When you’re standing there in front of your bookshelf, trying to decide what to read or reread, who knows what may guide your hand? I certainly thought I was being random a couple weeks ago when I picked out Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, but it’s clear in retrospect that unconscious forces were at work. Governor Willie Stark would be right at home in our current age, where news of the politics of manipulation and the manipulation of politics routinely make the front page. Unlike Bush, Stark’s strongarm tactics and underhanded ploys are devoted toward building a free public hospital, not fulfilling a gonzo neoconservative sense of national destiny. But while their ideologies may differ, their tactics are similar. Tiny Duffy and Karl Rove could no doubt spend hours comparing notes. The book also had personal correspondences: Jack Burden, the protagonist, finds himself helping Stark carry out his dirty work because he is somewhat adrift in the world. He got there after abruptly walking away from a dissertation in history.
None of that was on my mind as I yanked the novel off the shelf, but I was curious about whether I would think as highly of it as I had the first time I read it, seven or eight years ago. I walked into my PhD comprehensive exams prepared to defend All the King’s Men as the greatest post-Modern (speaking chronologically, not philosophically) American novel—not that I necessarily believed that in my heart of hearts, but it wasn’t an unreasonable assertion. And while I wasn’t quite as enraptured with it this time around, it certainly holds up as one of the greats. I now know that McCarthy’s Blood Meridian would have to take top honors in that category, but ATKM definitely has a slot in the top five.
A little help here: I’m trying to think of a prior literary example of an observer-protagonist like Jack Burden. In other words, a novel (or other work) that’s about an important public figure, but the story is told through the eyes of a minor player on the historical stage who ends up, in the final analysis, to be the real center of the tale. I hesitate to name Warren the originator of this technique, since as soon as I do I’ll think of an earlier example. But I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
Warren doesn’t have fame these days in sufficient proportion to his accomplishments. In addition to being a strong novelist and an occasionally brilliant poet, he was one of a handful of people who shaped and (arguably) invented the way that literature is taught in American classrooms today. American Literature: The Makers and the Making, edited by Warren and Cleanth Brooks, remains a superlative AmLit anthology chock-full of keen analysis. Too bad it’s long-since out of print.