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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: All the King’s Men

June 10, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at Indiana Humanities Council

Somehow, I escaped college and high school without reading many of the classics—a feat I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, but one that I now regret. So, I am constantly trying to weave in a few of those with my ever-expanding list of “new” novels. My current classic is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.

Set in the South during the 1930s, the story follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark—a farm boy turned governor, narrated by Jack Burden, Willie’s right-hand man. What I love most about this book is not it’s overarching themes—original sin, responsibility, love, hatred, etc.,–it’s that each sentence Warren writes is ripe with imagery—whether it’s Willie’s stump speech, an apartment building or his mother’s demeanor towards men.

Willie Stark is bigger than life–so big, in fact, he has to be fiction. Or is he? Some say he’s patterned after politician Huey Long, and we can all pull a few traits out of ol’ Willie that have infected even our favorite politicians. But what about Jack Burden? Anne Stanton? Like any good novel, the characters are bursting with fictional and non-fictional experiences, choices and thoughts.

There are many classics that I avoid reading, some for sheer length, but this should not be one of them. “All the King’s Men,” is a great, timeless novel that offers a one-of-a-kind glimpse into 1920s and 1930s politics in the South. History? Check. Poetry? Literature? Check, check. Politics and law? Check, check. Entertainment? CHECK.

Does Warren present an accurate portrayal of what you think  politics were like in the South during the 20s and 30s? Why should we continue to read about fictional politics from the past?

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One comment

  1. I read All the King’s Men last fall, during the campaign last fall. I’d read it long ago and had forgotten how good it is, not just for southern politics, but for human relationships and the deep rivers that create the surface of our political lives, past and present.
    An Indiana classic I continue to recommend is Tarkington’s Magnificant Ambersons
    Jim Madison



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