Andrew's Reviews > All the King's Men

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
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's review
Sep 02, 2007

Read in August, 2007

All the King’s Men is often promoted as a novel about politics, occasionally even the quintessential novel of American politics. While I did enjoy the portrait of Willie Stark as an archetype political boss, more interesting, to me, is the struggle of the narrator, Jack Burden, to overcome his nihilistic doubts in the face of a world governed by power. Jack claims to overcome his nihilism (“the Great Twitch”) by coming to an understanding of the morality of his own life (the personal and inter-personal) in relation to the ethical valuations of history (on the stage of the world).

So I read the larger narrative of the book in the light of Jack’s search for meaning, rather than seeing Jack as merely a narrator to the story of Willie Stark. From this perspective I think All the King’s Men tells a compelling story of Stark as a politician who, despite by all outward appearances of being driven merely by a quest for power, can in fact believe in the righteousness of his actions. He accomplishes this through an elaborate scheme of means-end reasoning and a vision of purpose that captivates or even short-circuits his own moral calculus. Willie Stark constructs a narrative of meaning through his campaign for a hospital that will serve all people, regardless of income, and is not mired in the exigencies of political reality that becomes for him a trump card in any consideration of the morality of his actions.

The ethically pious and occasionally self-righteous Doctor Adam Stanton serves as a foil to Stark, with their lives ultimately meeting in a tragic end as though destined by their inability to grasp the ethical possibilities of their world that the narrator, Jack Burden, eventually realizes. Adam’s attempt to live ethically through nonparticipation with evil and political power is sacrificed with the realization of his father’s ethical shortcomings; he then steps into the world of power by agreeing to oversee the construction of Willie Stark’s hospital (creating odd parallel between the two in that the hospital serves for both of them as the symbolic touchstone for an ethical life). Yet this critical step, away from a sanctified idealism into the practical world of compromise leads eventually to his tragic confrontation with Willie Stark. In the end, his defining action is not aimed at any practical end but is rather either an emotionally-driven strike against the objectification of his own (and his sister’s) moral compromise. The reader is left to ponder whether this outcome is this simply the natural result of his step away from a “kingdom of ends” in agreeing to join Stark’s hospital or a product of his inability to cope with the fallen nature of humanity.

That’s what I got out of it anyway. For a more critical view highlighting literary shortcomings and racial and gender issues, read “All the King’s Men—A Case of Misreading?” by Joyce Carol Oats in the New York Times Book Review.
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Aydin Thank you Andrew - this is the best review I have read on "All the King's Men." The last four paragraphs touch on basic but crucial dimensions of the text that nearly every review I have read, both professional and amatuer, completely miss.

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