Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All The King’s Men, charts the rise and fall of fictional 1930s American politician Willie Stark. Narrated by reporter and writer Jack Burden, we begin by reading about the early days of Stark’s political career, when he values such things as truth and competence, and talks to voters about the technicalities of tax policy. Inevitably, this does not go well. Ruthless state governor, Joe Harrison sets up Stark as a candidate in an election campaign, not because of his sophisticated tax ideas, but as a means to split the opposition vote. After finding out about this plan, a humiliated and shattered Stark is only able to put himself back together again with the glue of cynicism. He vows to adopt the tactics that defeated him, while promising himself that such compromises will eventually be used to do good.
This beautifully written, often gripping, sometimes meandering novel, reminded me of a Greek tragedy where a great leader is brought down by a tragic flaw. But in this modern version it is very difficult to distinguish flaws from virtues. Is there any point being decent and honest if such qualities never get you into a position of power to make a difference? This is typical of the dilemmas Jack Burden ponders over as he watches Willie Stark’s career. Coming to terms with unpleasant compromise is a difficultly that many people face. Even writers like Jack Burden, are not immune. Try as he might to remain a neutral observer, the fact is Jack works for Stark, using his ivory-tower academic training in historical research, to ferret out damaging information on people who stand in his boss’s way. I don’t know what it says about me, but I resonated with the way Jack comes home from a rubbish day at work, doing stuff he does not want to do, and just wants to sleep for as long as possible. I found myself highlighting all the sleep passages.
At the end of the book, idealism and cynicism destroy each other – I won’t say how, out of respect for your reading pleasure. Suffice to say, extremes cancel each other out. But after a shocking denouement, there is a hint of a more moderate and reasonable future, in the shape of politician Hugh Miller. I’m not saying that All The King’s Men is any sort of manifesto for a particular brand of politics. In the usual way of a good novel, All The King’s Men presents problems to explore rather than supposed solutions to live by. But maybe this lack of prescription is all part of the book’s nuanced suggestion that maintaining our own personal involvement will give us the best chance. Robert Penn Warren based Willie Stark on real life politician, Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, who used the slogan ‘every man a king’. Ironically, while Huey Long, and his fictional counterpart Willie Stark were both vocal in proclaiming ‘power to the people’, their dictatorial actions and personalities tended to work in the opposite direction. They did not live up to the idea of making everyone a monarch. Perhaps that was their fatal flaw.
In real-world politics it can be generally said that high turnouts, and proportional representation – giving more weight to individual votes – increase the likelihood of politically moderate outcomes. And the middle is probably the best place to find reasonable government, of the sort Hugh Miller represents in All The King’s Men. This gives a bit of real-world support for the idea that it’s a good idea to haul ourselves out of bed and get involved, even if it’s only to vote – just as it is better to try to write a novel, or a review, even if you will never write the perfect one. That’s what “the responsibilities of time” mentioned in the last line probably involve.