Sunday, August 19, 2012 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
August mixes the heat of summer with crisp night air, reminding us that seasons do pass and, so too, memories. One summer, must have been 1997, I was off from school working nights at a radio station. I’d spend the days biking or driving around northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. There was a used book store in Virginia where I’d buy dusty old classics and then find some comfortable location to read, usually far away from my home where it was uncomfortable to read.
It was during this time that I bought a yellowed paperback edition of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” that fit in your palm. The top corner of the cover was clipped, showing that it was once new but was not purchased new. It found some other strange path to this stale book store in the heart of the Mesabi.
“All the King’s Men” is a political novel, which is what drew me to it, but the human element of the story extends beyond the Depression era Southern politics. “All the King’s Men” explores idealism, loyalty, ambition and power. Many see parallels between the fictional governor Willie Stark and real-life Huey Long of Louisiana, for whom Warren once worked. But Warren said the story never intended to be purely political. Indeed, it runs much deeper.
Issues of class also enter “All the King’s Men.” Willie, a poor country farm boy, senses his own talent and hungers deeply for the power and influence denied him. He believes a little bit of evil is sometimes required to do good, and he does mass volumes of both. His aide, and the narrator of the story, Jack Burden is the son of a wealthy coastal family. He seeks simplicity, love, and understanding of who he really is beyond his surname, which graces the place where he’s from. Jack thinks people act on impulses deep within them, and finds comfort there. Both Willie and Jack sacrifice much on their missions; both of their journeys carry great consequences.
Though Warren sets the novel in the Deep South of the 1920s and ‘30s, it was easy for me to see parallels on the Iron Range of the 1990s and even, perhaps especially, today. I felt like Willie. I felt like Jack Burden. Examples of each of them could be found all around. A section near the end of the book, after the interwoven human time bomb has exploded, contains Jack Burden’s conclusions about the nature of good and evil in this world he had labored for both:
“Separateness [from God] is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God himself, and to be separate from God was to be sinful. The creation of evil is therefore the index of God’s glory and his power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man’s glory and power. But by God’s help. By his help and in His wisdom.”
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are so many awful people in such high places? It does not really matter, so long as you do the most good you can. To deviate from that is to tempt fate, to welcome disaster. This is the message I take from “All the Kings Men,” and it has generally proven true in my life.
I read many books those hot teenage summers on the Range, in lieu of parties, girlfriends and motorcycles. I recall many of them, echoes really, but only “All the King’s Men” has endured many more readings, becoming my favorite book. This has only become more true as life’s travails pass like the mile markers on one of Willie Stark’s ill-gotten highways. In our constant seeking for our place on earth, we often corrupt our true purpose and potential.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE's Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.