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All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud."

Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren is the only person to win the Pulitzer prize for fiction as well as poetry. He won the prize for fiction in 1946 for this very book. If you are lucky enough to have a great aunt who reads, and bought a lot of books in the 1940s, you might take a gander at her books some time and see if she has a first edition, first printing of this book in her library.

First edition, First printing of the 1946 edition

Depending on the condition of the dust jacket a true first will bring anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000. It will be up to you; if you decide to "liberate" the book, tucking it under your shirt, and sneaking it out with the paper bag of home made oatmeal cookies she always sends you home with. If you are not a natural felon you might just say "hey auntie couldn't you tuck this in a safety deposit box and put my name on it".

The last time I was in New Orleans they were shooting the new movie version of All the King's Men. We sat in a little cafe across from where they were setting up a shoot hoping for a glimpse of one of the marquee actors involved in the production. No luck, just film crew people bustling around trying to build a street scene. We were anxious to explore the little bookshops and artist galleries in the French Quarter, so we left before seeing anything truly interesting. I have not seen the 1949 or 2006 film versions. From the reviews I skimmed, both movies seem to struggle to capture the true essence of the book. I'm not surprised, even if they put the book through a small holed strainer, they would still have way more material than what a standard length movie can handle.

1949 Movie Poster

2006 Movie Poster

Jack Burden, newspaper reporter, finds himself following around an ambitious, well meaning, but naive candidate named Willie Stark. A man hand picked to split the vote in the primary and insure the nomination of the customary corrupt, crony, politician that Louisiana is famous for. Stark is the only person who is unaware that the fix is on. He is stumping and receiving discouraging indifference from his crowds as he tries to tell them the truth. As he finds himself on the ropes more than he is in the ring, he starts to understand that to be successful he will have to give the crowds what they want. He replaces substance with hyperbole, and Burden observes the emergence of a candidate and the corruption of an honest man. Warren based Stark on the dynamic personage of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long.

Huey P. Long

Burden soon finds himself unemployed, but Stark always liked him and gave him a prominent position on his staff. Stark, though soundly defeated, uses the time between elections to become a polished orator and electable candidate. Burden studied for a history degree in college and believes from his studies that truth will always win out. As he becomes more ensnared in the shady activities of Governor Stark's administration he starts to stumble over his own high ideas of the worthiness of truth. He tries to convince himself that he just does what the boss wants him to do. What the boss does with the information he brings him has nothing to do with him, but the longer he is involved, and the more people he knows who become victims of Stark's ambition the less distance he can claim.

"I didn't mean to cause any ruckus. I didn't think--" And all the while that cold, unloving part of the mind--that maiden aunt, that washroom mirror the drunk stares into, that still small voice, that maggot in the chess of your self-esteem, that commentator on the ether nightmare, that death's-head of lipless rationality at your every feast--all that while that part of the mind was saying: You're making it worse, your lying is just making it worse, can't you shut up, you blabbermouth!"

Burden is in love with Anne Stanton, his childhood friend and the daughter of a previous governor. Briefly they are an item and then they drift apart. Burden marries Lois, the woman who has the "peach bloom of cheeks, the pearly ripe but vigorous bosom, the supple midriff, the brooding, black, velvety-liquid eyes, the bee-stung lips, the luxurious thighs." Despite these attributes they have different goals and different ambitions and the elephant in the room is the fact that Jack is still in love with Anne. He becomes close friends with Anne again. He can't help but make allusions to the fact that his marriage proposal is still on the table. Even though she is 35 and never been married she continues to dance around the issue. Burden can't ever see her as just a friend.

"It was Anne Stanton herself, who stood there in the cool room of the looking glass, above the bar barricade of bright bottles and siphons across some distance of blue carpet, a girl--well, not exactly a girl any more, a young woman about five-feet-four with the trimmest pair of nervous ankles and smallish hips which, however, looked as round as though they had been turned on a lathe, and a waist just the width to make you wonder if you could span it with your hand, and all of this done up in a swatch of gray flannel which pretended to a severe mannish cut but actually did nothing but scream for attention to some very unmannish arrangements within."

Stark still sees himself as one of the good guys despite the number of men he has felt compelled to destroyed. He came to the conclusion that it was better to destroy them than to bribe them. If he bribes them he still has to keep those untrustworthy associates in his organization. If he destroys them they can no longer thwart his ambitious aims. He is on a self-imposed mission to use the corrupt system, but use it for good.

"Goodness. Yeah, just plain, simple goodness. Well you can't inherit that from anybody. You got to make it. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. And you know why? Because there isn't anything else to make it out of."

When Burden experiences the ultimate betrayal it hit me like a left hook coming out of the smokey darkness of an Oklahoma bar. I never saw it coming and I had to stagger away from the book for a while. Jack took 8 days and ran away to California. I took thirty minutes to go stand out on my deck and let some fresh air sort my scattered thoughts.

There is a whole marvelous section on Cass Mastern, Jack's relative, who provides a colorful history for Jack to research for his PHD. I almost need a separate review to handle the intricate betrayals explored by Warren in that section. I notice that the departure from the main story line bothered other reviewers. I just thought I'd been handed another thick seam of gold to be mined. I like history and I especially like family history, so I didn't mind the story in the story at all.

Political cynicism wrapped in lyrical prose makes this one of the more fascinating books I've read in many, many years. It is an honest book, exposing all the worst elements of human behavior. We are so good at fooling ourselves into thinking that when we do wrong for the greater good we are still on the side of the angels. Highly recommended!!

If anyone has any political novels that they love, and feel I should read, please send me your recommendations. It tis the season.