I wondered if he (Willie Stark) believed what he had said. He had said that you have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have got to make it out of.
When I first started reading All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, I couldn’t stand it and did not think that I could possibly continue reading it. By the time I finally finished, it was one of my favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Not only did it win the 1947 Pulitzer Prize, but it was also made into numerous movies.
Briefly, All the King’s Men is the story of Willie Stark, who goes from being an idealistic “sap” running for governor to being the “Boss,” an intimidator of all those who would oppose him. The novel is also about Jack Burden, the narrator of the story, whose “friends of youth” get tangled up in his loyalty to the “Boss.” The results are tragic.
I was initially turned off by All the King’s Men for a number of reasons. The sentences are long. I mean really loooooooong, with lots of intricate detail. The novel has long paragraphs, which are parts of long chapters. Then, it is about politics, in the South during the 1930’s, no less. This is definitely not my thing, at all, whatsoever.
The turning point for me was a chapter where a college-aged Jack Burden researches the life of a relative, Cass Mastern, who lived around the time of the Civil War. Mastern’s affair had tragic, unexpected consequences. Suddenly the detail that I found painful early on in the novel allowed me to feel transported into the story. A few chapters later, Warren describes the summer that a young Jack fell in love with his childhood friend Anne. I found both of these chapters amazing.
By the time the storyline got back to the politics, I felt like I was reading a totally different novel. I was emotionally invested in the characters. I was moved by the numerous tragedies towards the end of the story. I pondered the moral character of Jack Burden and his role in what happened.
I was impressed by the artistic talent of Warren. The detail draws the reader into the story. The sentence length, which actually does vary length after the opening chapters, creates tone and emotion. The philosophical ideas that Warren raises are provocative.
I am so glad that I didn’t walk away from this novel.