Over the summer I approached a point where I was completely bored, trying to find something to watch, play or read to just pass the time. In that dull moment, a close friend recommended that I read Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” (1946) because he thought that as a political junkie I would love it. What I discovered was a novel that perfectly represents our current political shortcomings in America, complemented by the heartbreaking narrative voice of its central character as he reflects on his life.
“All the King’s Men” follows the rise and fall of Willie Talos aka “The Boss”, a politician with remarkable charisma, through the eyes of his close associate Jack Burden. Burden takes us through his life journey, which he realizes has become irrevocably linked to Talos, starting with his reflections on time spent with the impressionable young lawyer, through to his turbulent decline at the peak of his career. to be able to. Burden’s perspective is captivating for his attention to detail and the pervasive feeling that he will never quite understand or forgive Talos’ complex actions.
the character of Talos mirrors that of the real-life governor of Louisiana and later Senator Huey Long (D-La.). Talos and Long have similar characteristics. First, they both serve as advocates for the forgotten and the tired of the political establishment. In addition, they are amplifying their campaigns by attacking political elites in rural and urban areas for their stagnation in tackling societal problems. Talos and Long’s commitment and exceptional willingness to stick to great visions captivates the mind. Each defended a populist message of great state solutions to counter what they saw as excess elitism, corruption and ignorance. Their personalities and messages channel people’s dissatisfaction with the political status quo and mobilize them for action, in ways we often see today.
As our turbulent 2020 election season draws to a close, Warren’s “All the King’s Men” illustrates why people are drawn to populists like Talos and Long. It is their ability to prophesy their ability to solve common man’s problems, to those who feel neglected by politicians or denigrated for their beliefs. In the current political environment, these appeals have proven to be largely effective. Numerous to feel the political establishment ignored their cries of insecurity and discontent with the status quo. Their retaliation is the promotion of populist leaders like US President Donald Trump or Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Who exemplify these concerns and assure them they matter.
Sadly, “All of the King’s Men” portrays the falls in the exercise of authority with a Pharisaic view centered on personal validation. Talos’ rise to power corrupts his idealistic, governance-centric approach, and his transformation from a calm, rules-oriented lawyer with a high moral bar into a power-hungry demagogue who fuels his political agenda by blackmail and strongman tactics are both surprising and poetic.
Talos character serves as a role model for Lord Acton quote, “Absolute power absolutely corrupts,” in a way that makes you hate Talos’ personality changes that border on the irremediable. Its transition should serve as a reminder that whatever the intention, some people, when placed in positions of power, will naturally gravitate to expressing the extent of their authority. It’s a scary trend that we can see across the world with the retrograde democracies and to augment strong political men.
It should be recognized that the book has characters with complicated views on sensitive topics, such as the use of race-insensitive language and the prevalence of racial stereotypes. In fact, even Burden’s character frequently makes sneaky remarks and racial overtones about the position of black Americans. He’s not the only character who shares these views, with some being more outspoken by spitting out worse vitriol than Burden. To say the least, it can be incredibly uncomfortable to read.
However, not all of the characters in the novel profess these opinions to the same extent, and some have quite opposite opinions. Notably, Talos prides himself on his ability to bridge the gaps of inequality and inequity between blacks and whites in his state – although that does not excuse his improvised racist language. There are other characters like Adam Stanton, a doctor who deals with low income communities. He insists on a desire to improve the health of his patients regardless of their disposition, even though some of his personal thoughts are controversial. Nonetheless, being confronted with literature that contains problematic material is beneficial to the ongoing dialogue around racial justice. By questioning unpleasant representations of race, we can better recognize how far we still have to be prepared to push for the advancement of society.
At best, “All the King’s Men” offers a compelling tale of the rise and fall of a well-meaning individual determined to reform government, who ends up embodying the very thing he was against. It’s a work that resonates with those who are fed up with the political system, but it also warns us about the kind of political demagogue that can arise from these emotions. Overall, Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is a brilliant examination of the intricacies of American politics, as it illustrates a shocking picture that retains its relevance in today’s political dynamic.
Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.