Sunday, July 18, 2010

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Author:  Robert Penn Warren  
Published:  1946  
Length:  661 pages  
Source:  Local Library  
Award:  Pulitzer Prize
Challenges:  1930's Mini Challenge, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Personal Enjoyment Factor:  5/5

"The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know.  He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him."

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one that wowed me.  The writing gave me an adrenaline rush, and pleasure not unlike the ecstasy of deliberately savoring a Godiva truffle.  (Yikes, I'm making my mouth water.) 

Chocolate similes aside, the story focuses mainly on two men:  Willie Stark, an idealistic, but simple  lawyer turned corrupt politician in 1930's Louisiana, and Jack Burden, the guy who does much of his dirty work for him--digging into the past to uncover information to use against his political enemies.  As Stark satisfies his lust for power, Burden is searching  for knowledge and truth--sometimes passively, sometimes actively--not only about the people he is investigating, but about the whole meaning (or lack thereof) of life and morality and love and responsibility and identity.  

For me, Jack Burden's philosophical ramblings were the most satisfying part of the book, but Warren knows just when to pull out and get back to the story, which was compelling.  The characters were vividly drawn and memorable.   There's a touch of melodrama here and there, but it has just the perfect effect.   I humbly proclaim All the King's Men a masterpiece.  Modern Library was not quite as enthusiastic as me--they named it the 36th best English-language novel of the 20th century.  Not bad, but I'd gladly kick one out of the top ten and replace it with this one.  Like Ulysses or Sons and Lovers.  I would not be sad to see them go.  They're more like brussels sprouts, not gourmet candy.

Here's a chocolate sample, or at least food for thought:
"Perhaps the only answer, I thought then, was that by the time we understand the pattern we are in, the definition we are making for ourselves, it is too late to break out of the box.  We can only live in terms of the definition, like the prisoner in the cage in which he cannot lie or stand or sit, hung up in justice to be viewed by the populace.  Yet the definition we have made of ourselves is ourselves.  To break out of it, we must make a new self.  But how can the self make a new self when the selfness which it is, is only the substance from which the new self can be made?"

I'm still digesting that one.

For a collection of reviews of other books about the 1930's, check out this post at Things Mean A Lot.


  1. wow, this sounds so great. For you to proclaim it a masterpiece -- I'm adding it to my "READ SOONER" list!

  2. I love this book. I found some of the ramblings a big long, but I love Jack (and Willie, but for totally different reasons. It's such a great story.

  3. Your post has definitely sold me! I saw the classic (b&w) film adaptation a couple of months ago and was really impressed, but I can't compare it to the book. Have you seen it?

  4. Rebecca,
    I hope when you do get to it you enjoy it as much as I did!

    The characters are so well written! I'm glad you liked it too.

    I saw the classic about 15 years ago and don't remember much of it. I have read that they stray from the story quite a bit, so I think I might wait a while before watching it again.

  5. I read this for the first time a couple years ago and just fell in love with it. It was so beautifully written and there's so much going on. I'm glad you loved it too!

  6. I have always wanted to read this book, even own a copy, but I'm not sure what's stopped me so far. One thing is for certain: reading how much you loved it is the best incentive I could have received! I'm glad you liked it and now I'm definitely going to read this book before the end of the year.

  7. Like you, I loved this book. I read it several years ago for one of my book clubs, and I won't forget it. I don't know much about the South, or politics, and this novel made both come alive for me. I'm fairly certain it won a Pulitzer...

  8. Thanks to you, I read this and loved it. I hope you don't mind if I link this review to mine when I post my quotes tomorrow.