As timely today as when it was first published, Robert Penn Warren’s literary masterpiece addresses the local politics of Louisiana, where power and corruption go hand in hand, as reflected in the figure of Willie Stark, mirroring the infamous reign of kingpin Huey Long.
Ostensibly and outrageously a man of the people, Willie Stark shuns the accoutrements of wealth and power. Appealing to the common man, he captures the attention of a mass audience by speaking in a language they can readily understand, underscoring his appreciation of their economic predicament in Depression-era America.
Cutting his political teeth on the betrayals of the powerful, Willie is a quick learner, taking to heart the tricks of the trade, in no time a master manipulator. Bred of poverty, a success story who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, Stark is that rare genius who can take the public’s pulse while seducing the powerbrokers, out-dealing their schemes with his own instinctive prowess.
It is the unfolding parallel story that underscores the powerful message of the novel. In contrast to Stark, the once-idealistic Jack Burden, an equally complex character, shadows Stark’s progress, doing the dirty work to maintain Stark’s iron-fisted control of Louisiana government in pursuit of his ambition to the state senate.
Jack hails from a well-connected family that hides its dysfunction behind the refinements of culture. Often the “Boss’s” convenient pawn (Stark is never one to waste the talents of those in his employ), Burden comes of age under Stark’s tutelage, eventually pushed beyond endurance by the duplicity of his position when forced to confront a long-time family friend with the secrets of the past: “This has been the story of Willie Stark. But it is my story too.”
Hurtling towards an epic confrontation with fate, Willie stares into the future with unseeing eyes, blinded by his own hubris and the fruition of his political dreams. Jack watches dispassionately from the sidelines, his attitude altered by recent disturbing events, still clinging to the threads of his tattered integrity and all but physically removed from the once-consuming relationship.
Filled with larger-than-life personalities caught in an unfolding political drama, the novel exposes the coarse underbelly of state politics, the natural corruption of power and those whose lives are destroyed by the voracious appetite of Stark’s ambition.
Peppered with tragedy and excess and filled with the inherent contradictions of the democratic process, the author’s scathing indictment of Louisiana politics is a harsh reminder that absolute power corrupts absolutely. To be sure, idealism and compassion are expensive conceits when the dust has settled: “Maybe that is the only way you can tell that a certain piece of knowledge is worth anything: it has to cost some blood.”