All the King's Men

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CBar

Cadet
Joined
Mar 8, 2005
Messages
45
Location
Mobile, AL
I thought this post would fit perfectly here because it covers both a film and a novel. All the King's Men, starring Jude Law, Sean Penn, and Kate Winslet, has been filming in Louisiana this winter and is due to be released at the end of 2005. I had hoped that this new film version of the novel would include the Civil War background that affects the novel's narrator so strongly, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it will.

As many of you know, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) is a novel whose main subject is not the CW; however, thematically it reaches back to slavery and the CW as sources for turmoil and guilt in its 20th-century characters. While it's always touted as historical fiction recounting the rise and fall of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long in the 1920s and ‘30s, the novel covers much broader ground than that, as my college students pointed out repeatedly in class last year. AKM is a real page-turner once you get used to the 1930s slang, and I don’t want to give away too many plot details. But I do want to comment on the CW narrative buried deep as chapter 4 in the 9-chapter book. Some of what follows is "spoiler" material (that is, for those of you who haven't read the novel; who knows if it could count as "spoilers" for the movie?).

The novel is the first-person narrative of Jack Burden (Jude Law in the film), an intelligent investigative reporter on Governor Willie Stark’s staff. Burden is deeply cynical, not just about politics, but about life in general. Like the governor, he was once idealistic, but events have turned him otherwise. He runs away mentally and then physically from any situation that causes him to feel emotionally. Needless to say, he is deeply unhappy and tries to rationalize his discontent. Eventually he hits on a mechanistic theory that all humans are basically animals, driven by the surge of the blood, and as such, no one, least of all Jack Burden, bears any responsibility for his or her actions. He drives west as far as he can, to the coast of California, and there in a hotel room enters into the Big Sleep, an attempt to return to the womb. He soon returns to Louisiana physically, but in his mind his mechanistic theory rules.

One of the two primary events that caused Jack to run away occurs as flashback in chapter 4. The language in that chapter is beautifully lyrical (Warren was a poet), in sharp contrast to the cynical, choppy slang of most of the book. (If you don’t want to know what happens in chapter 4, read no further.) Jack travels back in his mind to the time he was a graduate student in history, writing his doctoral dissertation. His subject matter was the diary, letters, and personal effects (including a gold wedding ring on a chain) of Cass Mastern, a collateral ancestor who had died in a Confederate hospital in Atlanta in 1864. We are given Cass’s diary, through Jack, and learn his tragic history. Essentially it is this: before the War, Cass lived in Georgia, then near his brother in Mississippi, then in Kentucky where he attended college (Kentucky was Warren’s home state). There he meets a young couple and falls in love with the wife, Anna. They have an affair. Her husband dies, supposedly accidentally, cleaning his pistols. In Anna’s presence, her beautiful young slave, Phebe, finds the dead husband’s gold wedding ring underneath his pillow. Anna and Phebe now both know that the death was a suicide and why it was a suicide. Anna can’t bear to have Phebe’s eyes on her, and she sells her at Paducah. Phebe is destined for New Orleans, where she’ll be put in a brothel. Anna tells Cass. She gives him the wedding ring. Cass is horrified. Anna says if he tries to find Phebe, she’ll never see him again. Knowing that, he tries anyway to find Phebe to buy her back and free her. He fails. He has already lost Anna. He goes back to Mississippi and frees his slaves but keeps them on to try to run his plantation. The plan fails. The War starts, and he enlists as a private although he could have been commissioned. He writes that he must join with his countrymen in war but he vows never to fire his musket because he has already caused too much bloodshed. He tries to die in battle (Shiloh, Chickamauga, etc.) but fails. Finally, he is wounded and eventually dies in the Atlanta hospital. In his letters to his brother he explains how his single act of perfidy (his affair) spread outward to affect many other people. He sees a wounded Union soldier from Ohio lying in a nearby bed and writes that both he and the Ohioan share in guilt (Warren’s perception of human guilt goes far beyond Southern guilt over slavery). Cass sees the world as a vast spiderweb of interconnections, and he understands that no one can avoid becoming entangled in the web and in bearing guilt for one’s actions that cause others’ pain. The guilt cannot be erased by acts of restitution. One must accept life as it is given, engage in it fully, and try to live well. In that shared guilt, all men are brothers. We learn that Jack read Cass’s story, began writing his dissertation, then stopped. Then he walked away.

Warren holds Cass Mastern up as a model human being coming to terms with the guilt that is the human condition. What is particularly interesting is that Warren focused attention on a Southern slaveholder. His novel is of course a novel about the South that grew out of the CW, but it goes beyond that. Jack Burden may be perceived to work metaphorically on several levels. Of course, he is the individual Jack, trying to come to terms with his own life. But also, metaphorically, he could be a representative Southerner, an American, a man. A fascinating, complicated novel.

One last comment: As I recall, the 1949 Academy award winning movie, starring Broderick Crawford, entirely cuts out the Cass Mastern episode. That movie was good, but it came nowhere near meeting the greatness of the novel. Now we just have to wait to see how this latest film handles the history that affects Jack Burden so strongly.
 

dawna

First Sergeant
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Messages
1,683
Location
canada
CBar:

Thank you for this stellar review of All The King's Men. I loved the novel and hopefully Jude Law's movie will do it justice.

Dawna
 
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
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