Review of All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 2:All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

Robert Penn Warren’s story set in the political culture of an unnamed southern state where an idealistic self-taught lawyer transforms into a charismatic political operative who eventually becomes governor and is looking ahead to a run for the senate. Willie Talos,[1] or the boss as his staff call him, quickly becomes a savvy and forceful political operator wielding both his popularity, but also using pressure, knowledge of indiscretions, and occasionally bribery. Yet, the story is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former journalist and historian, who becomes a personal assistant to Willie Talos and the story of Willie Talos is the story of Jack Burden and several others who become intwined in this tale of power, desire, relationships, and perceptions. There are aspects of the story that are incredibly relevant even sixty years after its publication. There are times where the plot meanders along as Jack Burden reflects on the path that led him to this point in his life, but ultimately in the end his past and Willie Talos’ present come together in an ending where secrets are revealed and many lives are shattered (and a few are reborn).

Jack Burden’s childhood in Burden’s Landing with his friends Anne and Adam Stanton, his attractive mother and her string of men, his father who walks out on his mother, and Judge Stanton who acts as a second father to Jack all find their way into the story’s progress. Adam and Anne Stanton are the children of a previous governor and Adam, as a popular surgeon, becomes the boss’ choice to run the new hospital he is building for the state. Anne was Jack Burden’s romantic interest growing up and although both she and her brother initially disapprove of the boss, she eventually becomes entangled in an affair with Governor Talos. The Judge appears at the beginning of the story and is a major part of Jack Burden’s narration. Once the Judge endorses another candidate other than the one Governor Talos is backing Jack is instructed to dig into the Judge’s past for any indiscretion. Through his digging into the past, he does discover a time when the Judge took a bribe and when his friend Governor Stanton had covered for him.

Robert Penn Warren does a masterful job of brining all the strings together in the end. The boss becomes manipulated by a political opponent due to his son’s possible impregnation of a young woman and becomes mired in the type of corruption he campaigned against. The investigation of Judge Irwin now becomes important because the judge has influence on the politician attempting to manipulate the boss. When Jack reveals the secret he learned about Judge Irwin, it causes the judge to commit suicide and Jack’s mother in her grief reveals that the Judge was his father. The revelation of the boss’ affair with Anne Stanton by one of the boss’ staff members and former lovers ultimately results in Adam Stanton shooting the boss and taking his own life. The boss also becomes manipulated by a political opponent due to his son’s possible impregnation of a young woman and becomes mired in the type of corruption he campaigned against. Secrets built upon secrets are ultimately revealed and the survivors have to find a new way with the boss, the judge, and the surgeon no longer there to be paragons in their world. Jack Burden eventually makes peace with the reality that each of these men, though not perfect, were good men and he begins to reassemble his life with Anne and the man who raised him as a father.

All the King’s Men is a well told story. There are times where the prose slows the story down or we spend time caught in Jack Burden’s meandering mind, but ultimately it paints a world where power can corrupt, where good men (and women) do occasionally act in unethical ways, where secrets exercise power, and where the sticky world of politics is populated by people struggling for power, influence, and wealth. It is an uncomfortable read at times because it embodies many of the prejudices of the 1930s and 1940s when it is written but it also feels appropriate for its narration of a brash populism that seems to be resurgent in the United States.

[1] Earlier editions named the Governor Willie Stark based on the editor’s recommendation, but Robert Penn Warren wanted his last name to be Talos and that was used throughout the Restored Edition that I read through.

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