Monday, February 4, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“ALL THE KING’S MEN” by Robert Penn Warren (first published in 1946)
            A current American attempt at a novel with a broad social sweep put me in mind of an American novel that really does have such a sweep.

It’s a curious fact of our age that we sometimes read novels only after we have seen film or television adaptations of them. In fact, it is sometimes a film version that drives us to read the novel. This was my own case with regard to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, still regarded by some as an American classic all these years after it was a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize.

I had already seen, a couple of times, Robert Rossen’s famous 1949 film version, in which Broderick Crawford did his Academy Award-winning turn as Willie Stark, the Southern governor so clearly based on Louisiana’s Huey Long. [See index at right for my comments on the biography Huey Long by T.Harry Williams] Inevitably, as I read, I found myself comparing characters and situations with the way they had been depicted in the film. So perfectly, in the film, did the character actress Mercedes McCambridge play Willie Stark’s secretary and gofer Sadie Burke, that I saw her face and heard her voice whenever the character turned up in the novel.

Inasmuch as it deals with Willie Stark, the 1949 film turns out to have been a reasonable transcription of much of the novel, for all its compressions and elisions. Willie, the honest, reformist hick politician, becomes a demagogic governor while still imagining he is doing good for the people, and never realizing how much he has been corrupted by power. He believes “good can only be made from evil” without seeing that evil tends to undermine good. When an assassin finally guns him down, he still has most of his delusions intact.

But, while I had made allowances for the unavoidable bowdlerisations of a film made so long ago, reading the novel confirmed one hunch I had had while watching the film. I couldn’t help thinking that Hollywood’s version short-changed on the story’s Southern milieu.

Even in the film’s crowd scenes, there didn’t seem to be any blacks; and indeed in the novel, blacks play no role in the story’s political machinations because, in an era before the civil rights movement, white politicians in the South could essentially ignore blacks, who were still effectively disenfranchised. But unlike the film, the novel is filled with unapologetic references to “nigger” servants (so called) and to “papists” (like Willie’s bodyguard Sugar-Boy O’Sheean), and has a sweaty and fully-described Southern atmosphere replete with events of that strange, extreme “Gothic” type that we foreigners associate with the American South.

There is a séance scene with a medium when the novel’s narrator, Jack Burden, is attempting to dig into the past of one of Willie Stark’s political enemies so that Willie Stark can blackmail him. There is a scene when Burden watches a doctor perform a lobotomy and reflects on whether the excised parts of the brain can still think. The old Confederacy and the Southern past are evoked in the long fourth chapter (apparently cut out of some early editions of the novel), in which Jack Burden reflects on a 19th century figure upon whom he once attempted to write a thesis.

Chief difference between film and novel, however, is the figure of Jack Burden himself. In every respect, this narrator (strictly a supporting figure as played by John Ireland in the film) is the novel’s main character. Indeed scenes directly involving Willie Stark would probably make up less that 50% of the novel. I suspect Robert Penn Warren intended Jack Burden to be some sort of representative of liberal guilt. (He carries the burden of history on his shoulders – the symbolism of the name is fairly obvious – and in the last chapter he tells his mother that “if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future.”). The affluent country-club set to which Burden belongs is shown to be decent and moral only within very limited parameters. These people do not actively do anything for the poor, much as they may deplore the vulgar demagoguery of Willie Stark. Burden’s attraction to Stark is thus comprehensible. The loud politician who appears to give a stuff is clearly more attractive than effete wealthy people who don’t. Robert Penn Warren makes it doubly comprehensible inasmuch as Jack Burden’s father has absconded, his mother has married and divorced number of times, and the young man is badly in need of some sort of father figure. Roll on the stark certainties (more pointed naming) of a man who seems to know where he is going.

To express this theme of liberal guilt, however, the mid-twentieth century novel has some contrivances that might have fit more comfortably into a mid-19th century novel.

That Jack Burden’s haughty socialite friend Ann Stanton should become Willie Stark’s mistress may be necessary to the plot (it leads Ann’s brother, Dr Adam Stanton, to gun Willie down), but it seems highly unlikely given what the two characters are. Even more strained is the novel’s revelation that Jack Burden’s true father is a judge whom Willie Stark has been attempting to discredit. In the way characters are related (I won’t go into it here, if you don’t mind), Penn Warren nods to the idea that society is a unity. But the novel’s main political message is a fairly Machiavellian one: Some people know how to manipulate others in order to wield political power. Even the most upright person has a character stain that can be exploited. Political power may allow some people to do good, but power itself has the habit of corrupting people and becomes an end in itself. So let us, like Jack Burden at the end of the novel, retire from politics and meditate vaguely on Time and Fate as we lick our wounds and let the vulgar run the world and remind ourselves of how intellectually superior we are.

I’m interested that stylistically, Penn Warren (through his first-person narrator) does not write stream-of-consciousness, but in long, epithet-laden sentences describing place and atmosphere. It is often a deliberate, artful, colloquial-sounding ramble by an observant narrator. It does, however, sometimes strive for gravitas, especially in that ruminative fourth chapter about history. Because Jack Burden is the novel’s centre of consciousness, the novel opens in medias res with Willie Stark already governor and his rise to power told in flashback. The ending, however, has some hasty thread-tying in the forty-odd pages that follow Willie’s assassination.

As a purely personal reaction, I found myself actively disliking Jack Burden, for all the art with which Penn Warren outlines his circumstances and psychological needs. Too often, it seems to me, Jack refuses to acknowledge how much he himself is a parasite on “the Boss” Willie Stark, for all his criticisms of other people who fill that same role. He is evasive. In the opening chapter Jack Burden declares:

I owed my success to [this] principle. It had put me where I was. What you don’t know won’t hurt you for it ain’t real. They called that Idealism in my book I had when I was in college, and after I got hold of that principle I became an Idealist. I was a brass-bound Idealist in those days. If you are an Idealist it doesn’t matter what you do or what goes on around you because it ain’t real anyway.”

In other words, his (philosophical) rationalism allows him to evade moral responsibilities. He reinforces this view in the sixth chapter, where he refuses to listen to news of Willie’s misbehaviour because “the world is full of things I don’t want to know.”

This is, however, a complex novel. It is quite conceivable that Penn Warren intends us to see Jack Burden as evasive, self-justifying and weak because Jack is more influenced by the limitations of his privileged upbringing than he ever admits. In fine, Penn Warren could intend him to be an unreliable narrator.

Penn Warren does hit on some resonant phrases. I loved the comment (epitome of much of the novel) in Chapter 2 about “the sound of Willie’s voice hammering on the eardrums and shaking dead leaves off the oak-trees.”

Throughout the novel, Willie has a favourite comment: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.” It chimes with his view that good can only be made of evil, especially when we hear of the influence a very Calvinist form of Presbyterianism had in his upbringing.

There are also the moments when Penn Warren lets rip, as when (in Chapter 6) the rationalist Jack Burden speaks truthfully of “that cold, unloving part of the mind – that maiden aunt, that washroom mirror the drunk stares into, that still small voice, that maggot in the cheese of your self-esteem, that commentator on the ether nightmare, that death’s head of lipless rationality at your every feast…”

I step back from my criticisms at such points and admit this novel’s enduring power.

Semi-relevant footnote: As I began by comparing this novel with a film adapted from it, I should conclude by noting that there was a more recent film adaptation of All the King’s Men, made in 2006 with Sean Penn as Willie Stark and Jude Law as Jack Burden. In many respects it is more faithful to events in the novel than the 1949 film was, and certainly it has details that censorship didn’t allow way back when. Regrettably, its inept direction and editing also make it a complete bore. It featured on some critics’ “Worst of the Year” lists. For all its omissions and bowdlerisations, the 1949 version at least has pace and memorable performances.

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