The epigraph to All the King’s Men is from Purgatorio, which happens to be my personal favorite stop on Dante’s guided tour of the celestial realm. It is so favorite a favorite that I had one of its scenes, a somewhat impressionistic rendering of a Doré rendering, tattooed on my forearm in a fit of youthful bravado. (If I have any regrets about this, they are that I have only a dwindling supply of bravado, and only two arms, and only one life to encounter moving things and be altered by them for the duration.) Anyway, it’s an exceedingly helpful epigraph for reading this novel; once Dante has been invoked, he has a way of suffusing everything and providing a theme and trajectory to the work: down, and then up, up, up.
The Divine Comedy has a lot of politics in it, Guelphs and Ghibellines and so forth, because Dante was a political animal who went through the wringer and finally lived out his days in exile, a self-described “party of one.” After centuries, most of us read the poet’s verse and the footnotes prepared by dedicated historians and have only the vaguest sense of who everyone was. Still, we know that they are meaningful in their perdition or their grace.
Robert Penn Warren’s tortured narrator, Jack Burden, was a party of one if ever one there was: a failed law student, historian, journalist, henchman, ungentlemanly Southern gent. Like Dante, he is prone to sudden sleep and wandering into error. Warren evidently protested the designation, but I’ll allow that All the King’s Men is a novel about politics in the Dantean sense — politics happens in the story, Guelphs and Ghibellines and hicks and state power and porcine Duffy and inscrutable Stark. But it’s not Willie Stark who makes the lasting impression in this novel. It’s Jack Burden, party of one, who midway through the journey of his life finds himself in a dark wood, the right path lost. He is here to tell us about several generations of honor and shame, about soiling your good name and living, or not living, with the results. There is no one in this novel, save perhaps the long-suffering Lucy, who does not stain him or herself with some kind of wrong.
Dante was a party of one, but he was also a patriot, if we can try and understand the word outside of that dubious 19th-century invention, the nation state. Dante was a Florentine who loved his city; he celebrated and indicted it in his lovely poem in his beloved language. Reading All the King’s Men, I thought a lot about patriotism. This novel is written so beautifully, so stylishly, and feels so American — with all the muddled greatness and shittiness that descriptor implies — that my decrepit patriotism pricked up its ears like it sometimes does when I read a stunning novel about America, in fine American English.
After two foreign wars and all manner of troubling happenings on the domestic front, the thinking American, even while she tells herself that states are a construct, can find herself looking wistfully for uncontentious and productive symbols of homeland pride. In these moments, I settle on rock ‘n’ roll, because I believe that is a genuinely good American invention, one that people from other countries (with the exception of the squares and grumps who turn up in any society) have taken up with great gusto and badass results.
But then, if we work past the hugely powerful instinct to take national ownership in a thing, pride must be tempered by the fact that this American cultural good arose from an indelible stain upon our history. Put very simply, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll, no jazz, if there were no slaves in America. So you recalibrate your patriotic enthusiasm — rock music is a great good with a great evil woven into its roots.
All the King’s Men is a novel that puts shame front and center — personal shame, familial shame, state shame. And see in this novel, that other, larger shame: it’s a novel with “nigger” on the first page, its world reels from the sin of a woman sold down the river. Maybe it’s because the hot, schismatic South has ever had some kind of weird claim on Americanness, but there is something about All the King’s Men that like rock ‘n’ roll seems profoundly American, something paradoxical that makes a person feel like holding up her head about the accident of her citizenship to say, “We made this, so we can’t be all bad,” even while the thing in question in fact confirms that we can be and are that bad — on the national scale, on the universal scale, we’re that bad.
We’re that bad — but some of us can really write.
Can Robert Penn Warren ever write. He’s a poet, and his prose is full of poetry and swagger. It’s not a style I thought I favored; I think of my literary tastes, ironically, as running prim and anglophilic. But perhaps it’s not a style I favor only because it is often imitated, unwittingly or the reverse, with such excruciating results. There are rioting metaphors on every page; cliches lurk around every corner. A hometown hero, a depressive journalist, a yellowing diary, a buried secret, a war, a zaftig bivalvular ex-wife, all written so beautifully I can hardly stand it. My copy is dog-eared the whole way through, the better to find the remarkable passages that proliferate therein.
We had taken lots of swims in the rain, that summer and the summers before when Adam had been with us. We would no doubt have gone that night too, if the rain had been falling a different kind of rain, if it had been a light sweet rain, falling out of a high sky, the kind that barely whispers with a silky sound on the surface of the water you are swimming in, or if had been a driven, needle-pointed, cold, cathartic rain to make you want to run along the beach and yell before you took refuge in the sea, or even if it had been a torrent, the kind you get on the Gulf that is like nothing so much as what happens when the bottom finally bursts out of a big paper bag suspended full of water. But it wasn’t like any of those kinds of rain. It was as though the sky had sagged down as low as possible and there were a universal leaking of bilge down through the black, gummy, dispirited air.
They flow like this, one after another, in a manner that sometimes sounds free-wheeling and unconstructed, like a drugstore poet shooting the breeze between sips from his soda pop. But try to write a letter and sound like Robert Penn Warren. Try to write a story.
I rejoice in this great American novel, a reminder of people’s capacity for those universal states, perdition and grace. Jack Burden says “what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of bad and the bad out of good, and the devil take the hindmost.” Jack Burden asks if we are only as a good as the worst thing we’ve ever done and we have to concede it is so. It is so, but there’s a chance of heaven yet. Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde.