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January's Book
All the King’s Men
by Robert Penn Warren
Bill:
When it was published in 1946, one critic described it as “bumpy and uneven as a corduroy road, yet magnificently vital reading.” All the King’s Men by Kentucky’s Robert Penn Warren—as electrifying and exciting today as it was 55 years ago. The bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Well, first of all, welcome to Gabrielle Ivy, who joins the bookclub discussion today, along with Lynda and Dava and Wilma. You join us on a day when we are just discussing a light, sort of humorous novella.

Lynda:
Not this book!

Bill:
No. And we also understand [it’s] a favorite of one of the panelists around the table today. Wonder who that is? Wilma?

Wilma:
Well, that could at least be me, and it may be somebody else’s favorite, too. But I have always loved All the King’s Men, and throughout my life I’ve probably read it five or six times for various reasons. And every time I find something fresh and new and interesting, and I have enjoyed it every time, too. This novel has everything. It has great characterization; it has some very deep philosophical thoughts that we ruminate over; and then, also, it just has a wonderful story. And I think that’s what makes a good novel. This is a literary piece, but the story is so good that anyone could read it. So those are some of the reasons I find it fascinating, always.

Bill:
Those are a lot of good reasons. What are some of the other reasons that you liked or disliked certain portions of the novel? Lynda?

Lynda:
Well, as Wilma said, it did have a lot of plot, plot on top of plot, with lots of intrigue and layers to the plot. But it had some other things that were uncomfortable for me. And I know that in the time in which the book was written and the time that the book was portraying life was different, and I am speaking as an African American. But the words used in the book were very uncomfortable, some of the language that was used. More uncomfortable, though, was the fact that it was taken for granted. It was never acknowledged as a conflict for anybody that there was racist language used throughout the book. So that was difficult; that was quite troublesome. Toward the middle of the book, the author changed his terminology. He started using the word “Negro.” I didn’t quite understand the progression because it was never mentioned. It was there. It was never made clear how that related to any of the characters. His characterizations of the black characters were all as if they were Steppin’ Fetchits. It was very uncomfortable for me to read that part. But there were other aspects of the book that I appreciated. So in general I can say that, if I was able to put that part aside, I enjoyed the book.

Bill:
I think you are right about it being layered with so many different aspects of the characters, one on top of another, and so many different characters to keep up with. We will talk about the main characters in the time we have. Dava, what are your impressions?

Dava:
The book is very long, of course—about 450 pages almost, at least in this edition. But he has so much plot and so many stories unraveling that in the middle of the book—I was speaking about this with Gabrielle—it was kind of hard to push on. Because I was in the middle reading about Cas Mastern, and that’s an entire chapter of the book just talking about what he did in Lexington. But it’s so awesome to see how this book develops. At the end it is just a series of one epiphany after the other. Everybody, everybody has a revelation in their life, and I didn’t like that about it. You know, the end is very, it’s just riveting.

Wilma:
Did you think it was too much at the end for everyone to die? You know, to have so many deaths at the end or so many of the main characters—even Tom, the son. Did that bother you? Did you think that was peculiar?

Gabrielle:
It was shocking because as you kept turning the pages, you were like, “oh,” and you didn’t expect it because you already had one death, so you assumed that that would be the end of it, and then something else would come. You almost expected it with the main character, but some of the other characters surprised you.

Dava:
I think it was heavily foreshadowed well at the beginning. He does tell us all these people die.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
He does.

Dava:
But I mean it’s not, like, cheesy, and that it’s just the way to end. That’s not what you think is going to happen at all because that’s not the way Jack Burden is portrayed. You don’t see him as someone so drastic. He just kind of floats along, and then all of a sudden at the end, there is just such abruptness.

Bill:
Well, that’s the way it builds, with such drama and such tension, and you almost at times feel that growing and building throughout the novel, through even when he writes about some other aspects of the characters’ lives. You mentioned Cas Mastern and when he goes into Jack’s background. Let’s talk a little bit about the characters, and we mentioned Jack Burden. Somebody tell me about Jack Burden and, of course, if he is a key figure, the other key figure being Willie Stark. Let’s talk a little bit about their personalities.

Wilma:
It really is Jack Burden’s story. He is the one in the book that comes to some type of realization. As Dava pointed out, he kind of floats through, and he wants to float through life without taking any responsibility. And of course at the end, many of the things that happened were his fault. Up until the end he won’t take responsibility for the things that he has done.

Lynda:
Did you find him a likable character?

Bill:
Exactly my question.

Wilma:
That’s a good point.

Lynda:
No, he was despicable.

Wilma:
Right.

Lynda:
[laughs]

Wilma:
Exactly

Bill:
Cynical.

Wilma:
And the Cas Mastern story, of course, is a parallel to his.

Bill:
Sort of a separate chapter altogether, as Dava pointed out.

Wilma:
It’s a separate chapter, but he did the same thing.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Lynda:
It was a parallel.

Wilma:
He betrayed ... Yeah, it’s a parallel. He betrayed his best friend. Now, it was a different situation, because [Cas] betrayed him with the best friend’s wife, but it was the same thing that Jack does with the judge. He betrays him because he finds out the scoop on him and then brings about all sorts of disasters, including the judge’s death. So it is a parallel, a good story for a parallel.

Dava:
Well, that’s why at the end everybody comes to a realization. Willie Stark has decided at the very end he is going to go back to his wife, and he’s going to clean up his act, and he even goes and tells—which, of course, leads to his own demise—he goes and tells Duffy that he’s not going to let Gummy Larsen have the contract for the hospital. And then after his death, Sadie Burke realizes she’s not made for this business anymore, and she leaves. You have Jack Burden, of course, who realizes who his real father is and so much more about his life, and then you have Jack’s mother ...

Lynda:
[laughs]

Dava:
... who ...

Bill:
Don’t forget Anne and Adam.

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
Everybody does. It’s not just Jack Burden at all.

Wilma:
The funny thing about Jack Burden at the end ... I mean, he has caused so many problems, but he does end up with the woman he wants and with the house and with money.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
I mean that doesn’t seem exactly right.

Lynda:
And he has got his sense of self that he lacked all along.

Wilma:
Yes, good point.

Lynda:
He was so hollow and empty inside ...

Bill:
Yes.

Lynda:
... and never felt anything, truly never felt until the end.

Bill:
Really, at the very beginning, and all the way through, really, it took Jack so long to really grasp life. He just floated through. He was—who said despicable?—he was lazy; he was without any sort of direction at all.

Wilma:
And also he tried escapes of all sorts. The big sleep ...

Dava:
Yeah.

Wilma:
... he left his dissertation on the table ...

Lynda:
And no moral code, no moral compass ...

Wilma:
... went to California.

Lynda:
... within.

Bill:
No.

Lynda:
Whereas Willie—and we have to talk about Willie, because ...

Wilma:
Yeah.

Lynda:
... he is, he is the other side of Jack, or they are two of the same, the other side of the coin.

Bill:
Should we say, based loosely on the former governor ...

Lynda:
Certainly.

Bill:
Huey Long.

Lynda:
Certainly, Huey Long.

Bill:
Of Louisiana. But go right ahead. Willie Stark.

Lynda:
Well, Willie had a moral compass starting out. He did believe in things, and he did want to help, and he had plans and dreams and goals, and slowly he loses his way. He starts to believe that the ends justify the means. He always intends for it to work out well in the end. His goals are noble, but his means are awful.

Bill:
[It’s] all about power with Willie.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
Yes.

Bill:
Did he have that persona in the very beginning, or do you think he was just getting along doing what he was told, slightly ambitious but not overly so?

Gabrielle:
I think it was deep within him. I think he had that inner ambition.

Bill:
Had to be, didn’t it?

Gabrielle:
But at the beginning I think he was an idealist. He believed that if you showed the people the numbers, they would understand, and they would follow. And then as he started, I think, getting more involved in the political system and the first kind of downfalls at the very beginning, he swore that that wouldn’t happen again. So you see his idealism change into almost this ruthlessness that he goes through.

Wilma:
And it is complicated, too, because he’s doing all of this out of the sense of good, at least at the beginning.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, he does.

Wilma:
You know he wants better things for the state.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
He wants better education, better hospitals, and so on, and he just decides for him to get those things, any means is OK. So he does have some, as you say, moral fiber. At least he is taking some kind of action, and Jack doesn’t take action. He escapes, or he steps back.

Lynda:
You know, that brings up a comparison between the previous governors of Louisiana—Anne and Adam’s father, for example.

Wilma:
Yes.

Lynda:
Governor Stanton, who was supposed to be such a morally upright man but achieved nothing. He was just a good man but had nothing to show for it. Whereas Willie would say, I am morally bereft, but look at what I have accomplished for the state. And that is really always the dichotomy with people in power. I mean, we want our leaders to have a moral compass—we hope they do—but ultimately they are judged by what they accomplish.

Bill:
So do you think it is a novel of two characters, if we can lump the second group in all together—and you will disagree, surely, if you don’t believe this.

Wilma:
I will let you know if I do.

Bill:
I know you will!

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
But the story of Willie Stark ... Is everyone else secondary to Willie, or does Jack, in the way he is the narrator, play a more important role than the Stantons, or ...

Gabrielle:
Sadie Burke.

Bill:
... or do you think ... Yeah, or Sadie Burke?

Wilma:
Well, many times in novels when you have a narrator who is just kind of to the side of a great man and telling the story, he doesn’t make anything happen in the novel, but you see Jack does. Jack becomes involved; he makes things happen. And so therefore, he is not just an innocent bystander. I think he is the main character because he is the one that changes in the novel and goes through a great many realizations. Willie, even though certainly you perceive him as—well, it’s “all the king’s men”—perceive him as the main character, we don’t know too much about his inner workings.

Dava:
Well, it’s almost like you don’t need to, because in the book I felt very comfortable that I knew how Willie was. I mean until the end, when he had his ...

[Everyone agrees]

Dava:
... he had his great epiphany at the end. Before then he was just, you know, Willie, and he ruled with an iron fist, and that was a given. I couldn’t figure out Jack for the longest time, and I still don’t exactly know who he was. And that’s what intrigued me: Just who is Jack, and trying to figure it out just from what he says.

Lynda:
You know, what surprised me was how Willie had this great appeal with women in the way the book is written—that his wife stood by him loyally and believed in him fervently.

Wilma:
And he is not physically attractive.

Bill:
Well, no, I was going to say he’s not ...

Lynda:
No.

Bill:
... written or drawn ...

Lynda:
And then Sadie Burke.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
And then Anne. But Anne is the least believable.

Bill:
How strong is she? Is she drawn for us by Warren? Is something left out of her personality? Do we really know who she is? And in that surprise toward the end of the novel, where she does get involved with Willie, is that something that you expected?

Lynda:
Not only did I not expect it, it didn’t ring true.

Bill:
No. I think there is a little, a little problem there. Wilma, do you?

Wilma:
I certainly know what you are saying, and I haven’t actually contemplated that before. It’s a good question.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
I certainly think there are four interesting women in the novel, Anne, of course, being one of them, and I don’t think Robert Penn Warren gives any of them the right kind of strength, because they all depend on women in some way. So maybe if I am looking at it that way, she is still depending on women somehow.

Did I say depend on men?

Bill:
No, you said women.

Wilma:
Men. They depend on men. And I think Anne is depending on a man there. I mean she somehow has gotten caught up in the power, and remember she said to Jack when he wanted to marry her, when they were young, “I want you to do something. It doesn’t matter what.” And she sees Willie doing something.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, she sees the ambition.

Wilma:
The ambition. She sees the ambition ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
... that she thinks Jack doesn’t have. So even though, and I can understand what you are saying, I can also see something in her personality early on that maybe ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
... led her to this power.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
To the action.

Lynda:
Who was the fourth woman?

Wilma:
Oh, I am thinking of his mother. And Sadie.

Bill:
Sadie.

Wilma:
And Anne.

Lynda:
Oh, OK, Jack’s mother.

Bill:
And Lucy.

Wilma:
And Lucy.

Lynda:
OK.

Wilma:
Lucy, Jack’s mother ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
... Sadie and Anne.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
So they are all four interesting women. I thought his mother was very interesting, didn’t you?

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
[laughs] She is trying to stay forever young.

Lynda:
Although don’t you think that there was just too much credit given to ... I mean that Jack was so torn up inside because of the way his mother raised him? You know, I think he could have pushed through that if ... Here I am acting like he is a real person!

Wilma:
Oh sure.

Lynda:
But ... [laughs]

Wilma:
Yeah, oh yeah.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
He was. He became real, didn’t he?

Lynda:
I just think the way the book is written, all of Jack’s problems are laid at his mother’s feet.

Wilma:
[laughs]

Lynda:
You know he is the way he is because his mother loved someone else, and Jack’s father was someone other than his mother’s husband. You know that whole story.

Wilma:
But it is told through Jack’s eyes, so that’s how we are getting it.

Lynda:
Yeah.

Wilma:
In other words, he won’t take responsibility for anything, including his own ...

Lynda:
That’s right.

Wilma:
... inconsistencies, so he is blaming it on his mother or somebody else. I think part of that is we are seeing it through Jack’s eyes. So we are going to get that skewed look.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And it’s a good point.

Gabrielle:
Yes.

Bill:
You know, another minor character was Judge Irwin.

[Everyone agrees]

Lynda:
Jack’s father.

Bill:
Minor in a way. Yes, and did you see that coming, the judge?

Lynda:
No.

Wilma:
No.

Bill:
But they had a close relationship, and if [Jack] had any guidance when he was growing up, because of his mother Lucy’s many husbands and love affairs and that sort of thing, it came from the judge in a very positive way. But it didn’t have a lasting effect on him, obviously, and certainly he didn’t use the judge’s guidance as something that led him in any way at all. Then, of course, at the very end that was the surprise, I thought.

Well, there is so much about characters, and I don’t want to keep anybody from going and talking about that, but other than that in the novel ... What about the sense of place, the identification with the South. It’s certainly a Southern novel in many aspects. What about the sense of place?

Wilma:
Well, I thought it was real interesting what Lynda said at the beginning about the negative portrayal of the black people in the novel.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And you know, I felt that more this time than any other time I had read it. Of course, I am getting older as I am reading it, and also times change, but that type of depiction would have been, or the terminology used may have been the terminology that was used in the ’30s, but somehow it jarred more on me this time than any other time. And I don’t think that was just an attempt on Robert Penn Warren’s place just to have it in the setting, as part of the setting. You almost feel as if that was his natural way of thinking.

Lynda:
That’s what’s so disturbing.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Dava:
And he seems like, at the beginning and then later in the book, he is talking about the happy Negroes in the field. Like, what are you talking about? They are chopping cotton; they weren’t happy. You know.

Lynda:
Well, the thing about the South and Southern novels is that often you see the conflict: what a perverse institution slavery is and how lives are torn apart. That’s what I see in Southern writing: understanding the conflict that is going on within the South. This book and Robert Penn Warren make no acknowledgment of any of that. It’s just as if it’s all taken for granted.

Wilma:
What about the part about Cas Mastern and the selling of the slave woman?

Lynda:
Right.

Wilma:
I thought he gave some sympathy to that. Did you or not? Did you have that feeling that there was some sympathy there toward the plight of the slaves?

Gabrielle:
Right. I did somewhat, when he went back and wanted to set them free. But then also you had his big brother saying, you know, “Look what you have done,” when he freed all the slaves on the farm.

[Everyone agrees]

Gabrielle:
So there was that inner conflict of yes, there are some of those that are trying to do better, but see what happens if you do. So I almost thought that that was a subtle message within the book. I questioned many times. It made me uncomfortable, but I thought, would the book be as powerful without that language? And I was going back and forth and trying not to let it bias me as I was reading the book—getting angry and then thinking, OK, remember the time and the period, and it was truly depicting the mind-set of that era.

Bill:
I think it struck all of us like that, Wilma. Certainly I was, I was very much disturbed. And I know you sometimes don’t like to do this after reading it five times, but ...

Wilma:
[laughs]

Bill:
... but I, sometimes I do need to know a little bit more information. I did a little bit more work just on that aspect of it, and I think it was the time—as I said in the intro, 55 years ago, 1946—and also I believe that Warren grew. Far be it from me to think that he matured, but I think he did. He grew with this new sort of philosophical way of looking at American life. That doesn’t justify what he wrote and the words he used, but in the ’60s he wrote Who Speaks for the Negro, where he went back and interviewed countless numbers of African Americans trying to understand their plight, their thinking, their philosophies. So ...

Lynda:
But earlier in his career he wrote The Briar Patch ...

Bill:
Yes, he did.

Lynda:
... which was a defense for segregation.

Bill:
Oh, John Brown, yes.

Lynda:
He tried to deny that John Brown did what he did or was a hero for what he did.

Bill:
Yes, it was sort of a justification of all that era and the way history tells us. So I guess what we are saying [is] in this great novel which we praise because of the characterization and plot and all of this, we find some fault.

Wilma:
I think it’s interesting that we are talking about past times, because one of the themes of the novel has to do with time. And, of course, Jack is a historian, and so he tries to escape to the past from time to time, and he does come to the realization that you need to look to the future. You need the present, and you need the past in order for everything to come together. But I look to the various other characters to find out how they perceived time. And Judge Irwin was living in the past; also Adam Stanton—who is an interesting character—even his sister says that he escapes the present. He has an idealized world that he escapes into, and he wants that world to stay the way it is, in whatever idealized state he sees it. And they are all escaping in some way. They are all trying to. Jack’s mother is trying to be forever young.

Lynda:
I have a question for you, Wilma, since you are the expert here today.

Wilma:
Oh yeah.

Lynda:
He talks about the difference between truth and facts and the whole Cas Mastern era, when he was trying to write his dissertation and he had the facts, but he didn’t understand the truth. I guess by the end of the book he finds truth, but I didn’t quite get where he was going with that.

Wilma:
He did, and that’s a good question, the business about the facts. He was a reporter, and he said he was only looking for the facts. And that’s what he was trying to do, and the facts were the most important thing, and the truth wasn’t that important. I kind of know why you are saying that, because you look for a point in the novel where he goes, “Oh, the truth is the important thing.”

Lynda:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And somehow by the end he thinks the truth is important, but there is no place specifically in the novel where he comes to that realization. Is that what you found?

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
There was no big “Aha!”

Wilma:
Yeah, no big “Aha!” for the truth.

Dava:
I don’t think he ever finds it, but after his “great sleep,” so to speak, when he goes to California, he said he came to two different conclusions, which I think sums up his life. One of them was you can’t lament losing something you never had. (That wasn’t the exact way he said it.) The other one was you can’t feel guilty for something you didn’t do. And I think that’s his life in a nutshell, in a way, because he doesn’t do much, and he doesn’t have much.

Wilma:
[laughs]

Dava:
And all of his past ... When he reminisces and when he ruminates about things he’s done, he has possession of it, he thinks.

Lynda:
You know ...

Dava:
And he doesn’t, really.

Lynda:
When you said he didn’t do much, you are right—he didn’t do much. He never really does anything proactively. But he lets things happen. Or he lets things happen through him. You know, he really starts interfering, and as a result people’s careers are ruined or their lives are lost, and you know that’s what makes Jack so despicable.

Wilma:
And one of the women at the end—you might remember which one it is; I can’t remember—says “why” to Jack: “Why are you always interfering in things?”

Gabrielle:
That was Sadie.

Bill:
Sadie.

Wilma:
Was it Sadie? OK, thank you.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And she says that, and it’s funny because Jack says that he has not interfered, but she is the one who is the realist.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
And she indicates, why are you always interfering? So I think that’s an interesting point, too.

Bill:
What do you think Warren’s special gifts are to the reader in this novel? We have mentioned several. Have we left out anything?

Dava:
Well, I think we neglected to mention how well he uses dialogue to really start, just to create ... I don’t know if we have time to read something.

Bill:
Yeah, yeah, you have got a little. Yeah. Heavy on dialogue.

Dava:
Oh yeah.

Bill:
Certainly, and I agree, but please read.

Dava:
Just the way Willie Stark speaks. He says:

“I’m not a lawyer. I know some law. In fact, I know a lot of law. And I made me some money out of law. But I’m not a lawyer. That’s why I can see what the law is like. It’s like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. There ain’t ever enough blanket to cover the case, no matter how much pulling and hauling, and somebody is always going to nigh catch pneumonia. Hell, the law is like the pants you bought last year for a growing boy, but it is always this year and the seams are popped and the shankbone’s to the breeze.”

Bill:
[laughs]

Dava:
I mean, just off the top of the head, that’s how he speaks.

Lynda:
I liked that passage, too. I marked it.

Bill:
Did you really?

Lynda:
It’s a great passage. That’s a simile, you know: The law is like a single-bed blanket on a double bed. Which is just great.

Wilma:
Actually I think he did use metaphor and simile very often in here in his descriptions, and it brings us to the realization, oh yeah, you know, this is about the pants being too short or whatever.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
You know, it makes you see it, rather than just indicating, you know, what his philosophies and thoughts are.

Dava:
That is why he is such a great orator, you know.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
That’s how he spoke to the common people.

Wilma:
You are talking about Willie Stark.

Dava:
That’s Willie Stark.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
That’s his voice.

Lynda:
Well, I’ve got to mention these long asides that start in the middle of something that is going on and he’ll just go off on a tangent. At first that’s so startling to the reader, especially because, you know, he’s a poet, and his writing is very descriptive and a little difficult to get through. So at first I was put off when I found myself going way off on a tangent, but then I started to appreciate them. There is one here about driving at night in the rain, and it’s hypnotic.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
It’s hypnotic, and it is exactly like driving at night in the rain.

Bill:
Sure.

Wilma:
And he says you are never any more alone than driving at night in the rain.

Bill:
Yeah—slipping off the slab and all of that. I loved the way he called that, you know. So in that way—in many aspects—it was a sort of a road story.

Wilma:
It was a road story from the very beginning, and I think it’s important that in the very beginning they are in a car. They are moving forward, and he does say motion toward knowledge is everything. And the whole book is about motion toward something and his realization at the end. But it’s not a mistake on Robert Penn Warren’s part that we start out on the road, because it is motion towards something.

Bill:
Can’t you see them all piling in that great big ...

Wilma:
Yeah.

Bill:
... huge car ...

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
... all scooting over and then ...

Lynda:
With Sugar Boy!

Bill:
... scratching out. Yeah, with Sugar Boy.

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
At the wheel.

Bill:
Had that big weapon strapped on his side or wherever it was.

Lynda:
Under his ...

Dava:
Like a tumor ...

Narrator:
Remember to check out ket.org and learn more about this book and other bookclub selections. Plus enjoy author interviews and discussion boards. You can join the club any time; the address is ket.org.

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