Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men took me a bit by surprise. It’s always pitched as a story based heavily on the life of Huey “Kingfish” Long, the popular and populist governor of Louisiana who was later assassinated by the son-in-law of a political rival. I expected a fictionalized biography, but in fact, the Long character, known as Willie Talos (also known as Willie Stark, but more on that in a moment), is a secondary figure in the book. Talos’ figure does loom large within the book, but his character isn’t as rounded as the Burden character is, and in fact none but Jack Burden and Anne Stanton are fully fleshed out. If you enter the book knowing that Burden himself is both narrator and subject, you’ll find the opening two chapters easier to understand.
All the King’s Men is the narrator’s story, not Talos’. The ominously-named Burden is a writer on the politics beat for a daily newspaper, and he ends up assigned to follow Talos on his first campaign for the gubernatorial seat, beginning a partnership that leads to a Chief of Staff-like role for Burden in Talos’ cabinet. Burden’s narrative moves back and forth through time, taking us at various points to his childhood friendship with the Stanton siblings, including a never-quite-finished romance with Anne Stanton; his first meeting with Willie Talos, and then later the epiphany that turns Talos from a pawn into a king in the state’s political arena; and a long and pivotal story from the distant past in Burden’s family, the story of Cass Mastern.
Mastern’s tale is critical to the book and also to understanding the two versions of the book that are in print today. Mastern was Jack’s father’s uncle, and while he was a university student prior to the Civil War, he had an affair with the wife of one of his closest friends, leading to the cuckolded man’s suicide. This sets off a chain of events that leaves Cass feeling the weight of a tremendous guilt for the various lives his selfishness has ruined and pushes him into a long search for redemption. It appears, at first blush, to have little to do with Jack Burden, but as the novel continues to unfold the events in its present time, Burden – who says at the time he tells Cass’ story that he can’t understand why Cass acted the way he did – faces a very similar chain of events, caused not by his own selfishness but by an act he believes to be compassionate, and then he feels he may have “come to understand” the actions of his great-uncle. It is complex storycraft, exploring deep and borderless themes of guilt, redemption, and the difference between how we feel when we undertake an action and how we feel when we see all of its consequences from a later vantage point.
Unfortunately, the editors at Harcourt Brace in the 1950s kept sharpened hatchets on their editing desks and did a number on Warren’s original manuscript. Two of their changes stand out for their awfulness. One was to split the Mastern story apart into its own chapter, obscuring the connection between that tale and the start of the parallel tale in Jack Burden’s life, all because they felt the combined chapter (100 pages in the 2001 hardcover edition) was too long. The other was to change the name of Willie Talos, which they felt was too ethnic, to Willie Stark, a name with a rather obvious connotation that doesn’t fit the character that well. Talos was a minor figure in Greek mythology charged with protecting the island of Crete, a big fish in a small pond much as Willie is in his own state. (If you want to read two professionals engage in a juvenile spat over the dueling versions, check out this back-and-forth between Noel Polk, the professor responsible for publishing the restored edition of Warren’s original manuscript, and Joyce Carol Oates, a novelist who wrote a piece arguing in favor of the bowdlerized version.)
I read the restored original edition, and found that Warren’s demarcation of chapters, his grammatical idiosyncrasies, and his nomenclature all worked well. It’s a story of limited redemption, a little like The Kite Runner without as much wrenching emotion, rather than the epic political drama that it’s reputed to be. (This may have something to do with the 1949 film version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.) Warren can be a bit verbose, but the resolution of the story’s spiderweb subplots is masterful, down to the disintegration of the artificial social structure Talos has built around him. The novel appears on the TIME All-TIME 100 Novels list, and on the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. And with good reason.
(Amazon is selling the 2006 trade paperback version, using the 1951 edited text, for a discounted price of $4.99, but this may only be for a limited time.)