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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

ON ROBERT PENN WARREN

The poetry, the fiction, and even the critical essays of Robert Penn Warren form a highly unified and consistent body of work. But it would be impossible to reduce it, without distorting simplifications, to some thesis about human life. The work is not tailored to fit a thesis. In the best sense, it is inductive: it explores the human situation and tests against the fullness of human experience our various abstract statements about it. But Warren has his characteristic themes. He is constantly concerned with the meaning of the past and the need for one to accept the past if he is to live meaningfully in the present. In this concern there are resemblances to Faulkner, though Warren's treatment is his own. Again, there are resemblances to W. B. Yeats in Warren's almost obsessive concern to grasp the truth so that "all is redeemed / In knowledge." Cleanth Brooks, The Hidden God, 1963

THE SOUTHERN SETTING

Richard Gray has asserted that All the King's Men is typically Southern in its concern with the way past and present are inextricably linked. That is certainly a central theme of the novel, but that is precisely the problem: its generality. Surely all sorts of works in modernist literature are organized around this theme without thereby making them uniquely Southern.

Thus in All the King's Men, and in most of Warren's fiction, the South serves as a setting rather than a theme itself. More important, Warren's dominant concern in All the King's Men is less an evaluation of the collective Southern past than, first, an exploration of the problem of power and political insurgency and, second, of self-definition and identity. Richard H. King, A Southern Renaissance, 1980

ON TECHNIQUE

The point at which to get a grasp on the technique of All the King's Men is the narrative of Jack Burden, for the basic observation about the form of the novel is simply that it consists entirely of a story related by a created character who has observed and participated in the action that makes it up. It is Burden's supposed recollection of past events from a present time, but the attempt throughout (with the exception of the Cass Mastern chapter, occasional remarks of a sentence or two, and the final few pages) is to represent the consciousness of Jack Burden as it was at each past moment rendered, not to exhibit the past as interpreted through a viewpoint achieved in the fictional present. These moments range over his whole earlier life, and thus his narrative constitutes in one sense the autobiography of a mind. Neal Woodruff, Jr., in All the King's Men: A Symposium, ed. Fred A. Sochatoff, 1957

WILLIE AND ADAM

Stanton's decision to assassinate Willie, whom he knows only as an abstraction, characterizes the objective scientist in him. To Stanton, Willie is a cancer, not a human being. The doctor's temporary substitution of "pure force" for "pure idea," therefore, is no reversal since both positions are remote from the human median. What Adam's action does allow, however, is the double irony of a man's being killed by his favorite weapon at the very moment he has decided to lay it aside-a dramatic assertion of the penalties attendant on evil self-willed. Although Willie dies ignorant of Adam's motives and perhaps of his own, yet when he insists on his deathbed that life could have been different he is accepting the notion that his will has always been to some degree free and that he can be blamed or credited to that extent for actions now formally his. In this manner he attempts to rescue identity, to prevent himself from being reduced to mere function in a mechanical universe. Leonard Casper, Robert Penn Warren, 1960


HUMAN NATURE AND HISTORY

Man as well as history, Warren believes, has a dark and evil side, for his nature is depraved. Warren sees man as both good and bad, a coiling, confused darkness of motives which no one can completely understand. This enormous complexity of motives and hidden desires is one reason why we can never fully understand history, which consists as much of the actions of men as of non-human forces. Then, too, Warren believes that man must understand and accept his own individual evil nature before he can formulate values from history and his own past without merely flattering his own black and hidden needs. The nature of man's self consequently limits his ability to make sense of the past, both its human and non-human aspects, and self-understanding is a prerequisite of a right relationship to history. And since man's acts are to Warren the most important part of history, his views on the nature of the self are directly relevant to a study of his philosophy of history. L. Hugh Moore, Jr., Robert Penn Warren and History, 1970

SELF-KNOWLEDGE

What of the book's political morality? It was a pity that the reviewers regarded All the King's Men as primarily another life of Huey Long to be compared with the other lives of Long and not with the other works of Warren. It must be obvious by now, if my account of the book is half-way accurate, that it is not a political treatise about Long or anything else. Like Proud Flesh, it is another study of Warren's constant theme: self-knowledge. Nevertheless, it has political implications-and we will understand them correctly if we see them within the broader frame. Indeed, to say that we must see politics within a broader frame-the frame being morality and human life in general-is precisely Warren's thesis. Willie Stark, Adam Stanton, and Tiny Duffy are wrong politically because they are wrong humanly. Eric Bentley, "The Meaning of Robert Penn Warren's Novels," Kenyon Review, 1948

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