Young Executive,” and gets described only through his mustache. We never even learn his name.

If Warren consistently demeans any group in this book, it’s not blacks but women. At one point, Burden’s thoughts turn “to Lois, who was damned good looking, a lot better looking, I suppose, than Anne, and juicy while Anne was inclined to bone and muscle under flesh. Lois looked edible, and you knew it was tender all the way through, a kind of mystic combination of filet mignon and a Georgia peach aching for the tongue and ready to bleed gold.”

Well, yum, yum, I suppose—but this view of women is fatal to the book. The above paragraph gives us all we know of Anne, the love interest, on whose decisions so much pivots. I have never seen a female character who appears on so many pages while remaining such a cipher, such an opacity. Anne is delineated by a series of tics, all of which have to do with aggrandizing the narrator—her habit of calling Jack by his full name and of making little silly rhymes out of it. (“Oh, Jackie Boy, oh Jackie Bird, it’s a wonderful night, a wonderful night, his eyes are not bad but his nose is a fright.”) There’s also a half-sentence about her charitable work. And that’s it. Especially since she makes such a lousy … well, meal, to judge from above … what is there left for Jack to fall in love with, let alone be obsessed with for 20 years? Why does Anne fall in love with Willie Stark?

We could perform the same exercise with Anne’s fellow ciphers—Adam Stanton, Burden’s putative father “The Scholarly Attorney,” and Willie Stark himself, none of whom evolves by a micron in the course of the book. (The only exception is Willie’s blaze-of-light conversion to populism, when he discovers the party machine has been using him as a patsy. This conversion has all the subtlety of the Charles Atlas 98-Pound Weakling ad.)

But let’s not and say we did. It has been a pleasure traveling south with you.