Over summer, I approached a point where I was bored out of my mind, trying to find anything to watch, play or read to simply pass time. In this moment of boredom, a close friend recommended I read “All the King’s Men” (1946) by Robert Penn Warren because he thought that, as a political junkie, I would love it. What I discovered was a novel that serves as a perfect representation of our current political shortcomings in America, complemented by the harrowing narrative voice of its central character as he reflects on his life.
“All the King’s Men” follows the rise and fall of Willie Talos a.k.a “The Boss,” an upstart politician with remarkable charisma, through the eyes of his close associate Jack Burden. Burden takes us through his life journey, which he realizes has become irrevocably linked to Talos, starting with his thoughts on time spent with the impressionable young lawyer, all the way to his turbulent decline at the height of his power. Burden’s perspective is enthralling for his attention to detail and the pervasive sense that he will never quite understand or forgive Talos’ complex actions.
Talos’ character mirrors that of real-life Louisiana Gov. and later Sen. Huey Long (D-La.). Both Talos and Long encompass similar characteristics. First, they both serve as advocates for the forgotten and the people fed up with the political establishment. Moreover, they magnify their campaigns by assailing the political elites of rural and urban areas alike for their stagnation in combating societal issues. Talos and Long’s commitment and exceptional willingness to hold themselves to grand visions captivate the mind. Each championed a populist message of big-state solutions to counter what he deemed the excesses of elitism, graft and ignorance. Their personalities and messages channel people discontent with the status-quo of politics and mobilize them to action — in ways we often see today.
As our turbulent 2020 election season draws to a close, Warren’s “All the King’s Men” epitomizes why people are attracted to populists like Talos and Long. It is their ability to prophesize their capacity to solve the issues of the everyday man, to those who feel neglected by politicians or denigrated for their beliefs. In today’s political environment, these appeals have proved largely effective. Many feel the political establishment has failed to heed their cries of insecurity and displeasure with the status quo. Their retort is the promotion of populist leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who exemplify these concerns and assure them they matter.
Unfortunately, “All the King’s Men” depicts the downfalls of wielding authority with a self-righteous vision that centers around personal validation. Talos’ rise to power corrupts his idealistic and plan-centric approach to governance, and his transformation from a quiet, rule-focused lawyer with a high moral bar to a power-hungry demagogue who fuels his political agenda through blackmail and strongman tactics is both startling and poetic.
Talos’ character serves as a template for Lord Acton’s quote, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” in a way that makes you abhor Talos’ shifts in personality that border on irredeemable. His transition should serve as a reminder that no matter the intention, some people, when put in positions of power, will naturally gravitate to express the extent of their authority. It is a frightening trend we can see across the globe with the backsliding of democracies and the rise of political strongmen.
There should be an acknowledgment that the book has characters with complicated views on sensitive subject matters, such as the use of racially insensitive language and the prevalence of racial stereotypes. In fact, even Burden’s character frequently makes sly remarks and racial overtones about the position of Black Americans. He is not the only character to share these views, with some being more vocal by spewing vitriol worse than Burden. To put it mildly, it can be incredibly uncomfortable to read.
However, not all the characters in the novel profess these views to the same extent, and some have opinions quite to the contrary. Notably, Talos prides his ability to bridge the gaps of inequality and inequity between both Black and white individuals in his state — though this does not excuse his off-the-cuff racist language. There are other characters like Adam Stanton, a doctor who services low-income communities. He emphasizes the desire to improve his patients’ health regardless of their disposition, even if some of his private thoughts are controversial. Nevertheless, being confronted with literature that has problematic material is beneficial to the ongoing dialogue around racial justice. In challenging distasteful depictions about race, we can better recognize how far we still must be willing to push for society’s progress.
At it’s best, “All the King’s Men” offers a fascinating story of the rise and fall of a well-intentioned individual set on reforming government, who eventually came to embody the very thing he was against. It is a work that makes you resonate with those who feel fed up with the political system, yet it also warns us about what sort of political demagogue that may come about from those emotions. As a whole, Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is a brilliant examination into the intricacies of American political life, in the way it illustrates a shocking picture that retains its relevance in today’s political dynamics.
Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.
Demetrios Mammas (he/him 23C) is from Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in political science and psychology. When he’s not editing or writing op-eds and reviews for the Wheel, he can be found helping out student legislators as a College Council Chief of Staff and volunteering at Emory’s nearby Wesley Woods Senior Living facility. In his free time, he enjoys playing video games, learning languages, being a Netflix fanatic, reading Arthurian legends, going kayaking and practicing guitar.