All The King’s Men is the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an enormously vulgar, crudely powerful and grossly corrupt Southern politician loosely inspired by Louisiana Democrat Huey P. Long. It is an epic portrait of a demagogue who is, by turns, likeable, comical, riveting, loathsome, heroic, and human. The main characters are said demagogue (Willie Talos), and a journalist (Jack Burden) who first covers him, then comes to work for him as an all-purpose go-to guy, followed by a rich secondary cast, including the crew of vital schemers and obsequious creepers that make up Talos’s retinue.
The plot is, of course, thick with political machinations: back-room deals, betrayals, varieties of patronage (i.e. the many ways people come to be manipulated and finally owned) and power-plays (i.e. the many ways people come to be destroyed, sometimes literally) in order that the Boss may ride high on the hog and win the adoration of the People while he’s at it. And yet Robert Penn Warren wrote, in the introduction to the Modern Library edition of his novel, that: “The book… was never intended to be about politics. Politics merely provided the framework of the story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out.” This must have sounded to some like authorial BS, but I think it’s true. For all the juicy complexity and drama of the political story, there is something more raw and mysterious supporting it, like the ocean supports a ship and makes it move.
Thematically, it has been written (on Wikipedia!) that the underlying story of ATKM is about the endless impersonal rippling of consequences and the connectedness of all actions. Or, as Willie Talos says about an underling he’s just brutally humiliated:
“My God, you talk like Byram was human! He’s a thing! You don’t prosecute an adding machine if a spring goes bust and makes a mistake. You fix it. Well, I fixed Byram. I fixed him so his unborn great-grandchildren will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why. Boy, it will be the shock in the genes, and their teeth will be set on edge.”
So, yeah, that’s there. And then there is the deeper step down into Jack Burden’s completely apolitical idea near the book’s end that life is nothing but instincts and impulses or “the dark heave of the blood and the twitch of the nerve”. This is closer to how I sense the book’s inner workings except that, based as it is on Jack’s experience of heartbreak, his “insight” is too cynical and simple.
To me, the subtle inner “story” of the novel is in the oceanic dimension of Warren’s language, his wide-angle perception of the human and inhuman world where the characters fuss, fight and fuck each other over. To me this “story” is sensed in the outer reaches of this world, the sheer unknowability of it, the mysteriousness of how it reveals itself in faces, voices, the miasma of human personalities and wants, driven by the igneous force that Jack tries to define as the “twitch”.
One of the first things I noticed about the novel is the extremely close and lengthy attention Warren pays to character’s faces, to the set and shape of their lips, the way their hair falls or the colour and expressive quality of their eyes; how they look at each other. This is, of course, on one hand an old-school method of characterisation — in another writer’s hands it might be that only. But Warren uses it in such a way that we are constantly reminded of how we are each formed in physical detail by elements we don’t understand, except by wordless recognition; by extension we are reminded that, however important politics is to us, it too is shaped, through the agency of human hands by these elements which we don’t understand.
The novel opens with a page and a half description of a “good highway and new” (aka the “slab”) running through Willie Talos’s place of origin. Marked here and there with skull-and-crossbones where drivers, hypnotised by the “glitter and gleam” of the slab, spun off it to their deaths, it is an abstraction of the social and material generative force, speed, illusion and death which will continue to run through the story.
On leaving the highway, we are rapidly escorted into the geographic and economic history of Willie’s place where “the bastards got in… and set up the mills” and “the saws sang soprano and the clerk in the commissary passed out the black-strap molasses and the sow-belly and wrote in his big book, and the Yankee dollar and Confederate dumbness collaborated…”.
And then we meet Wille and Jack, riding with the Boss’s family and Lt. Governor (Tiny Duffy) in “a cross between a hearse and an ocean liner” driven with “muscular coordination and satanic humour” by the barely verbal Sugar Boy who enjoys whipping around a hay-wagon in the face of a gasoline truck, close enough to “wipe the snot off a mule’s nose” with his fender. After a quick trip through a drug store/soda shop, where Talos promises to help the proprietor’s son — a good boy who, through sheer “bad luck” — stabbed another boy to death in a fight, there’s a long salty speech about not making a speech in which Willie declares himself to be “not any worse’n boils” and an adoring fan happily shouts out “Boils on the tail!”
In only the first 100 pages, we witness a great many rapid scenes and time shifts including: The bar room meeting where Jack first meets Willie, then the County Treasurer of back-water Mason City, who is being assessed by Tiny Duffy and an aspiring Sheriff (soon to be stabbed himself) as a naive hick that they can use, a meeting full of savage calculation, woven together with “the profound contemplation of internal stresses and strains and deep geodetic shifts” and the long journey of a fly across the ceiling. And, deep in the future: A family dinner at Talos’s house where we learn of a crucial political betrayal by a judge who is a father figure to Jack, not to mention the psychedelic character of oak leaves and flowers in Talos’ yard. And, somewhere in the past: The story of the collapsed schoolhouse in Mason City which was built by people Talos unsuccessfully campaigned against, causing kids to be crippled and killed. Which turns out to be “a piece of luck for Willie”, who wakes up one day to find himself running for governor as a third candidate at the suggestion of Tiny Duffy.
A sincere reformer at the beginning, Talos campaigns with a long, carefully prepared speech about the facts and figures of his tax-and-road programmes plus “fine sentiments” about honest government, copied out from textbooks he’d read as a young man, a speech he keeps polishing and revising and endlessly practising to the scornful disbelief of Jack Burden who is traveling with him. Because Jack, in the next room of a cheap hotel, can not only hear Willie rehearsing the speech, he hears him tramping back and forth like a nut, all night while he does it:
“…the feet would not stop and they were like a machine, which was not human or animal either, and were tramping on you like pestles or plungers in a big vat and you were the thing in the vat, the thing that just happened to be there. The plungers didn’t care about its being you, in the vat. But they would continue until there wasn’t any you, and afterwards for a long time until the machine wore out or somebody switched off the juice… you are wondering, with the beginnings of pain and insufficiency, what it is inside that won’t let the feet stop. Maybe he is a half-wit, maybe he won’t be Governor, maybe nobody will listen to his speeches but Lucy, but the feet won’t stop.”
And nobody does listen. Jack tells Willie not to appeal to voters’ minds, but to “pinch ‘em in the soft place”. Because they aren’t alive and “haven’t been for 20 years”. Because their wives are old and played out and because their stomachs are sour and they don’t believe in God. “So it’s up to you… to stir ‘em up and make ‘em feel alive again.” This advice dispirits Willie. But that is nothing compared to what happens when he learns, by mistake, that he’s been set up by Tiny Duffy and Co. to run as a distraction, in the hopes of splitting votes away from the candidate running opposite their man. He roars and rears around the room and threatens to kill ‘em all with his hands while the woman who let the truth slip laughs in his face; he gets so drunk he passes out and then gets sick.
The next day he gets up in front of voters and goes off-script, cutting loose the force of the relentless machine that Jack heard through the wall, the pestles and plungers who don’t care what they are crushing, just that they crush. He tells them they don’t need a speech. He tells them they already know more than what is in the speech, about rotten crops and bad roads and empty stomachs. He tells them about how he was set up and sweet-talked as a dumb hick by “hired hands and lickspittles”. Horrified, Duffy tries to get the band to play The Star-Spangled Banner; Talos screams that he is a “lickspittle and a nose-wiper”, waving his speech in Duffy’s face until Duffy is driven to the edge of the stage and then over it, Talos screaming “Let the hog lie!” and throwing sheets of his speech into the wind.
And the story goes from there, pestles and plungers running buck wild over everything and everyone, Southern style. Duffy is punished by being rewarded with the Lt. Governorship — that is, living in a perpetual state of obeisance; like Byram he is made into a “thing”. I am reminded of Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad, in which she says that the true hero of the epic poem is force — and then defines force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”. It seems to me that All the King’s Men is also about force, a life-force for which politics can be a quite congenial container — but which is bigger than politics.
It must be plain by now that when I say this novel is “timely”, what I mean is that it is timeless. Willie Talos, though he’s a fictional Democrat, can be seen as a Trumpian figure because he is a loud-mouthed American populist, a politician who can’t be controlled. But the fictional Talos is more real than Trump. Can anyone imagine Trump having the wherewithal to actually physically force a large adversary off-stage? It isn’t by itself an admirable action, but it suggests a person who can physically channel and control the brute reality that his constituents have come up against all their lives.
Unlike Trump, Talos has come from poverty; when he talks to his audience about getting up at dawn to “slop and milk before breakfast” with cow dung between his toes, or breaking his wagon axle on “gully-washed” roads, or working the fields, he is speaking from experience. He has felt the force of the land in his body — force the elites have forgotten or never known — and he can wield it as his followers wish they could. And he means to do right by them, at least in the beginning. Trump was an imitation of this, and the most relatable thing about his constituents was their longing for that vital life-force that they thought he embodied — hope so great it is readily and eternally fooled.