52 Poems, Week 49: Corruption (Henry Vaughan)
52 Poems, Week 50: The Wish (Abraham Cowley)

Sunday Night Journal, December 9, 2018

I have long been under the impression that All the King's Men is about a populist demagogue similar to Huey Long. Having read the book at last, I don't think that's quite right. It's closer than saying that Macbeth is about Duncan, but it's off the mark in that general direction. All the King's Men does indeed chronicle the rise and fall of the politician Willie Stark, but the real subject of the book is the narrator, Jack Burden, who is Stark's close adviser and assistant and sometimes what would be called today his political "fixer." If you've seen House of Cards (the U.S. version), think of Doug Stamper. 

The story takes place in the 1920s and '30s in an unnamed coastal Southern state that could be Louisiana, Mississippi, or maybe Alabama--the descriptions of the town where Burden is from sounds to me more like the Mississippi coast. Stark is a country boy without money or connections who is elected treasurer of his home county. In that role he resists a corrupt deal pushed by the people who run the place, and although he is expelled from local politics his resistance is spectacularly vindicated, and he attracts attention from outside. Jack Burden is a newspaper reporter in a larger city (perhaps the capitol, I'm not sure) sent to cover the story.

From this point on their lives are joined. Stark is flattered by powerful politicians into running for governor, not grasping that their purpose is only for him to take votes from a candidate they oppose. He pours his heart and all his energy into running as an earnest reformer with a fistful of detailed plans, loses badly, and soon discovers that he has been manipulated. And then he discovers that he himself has quite a talent for manipulating people, not only the voters but the people behind the scenes, and begins to exercise his gifts ruthlessly. Burden leaves his newspaper job and goes to work for him. Together they are especially effective at the political technique of more or less blackmailing people by threatening them with exposure of dirty secrets. Stark's anger at the wealthy and powerful and his desire to improve life for the people of the state are genuine, but his methods are demagoguery and "busting"--that is, ruining the lives--of those who oppose him.

Burden is in many ways Stark's opposite: he is from an old, wealthy, and powerful family, well-connected to other such families. And it is the drama of his life, his family, and two other families close to his, that is the real center of the novel. Stark's rise, which of course is in the foreground publicly, is almost in the background of the novel, serving as the engine which drives developments in Burden's story. We don't hear many of the details of that rise. In fact it's already a fait accompli when the novel opens, some fifteen years after Burden's first meeting with Stark. Stark is now governor, and running for another term. Burden, who among other things is ruthlessly effective at what we now call opposition research, is directed by Stark to find some dirt on a Judge Irwin, a prominent man who opposes Stark. They are driving back from a late-night meeting with the Judge at which he has made clear his disdain for Stark:

The Boss said, "Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you."

And I said, "Callahan?"

And he said, "Nope, Irwin."

And I said, "I don't reckon you will find anything on Irwin."

And he said, "You find it."

We bored on into the dark for another twenty miles and eighteen minutes....

At about the end of that eighteen minutes and twenty miles, I said, "But suppose I don't find anything before election day?"

The Boss said, "To hell with election day...if it takes ten years, you find it."

We clocked off five miles more, and I said, "But suppose there isn't anything to find?"

And the Boss said, "There is always something."

And I said "Maybe not on the Judge."

And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

Two miles more, and he said, "And make it stick."....

Little Jackie made it stick, all right.

Those are the closing words of the first chapter. You figure when you read them that they are setting the stage for something, and you're right. The rest of the book can be seen as a working out of the significance of that exchange, and the working-out involves not only what will happen but what has happened, and how the has-happened affects the will-happen--not determining it, quite, but driving it, not beyond the reach of free will to change it, but to an end which is inevitable unless a deliberate and determined act of will prevents it.

Narrative, character, and effective prose are the essential components of a good novel. (In that order? I think so.) This one gets five stars (out of five) on all counts. I haven't read any of Faulkner's Big Books for some years, but I have been inclined to think them just a bit over-rated. Not that they aren't extremely good, but that they aren't quite as good as they are commonly considered. I thought of Faulkner often while reading All the King's Men, and what I was thinking was this is like Faulkner, but better. Just as rich, but more clear, in both its sentence-level detail and its broad narrative. It moves back and forth in time, as Faulkner often does, but the pieces seem both more distinct in themselves and more clear in their relation to the whole; it is truly a story, not a meditation upon a story, as Faulkner's approach sometimes tends to be. (Take that comparison as an impression, not a considered judgment, as I might change my mind when or if I re-read Faulkner.)

Warren's descriptive passages are extensive and fecund, like Faulkner's, and some might feel that they are excessive. Some indeed might feel that the book is somewhat over-written. But I didn't find it so; for me it's one of those books, like Moby Dick, of which I can say that I enjoyed every word, or almost. I especially liked the rich atmosphere of the many scenes set on the coast, which is a good deal like the area where I've lived since 1992.

Philosophically the book is for the most part quite grim. Here is Stark trying to persuade an idealistic doctor who thinks very badly of him to run the hospital Stark wants to build:

Goodness. Yeah, just plain, simple goodness. Well you can't inherit that from anybody. You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. And you know why, Doc?" He raised his bulk up in the broken-down wreck of an overstuffed chair he was in, and leaned forward, his hands on his knees, his elbows cocked out, his head outthrust and the hair coming down into his eyes, and stared into Adam's face. "Out of badness," he repeated. "And you know why? Because there isn't anything else to make it out of."

Stark again, trying to persuade Jack to use ruinous information against someone:

He kept on studying me. "Boy," he said then, "I'm not asking you to frame him. I never asked you to frame anybody. Did I?"


"Because it ain't ever necessary. You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."

"You sure take a high view of human nature," I said.

"Boy," he said, "I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And--" he grinned suddenly--"I have found it very valuable."

Quite grim, that is, until the end. This goes on my very short list of books that I not only may read again, but intend to read again. It has also made me interested in reading more of Warren, with whom I previously had only slight acquaintance, though I've always been very aware of his importance, in Southern literature especially.


It's satsuma time here. This truck appears at a farm a few miles out of town around this time every year. Aside from it being a source of delicious satsumas, it represents something which I am always happy to see and which I hope will survive. You probably can't read that little T-shaped note on the box directly below the word "Now." It says "Pay Here," with an arrow pointing to a locked box where you deposit your money. I think it's wonderful that people are at least mostly honest enough that this works.



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I bought Satsumas from that truck last year--almost to the day, it was Dec. 11. All the way home I was looking forward to eating them, and they not good at all. It must have been a fluke thing. Nothing on that trip went the way I thought it would, although there were pleasant parts.

We frequently see untended trucks selling food on the side of the road out here. There is a farm that we pass most days with a stand that sells all kinds of produce. One day I wanted some tomatoes, and the man wasn't there. The next time I stopped, I asked if I could just leave the money and take the tomatoes next time. He said, "Yes, just stick it under the scale on the table." Not even a box.

These people are the countriest of the country, and I'm sure that would be held in utter contempt by the elite of the world, but I figure that if a man can put the work of his hands out by the side of the road where anybody could take it and trust that most won't, I want to do business with that man.

I'm not even going to look at the first part of this because I just started the book.


There aren't any real spoilers in the discussion of the book, but there are certainly opinions (obviously) which could prejudice you. I don't blame you, I like to come to a book with as few preconceptions as possible. Depending on the fame and age of the book of course that can be a lot.

I was going to say, the even better thing would be if you just put your money in a jar or something. Too bad about your satsumas. The last bag we had was fine and I'm going to get more this afternoon. I don't think they're over yet.

Mac --

If you follow through on your resolution to read more Warren, I will be very interested to hear your opinion of *World Enough and Time*--a novel that I admire almost as much as ATKM and have even more affection for, since it is the fictionalized rendering of a famous real-life murder story from my home state of Kentucky. The theme is the very human impulse to turn our lives into -- or at least come to think of them as -- artistic creations. The longer I live the more I'm convinced that that impulse explains most of the unhappiness in the world.

Your comparison of Warren's narrative technique with Faulkner's--the difference between "a story and a meditation upon a story"--is the most interesting and provocative critical judgment I have come across in quite a while. My only quibble is that I don't necessarily see that difference giving the advantage to Warren.

I was just reading along in the first chapter with the narrator talking about Sugar Boy, et. al., and thinking, "This guy sounds like Archie Goodwin," but then I came across some really amazing passages.

Now I have to go write my bit for the day. Nine days in a row. I can't remember when I did that.


I hope your oranges are good. Maybe they go off on the 11th, so you better get them today.


I'm pleased to hear that someone who knows Warren's work found at least one interesting insight in this hasty note. The Faulkner remark came as a bit of a surprise to me, actually. It should definitely be considered provisional. I think I was asking myself why I had more pure enjoyment reading All the King's Men than, say, Absalom Absalom.

I suffer a little from Faulkner Misgiving Syndrome, which sometimes afflicts literary Southerners who suspect that Faulkner may no9t be quite as good as he is generally held to be. Maybe just a personal quirk. Though I think the Benji section of The Sound and the Fury is one of the greatest things in literature, or did when I last read it twenty or so years ago.

I'll definitely be reading more Warren. At the moment I want to read some of his non-fiction, specifically about his views on the racial situation, which apparently changed over time. I will put World Enough and Time on the list. And I had forgotten that I have a copy of A Place To Come To, which is from the '70s and is no doubt very different.

Cross-posted with Janet--I was replying to Jeff.

Who is Archie Goodwin? Searching for the name gives me a pro basketball player.

I meant to recommend your Advent series, which, for those who don't know, is here:


He is Nero Wolfe's secretary.

Thanks. I feel like the whole series is more like lessons for the people I'm blogging with, and not like something I would normally write. Sometimes I'm afraid it will morph into a Grandmommy blog but it's only for Advent, and it has me writing.


"people you're blogging with"? It's a group thing?

I wrote about All the King's Men in my original dissertation. Like the final version, it had the Southerners, and Lynch and von Balthasar. But unlike the final published version, it had quite a bit more Southerners. The publishers' readers didn't like the mixture of authors, and every time they told me to shorten the Southerners' chapters, I threw out one or so Southern Writer. So in the end there was no Robert Penn Warren. I have to admit that that was close to thirty years ago now, and I can kinda sorta remember the story of All the King's Men. I liked the novel a lot at the time.

Gretchen Joanna, who comments here occasionally was joining a group of people, women mostly, who are blogging every day in December. Everybody is writing on their own blog, so I decided I would join in. Gretchen and one other woman are Orthodox, but I'm pretty sure most of them are Protestant, and since some of them are reading my blog, I feel like I have to explain things I wouldn't normally explain.


I read All The King's Men longer ago than I care to admit. The only passage that I can remember is the one about maybe we're all just blurs passing in a cow's mind at night...! Anyway, your review has piqued my interest to re-read it and look into the other works by Warren. He gave the address at my college graduation, wish I could remember it. Re Faulkner: I have always thought he was over-rated.I think the definitive commentary on Faulkner was made by James Thurber in a parody he wrote of the Snopeses. If I can find it I will send it to you.

I'd love to see that. And though your description of the bit about blurs in a cow's mind may be irreverent to the great novelist, it's more or less accurate. I'd quote it but it could take me hours to find it.

Janet, I did notice that you were explaining things as if to people who don't ordinarily celebrate Advent. I was very surprised by the way to learn that the Advent wreath was first a Lutheran custom. But thinking about it a little I'm not surprised that it's a relatively recent thing.

Grumpy, All the KM strikes me as being full of theological material, or material that could be fruitfully considered in a theological light. You might find it useful in your teaching. And anyway you'd probably enjoy reading it again.

I think maybe I found the bit about our being but a blur in a cow's mind at Google Books here. Way too lazy to type any of it. :)

To my mind Faulkner is like Dickens and Hardy in a certain sense: not everything they did was good, but when they were good they were very good indeed.

Re Warren, of the fiction I've only ever read ATKM and the short stories. I have a copy of World Enough... but haven't gotten to it. I read ATKM in the early 2000's not long before the Sean Penn/Jude Law movie came out (which is not very good).

I was wondering about that movie. My first thought was "Can Sean Penn be a convincing Southerner?" I have the 1949 movie coming from Netflix soon. I don't have high expectations of it but am curious. It's the sort of book that couldn't possibly be stuffed into a 2-hour movie no matter how gifted the stuffers were.

To the extent of my knowledge, Dickens is always at least pretty good.:-)

Thanks for looking, Marianne. I never think about that Google book search. The bit that link takes me to is not the one Christy is talking about, though, which actually sort of speculates on the cow's state of mind...or something.

I found it. This link seems to take you to all the results of searching for "cow" within the book. The one we're talking about is page 73. Interestingly, it occurs immediately before the "There's always something" passage I quoted.


Here's the Netflix description of the 2006 movie:

"Sean Penn stars as corrupt Southern politician Willie Stark -- a charismatic man who wins the populist vote but, behind closed doors, is as underhanded as those he smeared -- in this remake of an Oscar-winning 1949 film of the same name. Ex-reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) unwittingly helps Stark gain political power, but it's just a matter of time before the governor's crooked dealings are exposed."

If that's an accurate description, the filmmakers didn't really get the book. Burden is not "unwitting", and exposure of the crooked dealings is not Stark's big problem

I liked the '49 film but it doesn't stick closely to the book. I think the later movie had good intentions but just wasn't pulled off very successfully.

I see on wikipedia that Russian television did an ATKM mini-series in 1971. Now that might be interesting!

One day I do need to read this book. I have read Absalom, Absalom at least three times, and it is pretty darn good. The Sound and the Fury is also very good. Those are the only two Faulkner books I have read, because both were assigned to me in college, though I did return to Absalom.

I'm thinking I might re-read Absalom sometime in the not-too-distant future.

I can see how the Soviets would have seen a lot of potential in the book for making anti-capitalist points.

"We were something slow happening inside the cold brain of a cow." Not sure I want to dwell on that thought. :)

John Ireland played Jack Burden in the 1949 movie. I don't remember much of the movie at all, but Ireland always had a rather deep, sad quality about him, very different from Jude Law.


I can't picture John Ireland, though I've probably seen him in something or other. But "rather deep, sad quality" is certainly appropriate for Jack Burden.

I think you recently wrote about watching Farewell, My Lovely. John Ireland was in that; he played the police detective who was a friend of Philip Marlowe.

Oh yeah, Nulty. He was good.

Well, that's as good a description of Faulkner as I've ever seen ... "meditations upon a story". I haven't read ATKM since high school English class. I've been thinking of reading it again one day. It had an impact, but not as much as Faulkner. After encountering Faulkner in class at 15, I sought out the novels and had read 5 of main ones before leaving high school. I was completely swept away.

That's impressive for a high-schooler. I'm pretty sure I didn't read Faulkner till college. Maybe "The Bear"...but I don't think so. I don't know that I would have liked him when I was in high school if I had read him. The main thing I remember liking from high school is Shakespeare.

~~But "rather deep, sad quality" is certainly appropriate for Jack Burden.~~

Jude Law was able to pull that quality off in Cold Mountain, but I don't recall it carrying over to ATKM.

There's a lot more to a movie than the actors, I wonder who directed the newest ATKM? Anthony Minghella directed Cold Mountain, and he was very good (now dead).

Steven Zaillian

Mac, I got bit by the Shakespeare bug in college ... And come to think of it I believe both "A Rose for Emily" and Intruder in the Dust were assigned in high school. Well, now I have to find time to re-read ATKM and "The Bear". Come to think of it the book of the same name that was the basis of the movie Cold Mountain is worth a re-read too.

I haven't seen Cold Mountain.

Funny thing about me and Shakespeare is that I was very enthused by the several plays we read in high school, but when I took a Shakespeare course in college I just sort of sat through it. A little bit to do with the teacher, maybe, and a lot to do with my general state of mind at the time.

Re Cold Mountain, I liked both the book and the movie, despite the latter's taking a few liberties plot-wise. The opening battle scene, depicting the Battle of the Crater (Siege of Petersburg), is incredibly powerful and moving.

I didn't care much for The Sound and the Fury although I appreciate its artistry. I did enjoy (if enjoy is the right word) As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and The Bear.

Zaillian is better known as a screenwriter than a director. I remember that when ATKM came out the script was given good marks but the direction (and Penn's performance) were widely faulted.

I am about halfway through with All the King's Men and it is really so good.


Glad you are finding it so!

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