The Wall Street Journal published a piece in late March with a reference to Robert Penn Warren’s masterful novel, All The King’s Men. Allowing for important questions that are raised, the story goes on to distinguish the novel’s “value of as work of art” from its practical insight into the ways that politicians manipulate the masses with populist rhetoric. The article’s author, Terry Teachout, makes the obvious point that Warren’s novel anticipated and depicted the plight of contemporary American politics. Okay. Sure.
Expecting to read a book about political corruption, I discovered a story with penetrating insights into the human condition. When Warren was writing some 70 years ago, populist rhetoric was common in America. Our current political climate certainly suggests that everything old is new again in American politics. Perhaps the novel was less prescient than it was descriptive of a persistent condition. To my mind, the celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning novel reveals something important about who we all are.
Warren’s brilliant story considers politics as a feature of human nature, and he leaves his reader with two options to consider: We are all corrupt and manipulative in the pursuit of self-interest, however noble and good our ends may appear to be; or, we can find (through spiritual regeneration) a new way of being in the world that transcends our fallen humanity.
Protagonist Willie Stark, proletariat turned quintessential politician, comes to accept the former position, but his political goals are shaped by an aspiration to bring about a social condition that reflects that latter. The pervasiveness of depravity is met with the hope of redemption. This hope provides an alternative to nihilism, both political and existential. One episode in the novel is particularly revealing.
When characters Adam Stanton and Jack Burden discuss the similar effects of a lobotomy and baptism, i.e., a new and transformed personality, Jack reveals that, despite his interest in the right things, he is unable to act in any meaningful way. Moreover, he cannot help being implicit in the corruption. In fact, his research uncovers information that leads to the death of his own father and the loss of his one true love. His desire for greater meaning in his life can only take shape in following a man like Willie Stark, because he cannot see the possibility of meaningfully engaging life and acting in the polis in any other way. As tends to be the case, his contributions ultimately lead to his redemption because he is forced to confront the horrific consequences of his actions.
Warren provides his reader with a view of politics as an expression of our nature as social beings. Together, we act with deliberation in pursuit of the common good. He has in mind much more than we typically attribute to politics—so much so that we might to fail to recognize that Warren is not simply telling a tale about ambition and a corrupt politician. To reduce his work to a “political novel” is to lose sight of the world Warren depicts for us that reveals the extent to which we are bound up with one another in our everyday lives.
Warren’s more important comment is about politics as contextualized, an artifact of culture and an expression of our community. Your decision about how to live your life affects me. It shapes the political landscape. The redemption of Jack through his mother is especially poignant. When she renounces her material wealth and exploitation of men to return to her former life of poverty and simplicity, Jack is finally able to be a real presence in the world, who gives authentic shape to his community and is no longer dependent on the system for his identity. Arguably, Jack learns to love when his mother accepts who she is.
Warren’s story is one of love, family, honor, masculinity, the pitfalls and promise of modernity, and salvation. For Warren, something essential has been lost in society, and he reminds us that though we may not even recognize this loss, and even though we have been wounded by it, our hearts yearn for the infinite. All of our hearts—those of corrupt politicians as much as those of the daughters of honorable men.
It seems undeniable that in response to this longing for all that is good, corruption infects even our most noble aspirations. Can we hope to bring about a proper and just ordering of society, a way of life that contributes to our ultimate salvation? Warren seems to suggest both that we can and we can’t—and that any accomplishments we achieve are not likely to take shape the way we expect or think that they should.The tragic narrator and protagonist, Jack Burden, whose life and career are thoroughly intertwined with the larger-than-life Willie Stark, reminds me of someone who gives expression to the exhortation to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” This is truly the challenge for all of us, and even that pursuit is conditioned by our circumstances and experiences. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us: “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.” Somehow, both are true.
When it comes to politics, Warren’s novel encourages me to refrain from judgment. Even Willie Stark, for all his crooked ways, ruining of lives, exploitation of women, and countless foibles, desired and served the common good. He died as an idealist who lived in pursuit of one dream for something he created to be perfectly pure. Politics demands a reflection of our ourselves, our hopes and our dreams, our tattered nobility, and our conspicuous vice. A conversation about our leaders can never be separated from a conversation about ourselves. This is truly a novel about all the King’s men.