Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
The twelve essayists in this critical collection examine anew two fundamental concerns of Penn Warren’s landmark work, which has as valid a claim to being “The Great American Novel” as any in the literary canon. The first challenging conundrum these critics examine is narrator Jack Burden’s adequacy as a historiographer and the impact of his reliability upon his alter-ego-persona-narrative: does Jack succeed in becoming an able historian of his family and of Willie Stark’s political career, or does he become self-delusive and resort to a “selectively culled” history to justify himself to his audience as a trustworthy chronicler of the Willie Stark era of Jack’s life. The second major thematic motif these essays explore is Penn Warren’s implicit positing of a spiritual dimension to Jack Burden’s quest for a viable identity to sustain him in his ultimate decision to join humanity and finally live in the history he’s so long lived outside of, as a cynically un-involved observer.
The provocative efforts of these twelve scholars, fifty-six years after the publication of All the King’s Men, testifies to the novel’s great philosophical and psychological depths, riches that continue to induce new readers and returning readers to shadow Jack Burden in his quest of the examined life: the quest to fully engage ourselves in becoming ever more human despite our being flawed, ever-plagued by our social shortcomings, as are “all the king’s men.”