All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

Posted 21 May, 2008 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 14 Comments

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Title: All the King’s Men
Author: Robert Penn Warren
Date Finished: May 20, 2008
Yearly Count: 26
Pages: 438
Rating: 3.5/5

WAHHHOOOOO! I was assigned this book my junior year of college and didn’t finish; since then I have picked it up two or three times, read a dozen or so pages, and put it right back down. But, I finally persevered and finished it. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for six years and can finally breathe.

All the King’s Men is about a southern politician, Willie Stark, as he makes an unlikely climb up the political ladder to become governor of an unnamed state (based loosely on the life of Huey P. Long–so the state is in theory Louisiana). He is used by others at first to help split a vote, but when Stark finds out he is being played by others he stakes his claim and begins speaking directly to the people. He doesn’t win his election, but the people hear his voice. Soon he does become governor, but somewhere along the way he becomes entrenched in the power of his position and…well, I’m not going to tell you!

While the story of Willie seems to be the main focus, the book is narrated by Jack Burden, a once newspaper man and later the secretary and right-hand man to Willie. As Jack explains, “the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in a sense, one story” (157). It slowly becomes clear that Jack’s search for truth and meaning is the center and heart of All the King’s Men. Jack tells the story of Willie’s climb to the top, of his love affairs with various women, of his short comings and failings, but really, Jack is telling his own story about love and loss, redemption and truth, and finally answers to all of the questions.

So, did I like the book? I did like it. I didn’t love it. The language Warren uses throughout the book is at the same time beautiful and tedious. This is not a weekend book, nor do I think it was meant as such. Every sentence (there is little dialogue) is packed with careful meaning, and I found myself having to re-read passages in order to grasp all of the hidden connections and subtle metaphors. But essentially I believe this quote gives a nice little summary of what is at the heart of this book (and it also gives a taste for the writing):

“…the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping” (188-9).

Although Jack acts as if he is a bystander in the book, merely recording the events as they happen, he has to take responsibility for his actions–how even the slightest touch to the web of life will cause the other threads to ripple infinitely. Everything from his relationship to his mother, his love affair with Anne, his father and what he asks of him, and the way that all of these things connect to Willie shape the story–making All the King’s Men as much the story of Jack as it is Willie.

This book is a fascinating look into the human mind and one that I am grateful to have encountered. There has been some talk on the classics meme that I put up last weekend about how sometimes we don’t know why a classic is a classic–and I think in many cases this book is a classic, but I’m wondering why it was left off of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. For all of its longwindedness (reminiscent of Faulkner–who is the king of Southern Lit…right??) :) it is a captivating and thought-evoking book.

*If you’ve reviewed it, let me know!

14 Responses to “All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren”

  1. Hurray for finishing! What a great review! I recently saw this movie, and afterwards, I had to do a bit of research on “The Kingfish” to see how much of the book/movie were true depictions of his life. Since I read this book quite a long time ago, I don’t remember it well and would like to re-read it. But…you know about how difficult it is to re-read! :)

  2. *Jeane–thanks! I DID like this book! :) I have a difficult time rating books without taking into consideration my *experience* and in this case, the experience was a lot of work. I didn’t rush home to pick up the book, but I did enjoy it. I just enjoyed it very very slowly. Ha!

    *Laura – I did a little bit of research on Long this morning, but finally decided that maybe it doesn’t matter so much (Warren made it clear that Willie Stark is Willie Stark–even if Long colored the character a little). Anyway, I look forward to seeing the movie–finally. :)

  3. First,congratulations for getting through it. Second, I don’t know why (really), but this was one of my favorite books as a teenager. I think I liked those long passages that Warren wrote for some reason. I saw the old movie version of it, but didn’t see a need to see the new one with Sean Penn. I thought it was a waste to remake a classic. But I still liked the book better than the movie — at least, the first one.

  4. Hooray Trish! But you realize you’ve left me a bit scared here. I have a feeling I’d better start this one now and work my way through it slowly if I’m to have any hope of finishing it by the end of the year. Sounds like it will be worth the effort though, huh?

  5. I’ve been interested in this one ever since I read The Polysyllabic Spree. Nick Hornby writes about it quite a bit. From what you said it sounds like a demanding book, but a worthwhile one.

  6. *Readingfool – Oh dear, I don’t think I could have gotten through this one in high school (wait, I couldn’t even get through it in college!). :) I haven’t seen either movie version, but a few months ago hubby and I picked up a cheap, used copy of the newer version, so I’ll probably watch it sooner or later. Isn’t the book always better than the movie? ;)

    *Debi – Yay!! :D Ok, don’t be scared, but don’t rush it either. The only problem with that is–the chapters are about 40 pages long (in my book anyway) with very few breaks in between. Sometimes it was difficult for me to find a good stopping place so I would just stop in between poor Jack’s thoughts. It was worth the effort, though, definitely.

    *Nymeth – Interesting–I’ll have to check that out. I’ve only read one Hornby book but I really liked it. It was demanding, but the prose alone was worth it–these kinds of books are sometimes far and few between.

  7. I remember learning about Huey Long in college and being fascinated, but I think I’d want something that was written in a fast-paced and charismatic way like the man himself… Warren’s writing style here reminds me very much of some classic American author, maybe Steinbeck? Long and plodding and DETERMINED to get you to their dazzling point no matter how scenic a route they’ve set out on.

  8. JT

    The audio version with Michael Emerson reading as Jack Burden is freaking awesome. If anyone cares.

    I loved this book.

  9. *Danica – definitely not fast-paced or charismatic, but a well-written tale nontheless. I have only read Steinbeck’s later works, but they were writing their earlier stuff at the same time so I guess there could be some influence?

    *JT – I haven’t had much luck with audiobooks, but for one with a longer attention span I would think this would be a great one to listen to. Warren’s writing is fantastic–even if it is a little wordy and circular at times. Glad you loved the book!

  10. Congratulations on finishing. I attempted the book once and set it aside — not actually sure if I kept that copy.

    I love that you began your post with the word wahoo! :)

  11. *Bookfool – It was one big giant wahoo to be finished with this book! I attempted this book several times before finishing. A lot of tough work, but worth it in the end, I think.

  12. This book is one of my White Whales (with Moby Dick as the ultimate). I feel like I SHOULD read it, but I just can’t bring myself to commit. I think I will, eventually, but probably not anytime soon. As with you, I think it will take some perseverance on my part.

  13. *Charley – Like Moby Dick this one was a lot of work but both books are worth it in the end. It definitely took A LOT of perserverance to finish this one!!