Compelling, overstuffed, overplotted, sexist, labyrinthine, poetic, atmospheric. To me this book’s status as The Great American Political Novel seems like a terrific bitter joke, because the author’s vision of “politics” is comprised entirely of blackmail, physical intimidation, pork-barreling, rabble-rousing, nepotism, bribery, rigged elections, and hilariously contrived “family values” photo shoots. (I love the scene where a photographer and two aides attempt to wrestle a comatose, foul-smelli
I would place this novel in the Philosophical Potboiler genre (together with “East of Eden” and “Sophie’s Choice”). There are lengthy meditations on the Human Condition, the nature of History, the problem of Free Will, the Original Sin of slavery as a hereditary taint corrupting the southern upper class, etc… woven among scenes featuring such archetypes as the Angelic Woman (Anne Stanton), the Demonic Woman (Sadie Burke, and Cass Mastern’s mistress), the Saintly Aesthete and Crypto-Homosexual (Adam Stanton), the Seductive Mother, the “Colonel Sanders” With a Secret (Judge Irwin), and What’s Bred in the Bone Coming Out in the Flesh (Tom Stark, the embodiment of his father’s egoism and brutality). In the ranks of minor characters we find the Long-Suffering Wife in the Country (Mrs. Stark), and Flannery O’Connor-style Mad Missionary (Jack’s father). What an array!
There are a number of rather heavy-handed themes, of which I thought the most interesting was the contrast between Jack the self-identified “student of history” and product of History, and Willie the man without a history… no family, no formal education, no tradition, nothing to explain his ambition, charisma, ruthlessness, and power over others. There seems to be a trade-off between History and Act. Jack is Burdened by the past at every level — his parents’ broken marriage, his half-mad father, his unfinished dissertation, the end of the plantation class’s reign in Southern politics, the guilt of slavery. He lives in a fog of depression, cynicism, sophistication, and rationalization. He is fascinated by Willie at their first meeting because Willie is his opposite: an earnest rube who seems unaware of his own dorkiness and believes the political game could and should be played fair.
But Willie isn’t just a naif. He’s also a kind of monster. Even at that early stage there’s a monstrous ego and ambition germinating inside him… ambition not for political goals but for personal power and domination. Where does his ambition come from? What sets Willie apart from any other impoverished child of dirt farmers in any other wretched little town like Mason City? And which side is the true Willie Stark — the idealist who fights on behalf of poor farmers and families, the builder of new roads and schools and hospitals, or the bully who fights for the sadistic joy of humiliating and dominating others?
These mysteries haunt the novel, and Penn Warren never offers a solution. Willie remains an enigma from start to finish. In fact I felt that Penn Warren wrote himself into a corner – he COULDN’T solve the enigma of Willie Stark’s origins and essential nature, so he shifted focus to the more solvable mysteries in Jack Burden’s past.
I don’t think the Jack Burden plot has aged particularly well. It has the kind of heavy-handed Freudianism you see in 1950s movies… the seductive mother, the discovery of the True Father; the taboo of virginity; the sorting of women into angels and whores, spirits and bodies. Almost every character has at least one light or dark “double” (Willie/Jack, Willie/Adam, Jack/Adam, Sadie/Ann, Burden/Irwin, Lois/Ann, etc), which is very schematic. The happy ending is only achieved by the death/disappearance of everyone but Jack and Ann… they don’t so much overcome or escape the Burden of history as have history conveniently relax its grip on them.