Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Education of a King's Man, and a Reader

I recently read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, pursuant to a New Year’s resolution to catch up on classics I’d missed, It was first published in 1946, and won the Pulitzer Prize the next year The 1949 film version won an Academy Award. I’d seen the movie several times, and once started the book without getting past the first chapter. But there was that New Year’s resolution, and I had Warren’s novel in hand…

Only it wasn’t the original 1946 edition, which won a Pulitzer prize, but a “restored” version published in 2002 and based on Warren’s original manuscript. Some of the changes were minor, some major – including the name of the Boss, Willie Stark. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, or even just read about them, you know that Stark was based on Huey Long, the Louisiana populist demagogue who might have become a contender for president if he hadn’t been assassinated in 1935.

Some critics today are comparing him to Donald Trump, but that is misleading. While Stark is just as vitriolic as Trump – “Crucify ‘em” he says of his opponents (134, changed from “Nail ‘em up!” in the 1946 version), just as Trump called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up. But he isn’t a billionaire wolf in populist sheep’s clothing. He comes from the sticks, and though he has a veneer of higher education, he’s still at heart one of the hicks he speaks for, and his populist agenda is more like that of Bernie Sanders -- “Share the Wealth.” That comes across in the scene where he abandons a dry, dull conventional campaign address, going off the cuff to appeal to them on their own gut level. His impromptu speech was used almost verbatim in the movie version below (available on YouTube):

<< I have a speech here. It's a speech about what this state needs. There's no need in my telling you what this state needs. You are the state and you know what you need. You over there, look at your pants. Have they got holes in the knees? Listen to your stomach. Did you ever hear it rumble for hunger? And you, what about your crops? Did they ever rot in the field because the road was so bad you couldn't get 'em to market? And you, what about your kids? Are they growin' up ignorant as dirt, ignorant as you 'cause there's no school for 'em? [casts his speech away] Naw, I'm not gonna read you any speech.>>

Perhaps the most famous scene in the book is the one where Stark explains to Adam Stanton, the doctor who will end up shooting him, what he’s trying to bring about. Here’s the movie version:

<<Do you know what good comes out of?...Out of bad. That's what good comes out of. Because you can't make it out of anything else. You didn't know that, did you?>>

The line is so familiar that it was even paraphrased by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (or perhaps this is a retranslation from the Russian version of the novel) as an epigram for their science fiction novel Roadside Picnic (1972): "You have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have got to make it out of."

But when Stanton asks Stark how he can tell the difference between the good and the bad, Stark offers what seems a snap answer: “You just make it up as you go along.” That much made it into the movie, but in the novel Stark goes on to offer a cynical version of what he means: from the time somebody induced apes come out of the trees, “what folks claim is right is always just a couple of jumps short of what they need to do business on.” (360). And as he tells Jack Bearden, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption” (72) – a Calvinistic belief that denies any power of choice to the individual.

Bearden is seemingly little more than a narrator in the movie version, with the focus entirely on Stark. One of the major plot details has to do with an attempt by the State Legislature to impeach the governor – Stark responding by calling on his minions to “get the hicks out” to march on the capital, amid rumors that he might even stage a military coup. But the mob is enough, and a radio announcer proclaims: “Attention, please. Attention, please. The balloting on the impeachment proceedings against Governor Stark has just ended. Here is the result: Willie Stark has won.”

And the fadeout comes with a dying Stark’s last words: “It could have been the whole world, Willie Stark. The whole world… Willie Stark. Why did he do it to me… Willie Stark? Why?” (Huey Long’s last words were seemingly more idealistic: “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” Or maybe Long had even conned himself.)

But the novel refers only passingly to the impeachment uproar, and it doesn’t end with Stark’s death. Burden is more than just a witness and at times accomplice to Stark; he is the protagonist of what might even be called a bildungsroman, a novel of moral education. A blogger who calls himself Efrra made that point in a 2014 post:

<<The human problem is the simultaneous knowledge of the inescapability of sin and the 'agony of will'. Stark  justifies his ways with the aphorism that 'man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passes from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud'. But the last thing Stark says is: “It might have all been different, Jack. You got to believe that.” Despite the inseparability of good and evil, human volition cannot be forsaken.>>

It might have been different. That is what Burden has to learn, at incredible cost. One of his assignments is to dig up dirt on Judge Monty Irwin in order to blackmail him – he succeeds, but Irwin commits suicide, and only after that does Burden learn that the judge was his own father. There is a long recollection of Burden’s on-again, off-again romance with Anne Stanton, sister of Adam Stanton – who has been offered a chance to head a new hospital offering free care to the needy. Adam can’t stand Stark, but accepts the job anyway – only to become enraged when he learns Anne has slept with him. By that time, she is married to Burden, and he is so devastated that he flees to California, despairing of any hope that life can be anything but reflex action – “the Great Twitch” (605) as he later calls it. But after having lived and learned, he can no longer believe in that. Having reconciled with Anne, they are ready to “go together into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.” (609)

I’d already figured out for myself what the real point of the novel was before I discovered that others had long since found that same point. But with only the movie to go on, I had blithely assumed otherwise.

Noel Polk, who edited the “restored” version, offers an Appendix and afterword explaining the changes. One he is especially proud of is a passage deleted from the original version, in which Burden narrates the events leading up to the assassination without revealing that he was married to Anne at the time, and knew about his father: “I shall keep distinct what I knew that day, and what I came subsequently to know.” (535)

Another major change is an impressionistic first chapter, rejected by Warren’s original editor, which introduces Boss Willie and his aides after he has achieved power, through one of his public works projects – “You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at and at you.” (1) That same chapter also has a reference to Yankees who got rich off the South after the Civil War, then returned north to eventually will their art collections to “adorn the ivy-clad Gothic halls of Pissproud College” (3) Polk’s appendix reproduces the first chapter of the 1946 edition, which opens in a more conventional manner: “The boss was a son-of-a-bitch, and I will not deny it.” (613)

But I think Polk was dead wrong to embrace Warren’s original name for the Boss: Willie Talos. Talos was the bronze man of Greek mythology who ruled Crete until he was outwitted and slain by Medea – “Talos is indeed much richer than Stark in the ‘metaphorical overtones.’” (636) But such overtones don’t belong in a realistic novel, where nobody can wonder why the Boss has such an odd name. It’s simply jarring. And I can’t help but wonder: could a man named Huey Talos ever have made it as the Boss of Louisiana?

Page references are to the 2002 edition,