Sweaty handshakes, photo opportunities, and character assassination abound. A politician with heavy-handed charisma makes a steady and unlikely ascent up the political ladder, doing anything and everything to grab at and hold onto whatever political capital is available. Straw hats, Southern rhetorical charm and big promises abound. This is the world of Willie Stark, the populist politician in Robert Penn Warren's seminal novel All The King's Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1947. A movie version released in 1949 also enjoyed great success, taking home three of the seven Oscars for which it was nominated.
More than 50 years later, Columbia Pictures has adapted Warren's classic into a new film version, a testament to the cultural and political staying power of the ideas in the novel. Scheduled for nationwide release on Sept. 22, the new film stars Sean Penn as Willie Stark; Jude Law as Stark's political operative, Jack Burden; and Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton, Burden's girlfriend and later Stark's mistress. A new movie tie-in edition of the book presents a wonderful opportunity for new readers and those returning to the novel to enjoy this American classic.
Warren's novel chronicles the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a self-educated country boy with lofty political aspirations and a dogged determination that land him, among other political posts, the governorship of Louisiana. Though Warren never overtly confirmed it, Stark's character is closely based on the controversial Louisiana politician Huey Long, one of the most popular and corrupt politicians in American history. Long was governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and served as a senator from 1932 to 1935. He appealed to those most affected by the Great Depression with a program called Every Man a King, which proposed heavy taxes on the wealthiest citizens and corporations to help ease the burden on the impoverished. Long was murdered by an assassin in 1935, at the peak of his popularity. Warren, a Kentuckian by birth, had the opportunity to observe Louisiana politics when he taught at Louisiana State University from 1934 to 1942. Jack Burden, Governor Stark's reluctant press secretary, provides the narrative voice for the novel. Burden is often torn between his boss' demands and his own tenuous sense of decency. Momentum, political and physical, is present throughout the novel. Characters often react to one another with visceral jolts or jerks, their words and physicality impinging on each other like the languid Louisiana humidity. In one passage, Stark and his posse of strongmen and advisors bound down a poorly constructed highway in a huge Cadillac, floating over the loose bits of pavement, just barely avoiding calamity, as politicians must do. Throughout the story there is rushing, from town to town, from photo-op to crooked deal. The nebulous political world created by Warren is tied together in surprising ways, an array of personalities and places that cannot be seen or understood simultaneously. This idea of connectivity is important to the narrative. Roads and train tracks connect small towns. Chance encounters that appear insignificant change lives. Time connects the seemingly irreconcilable chapters of a person's existence.
The political arena has been and will continue to be a microcosm of human nature, amplifying both the positive and negative aspects of society. Warren's deft ability to tackle and illuminate these larger issues of human nature is what makes All The King's Men more than just a book for those interested in politics. The union of Warren's remarkable prose and transcendent subject matter creates a novel with themes and characters that are grounded in humanity and are as resoundingly relevant and believable today as when they were first cast. The recent novel Primary Colors, first published in 1995 under the moniker Anonymous by Joe Klein, was influenced greatly by All The King's Men , which Klein has described as America's most important political novel. Klein borrowed from the story as well as the narrative voice when writing his novel, which recounts the political adventures of a character based on Bill Clinton.
All The King's Men is a must-read for those who seek a greater understanding of the unique American political machine and the shadowy undertakings that grease its cogs. It is stylish and entertaining, but also serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for American politics, past and present, a candid view of a world not often exposed in such a raw fashion. Readers interested in besmirched politics, unique characters or just a sweaty ride with a Southern politician, slap on your finest seersucker, find a shady tree, and sit down with the new edition of All The King's Men.
Lucas Marcopolos is a writer in Nashville.