Yes, But ...

All the King's Men

Yes, But ...
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 4 2002 4:36 PM

All the King's Men




"Yes, but ..." is an inherently undignified stance, wishy-washy and namby-pamby. And yet it's the position to which your excellent (and vehement—nothing wishy-washy about you) first posting reduces me. I agree with a good many of your criticisms of this novel—and incidentally, I plan to contribute a few of my own in the course of the next few days—but nevertheless, I think the novel works. In fact, despite some serious reservations, I think it may even merit its classic status.

One issue about which we don't agree, or at least don't agree completely, is the quality of Warren's prose. Yes, it frequently gets overripe, and yes, it could have benefited from more aggressive editing, and it certainly evinces a variety of tics over the course of its 600 pages that finally begin to act on one's nervous system like a dentist's drill; but it isn't all as dire as the examples you cite. Far from it. The novel also contains more than its fair share of beautifully crafted, evocative, vivid writing.

Here, for example, is the way we are introduced to Tiny Duffy, a small-time political hanger-on who becomes a member of Willy Talos' entourage and a significant player in the book's denouement: "He didn't need any sign to let you know what he was. If the wind was right, you knew he was a city-hall slob long before you could see the whites of his eyes. He had the belly and he sweated through his shirt just above the belt buckle, and he had the face, which was creamed and curded like a cow-pattie in a spring pasture, only it was the color of biscuit dough, and in the middle was his grin with the gold teeth." One run-on sentence pretty much captures the man and pins him to the page.

Or here, describing the long driveway leading to an elegant sanitarium: "Between the regularly spaced oaks stood pedestals on which classical marbles—draped and undraped, male and female, stained by weathers and leaf-acid and encroaching lichen, looking as though they had, in fact, sprouted dully out of the clinging black-green humus below them—stared out at the passerby with the faintly pained, heavy, incurious unamazement of cattle."

You mention a perceptible Hemingway influence on Warren's writing, and I agree it's unmistakable. But the long sentence just quoted suggests another: William Faulkner. Which isn't surprising, of course. It would be difficult for a Southern writer of Warren's generation to remain unaffected by such an imposing, ubiquitous figure. (We probably agree that Warren might have done well to heed the Hemingway influence a little more and the Faulkner a little less; they can both be dangerous influences for a journeyman novelist, but Faulkner can be positively lethal.) In any case, in addition to these, I think I detect a third voice whispering in Warren's ear, and this one is surprising. Am I alone, or did you also notice echoes of Raymond Chandler in sentences like the following: "You cross the Mojave at night and even at night your breath rasps your gullet as though you were a sword swallower who had got hold of a hack-saw blade by mistake." Could the poet have been reading detective fiction while writing his prose masterpiece? It wouldn't surprise me.

One more observation about the prose you find so obnoxious: I wasn't bothered by its stylistic strains and contradictions, strains and contradictions you quite correctly adduce. (And let's face it, any prose that can claim Hemingway, Faulkner, and Chandler as forebears is clearly going to be full of strains and contradictions.) Jack Burden's narrative voice seemed plausible given his character and personal history. He is meant to be a well-born Southerner who had, years before the events of the novel, abandoned his history doctoral dissertation in order to become first a newspaperman and then a political functionary, aide to country demagogue Willy Talos. The romantic, intellectual idealist and the hard-boiled vulgarian live in uncomfortable, jostling proximity within his soul; the clashes and excesses of his prose can reasonably be considered the objective correlative of these warring qualities.

I've already used up too many of my allotted words this posting to discuss some of the almost crippling structural and dramatic flaws I find in the novel, as well as some of its countervailing strengths. I'll save those for later. But I do want to say a few words about the word "nigger," which recurs frequently within the pages of All the King's Men. One must, you and I presumably agree, read fiction within the context of the time and culture in which it was composed and which it seeks to evoke, and obviously the word "nigger" enjoyed wide currency in Depression-era Louisiana. And yet its reiterated use here bothered me, and bothered me increasingly as the novel progressed, in ways that, for example, I am not bothered when I read Huckleberry Finn or even Light in August. In ways more troubling than the unapologetic use of the word "kike" in The Sun Also Rises, than the pervasive, unquestioning, albeit largely implicit racism of Benito Cereno. Why? Well, I'm still struggling with the question. But I suspect it's because Warren isn't merely echoing specific language, nor even merely echoing certain characteristic social attitudes. It goes further than that. He never seems to notice the humanity of his black characters, virtually all of whom in any case play exclusively nonspeaking roles. At one point, Jack is accused of being "a nigger-lover." His response: "'No sale,' I said, "I like mine vanilla …' "

I guess it bothers me because it seems to represent a failure of rudimentary imagination, a failure simultaneously human and artistic.

Over to you.

In amicable (and namby-pamby) disagreement,

Erik Tarloff is the author of Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.

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