To describe All the King's Men as "a great political novel" is as condescending as calling Moby Dick "a great fishing novel"or Middlemarch "a great West Midlands novel". Perhaps it is better to say that, along with Henry Adams and Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren is one of the few American writers to have produced a novel about politics which has survived and deserves to prosper.
In the opening chapters, modern readers might fear that a plot which seemed original in 1946 has been reduced to cliche by subsequent imitations. Willie Stark is a petty official in an unnamed southern state. He loses his job for exposing the local cabal, but earns belated recognition when his warnings about a fraudulent contract to build his town's school are vindicated by the deaths of children. Flatterers from the state capital persuade him to run for governor. Stark takes the campaign and electorate seriously, but pulls out when he discovers that he's been put up by the city boys to split the opposition vote. We meet Stark again four years later. He has secured the governorship by turning himself into "the Boss", a vicious populist who can cover up embezzlement and worse while earning the adulation of the red-necked mob.
The danger of being instructed yet again that power corrupts, and that youthful idealism must give way to hard-headed pragmatism in the real world's university of life, moves closer by the page. But All the King's Men avoids platitudes, in part because it is a political novel with peculiarly apolitical obsessions. Stark is a caricature of Huey Long, the grandiose and depraved governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, who nevertheless revived his state with Keynesian deficit financing and public works. Yet Warren mentions the Great Depression just once - and then in passing. We are given a discourse on ends and means, but no understanding of why the end of relieving the deepest slump in the history of capitalism might justify many means. Like Primary Colours, Joe Klein's inferior substitute, All the King's Men does not discuss the gushing source of American corruption - campaign financing. Rather, Stark's vice is his belief that anyone who crosses him can be brought to heel by the exploitation of sex, money, flattery or fear. In a passage that is repeated like a chant, Jack Burden, Stark's morally blank aide and the novel's cool narrator, is told to find the secret of a judge who won't get into line.
"But suppose there isn't anything to find?"
And the Boss said, "There is always something."
And I said, "Maybe not on the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."
The dialogue is saturated with biblical fatalism. There are lyrical passages on highways and landscapes, and confident assertions on the human condition, which can all sound archaic to a cramped and ironic postmodern sensibility. But then, if you were to give many contemporary writers Warren's themes, they would babble something about the ends never justifying the means and leave it at that. Warren's strength is that he sees ends and means, pragmatism and utopianism, as a dialectic in which the roles of man of action and man of ideals swap and collide and transform the combatants into unexpected forms. Finding the judge's dirty secret brings disaster to Burden and to many who love him, but it also forces him to come to terms with his life's failures. Stark is brought down not by his contempt for decent means - which will clearly take him to the Senate, and perhaps the presidency, if he has the courage to stick to his lack of principle - but by his love of his son and mistress, and by his desire to leave one unsullied achievement for posterity. There is a marvellously drawn female politico, of a type you bump into daily at Westminster, who is determined to be as mean as the boys, but is undone by customary ruthlessness provoked by unaccustomed sentimentality.
There may always be something, but it may not always be predictable.