05 January 2021

"All The King's Men" (Robert Penn Warren, 1946)

Just finished my third and presumably final reading of this classic work.  I first encountered it as a student, then again as a young adult, after which I placed it on a bookshelf to "read again someday" - which day has arrived.

There are innumerable reasons to reread a book, but reading something three times suggests that one's motive is more than just plot and storyline.  For me, it's typically language - encountering a story that is told so well that you just want the storyteller to give it another go.  Robert Penn Warren is an accomplished craftsman with an excellent ear for dialogue, and actually a Pulitzer prize winner for poetry (twice) as well as for fiction (for this novel) (and the only person ever to have won both those Pulitzers).  I'll offer here some excerpted passages from the book [bold font added]:
"... they had something in common, Old Man Stark and Lucy Stark, who had loved and married Willie Stark, the Willie Stark who at that moment when she and the old man sat wordlessly before the fire was upstairs in his room with his face bent down over a law book, his face puzzled and earnest and the tousle of hair hanging, and who was not with them by the fire, but was up there in that room, but not even in that room either, but in a room, a world, inside himself where something was swelling and growing painfully and dully and imperceptibly like a great potato in a dark, damp cellar.  What they had in common was a world of wordless silence by the fire, a world which could absorb effortlessly and perfectly the movements of their day and their occupations, and of all the days they had lived, and of the days that were to come for them to move about in and do the things which were the life for which they were made.  So they sat there in their common knowledge, while the chunk on the hearth stewed and hissed and crumbled, and were together in the down beat and pause of the rhythm of their lives.  That was what they had in common now, and nothing could take that away."

"... a kid with a pudgy face and freckles on his face and sandy hair falling down on his forehead, bending down at the table by a coal-oil lamp - it must have been a coal-oil lamp then - and a pencil in his hand, tooth marks on the pencil where he'd been gnawing at it, and the fire in the trash-burner getting low, and the wind pounding on the north side of the house, pounding down off the Dakotas a thousand miles away and across the plains which were icy and pearl-blind with the snow polished hard under the wind and glimmering in the dark, and across the river bottoms, and across the hills where the pine trees had stood once and moaned in the wind but where there wan't anything to break the wind now.  The sash in the window on the north wall of the room would rattle under the wind, and the flame in the coal-oil lamp would bend and shiver in what current of air sneaked in, but the kid wouldn't look up.  He would gnaw his pencil, and hunch down.  Then after a while he would blow out the lamp and pull off his clothes and get into bed, wearing his underwear.  The sheets would be cold to the skin and stiff-feeling.  He would lie there and shiver in the dark.  The wind would come down a thousand miles and pound on the house and the sash would rattle and inside him something would be big and coiling slow and clotting till he would hold his breath and the blood would beat in his head with a hollow sound as though his head were a cave as big as the dark outside..."

"... in the middle of the day maybe with the sunshine bright and the air so still it aches like the place where the tooth was on the morning after you've been to the dentist or aches like your heart in the bosom when you stand on the street corner waiting for the light to change and happen to recollect how things once were and how they might have been yet if what happened had not happened."

"He didn't exactly shove Duffy off the platform.  He just started Duffy doing a dance along the edge, a kind of delicate, feather-toed, bemused, slow-motion adagio accompanied by arms pinwheeling around a face which was like a surprised custard pie with a hole scooped in the middle of the meringue, and the hole was Duffy's mouth, but no sound came out of it."

(after a reunion with a childhood sweetheart) "Were we happy tonight because we were happy or because once, a long time back, we had been happy?  Was our happiness tonight like the light of the moon, which does not come from the moon, for the moon is cold and has no light of its own, but is reflected light from far away?"

"That morning she [Sadie Burke] had exploded out of the Boss's door, and had described a parabola into my office, with her black chopped-off hair wild and her face like a riddled plaster-of-Paris mask of Medusa except for the hot bituminous eyes, which were in full blaze with a bellows pumping the flame."             

[observing a patient undergoing a prefrontal lobectomy]  "I stuck it out until Adam had sewed up the meninges and had pulled the skull flaps back into place and had drawn up the flap of skin and laced it down all shipshape.  Then the little pieces of brain which had been cut out were put away to think their little thoughts quietly somewhere among the garbage, and what was left inside the split-open skull of the gaunt individual was sealed back up and left to think up an entirely new personality."

"Perhaps the Emperor Vespasian was right when, jingling in his jeans the money which had been derived from a tax on urinals, he wittily remarked: 'Pecunia non olet.'" [money doesn't stink]

"This lack of logic, the sense of people and events driven by impulses which I was not able to define, gave the whole occasion the sense of a dreamlike unreality.  It was only after the conclusion, after everything was over, that the sense of reality returned, long after, in fact, when I had been able to gather the pieces of the puzzle up and put them together to see the pattern.  This is not remarkable, for, as we know, reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events.  We seem here to have a paradox: that the reality of an event, which is not real in itself, arises from other events which, likewise, in themselves are not real.  But this only affirms what we must affirm: that direction is all.   And only as we realize this do we live, for our own identity is dependent upon this principle."
And finally a few words and usages that were new to me, some classic and others regional or colloquial:
"Tom Stark prodded the dog with his toe for a little encouragement, but he might just as well have been prodding a bolster."  In context, a large pillow, unchanged from Old English, and cognate with German and Scandinavian words.

"Jesus," the Boss said, "put the old white thunder-mug under the bed and it'll look just like home."  Interesting (and evocative) term for a chamberpot.

"When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back..."  Found the answer at Mental Floss: "To bust a hame string—where hame string is an alteration of hamstring—means “to make a sudden great effort,” with a transferred meaning of “to become excessively angry.” "

"... give him a tin scimitar like he was a High Grand Shriner or something, and he can sit on a tuffet outside your door and be Secretary of the Bedchamber."  Apparently Miss Muffett's tuffet was a clump of grass, but this one would be a cushion, with or without an internal frame.

"I could have slapped that God-damned handsome, eagle-beaked, strong-boned rubiginous-hided, high old face, in which the eyes weren't old but were hard and bright without any depth to them and were an insult to look into."  More commonly rubiginose "having the color or appearance of iron rust" (Latin etymology).

"He was just another fellow made in God's image and wearing a white shirt with a ready-tied black bow tie and jean pants held up with web galluses.  Town from the waist up, country from the waist down.  Get both votes."  Suspenders for trousers.  Apparently arose as a variant of "gallows" for hanging something, not from the Latin gallus = goose.

"Those folks in the shacks were in such a shape they'd be ready to walk fifteen miles for a bait of fresh."  (I have no idea on this one)

"What the hell do you want to go to that barbecue for?" I said.  "I'm going to tell 'em to hist tail."  I'm going to assume a regional pronunciation of "hoist" tail = to depart.

"... those gully-washed red-clay roads to walk over - or to break his wagon axle or string-halt his mules on."  A term in veterinary pathology referring to a disorder or the motor nerves in horses.  Dressage Today has details.

"... with his high old red-thatched head bent over, the yellow eyes gimleted upon the task."  As a verb it carries the meaning of "to pierce."

"There was what I took to be George, in one corner of the big, sparsely furnished room, sitting tailor-fashion on a piece of old blanket..."  Cross-legged -  typically on top of a table. There is enough interesting information at Blue Anchor Corner to fill a separate blog post when I have time...
"... whatever the hell it was or whyever the hell he lived that way..."  A perfectly valid word, but the first time I've ever seen it.  I have certainly encountered "why ever would xyz..." but never as a single compound word.

"He made up what he needed to do business, Doc.  And what he made up and got everybody to mirate on as good and right was always just a couple of jumps behind what he needed to do business on."  To "marvel at" - from the Latin.

"Little girls wear white dresses with skirts that flare out to show their funny little knees, and they wear round-toed black patent-leather slippers held by a one-button strap, and their white socks are held up by a dab of soap, and their hair hangs down the back in a braid with a blue ribbon on it.  That was Anne Stanton..."  I was never a young girl, so someone clue me in.  Did girls of this era (1930s-ish) use soap to help white socks stay up?  How would that work?

"... the pussel-gutted city cops sweating in their blue..."  "When asked about the meaning of pussel-gutted at the University of Virginia in 1957. Faulkner replied: "I've heard it all my life. It means someone that is bloated. that has a tremendous belly that he shouldn't have."  The Mississippi Library Commission says "Pussel-gut means to fatten. "The old witch gave Hansel and Gretel all sorts of good food with which to pussel-gut themselves."  Etymology???

"... I turned off the highway twenty-five miles out of the city and tooled gently up the drive under the magnificent groining of the century-old live oaks whose boughs met above the avenue and dripped stalactites of moss..."  In architectural terms, the meeting of two vaults.
And after enjoying this book, I think I should re-read his Brother to Dragons.


  1. Ice read this book twice myself and now you've poised me for a third lap. I love your blog and an grateful for its content.


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