Robert Penn Warren’s Exceptionalism in All the King’s Men Reply

Part III of Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism

Over the next few days I am posting a paper I delivered at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City last week.   Today, I will delve into Warren’s Exceptionalism in his most well known work, All the King’s Men.  

Warren’s Exceptionalism in All the King’s Men

In All the King’s Men, the question of progress and means to progress lie as the animating narrative to reveal the personal characters of Jack Burden and Willie Stark.[1]  The role of progress has been explored in other contexts of the novel, such as Automobiles[2] and gender relationships.[3]  I want to consider how place illustrates the tension of progress against southern exceptionalism in Warren’s Novel.  Specifically I want to focus on two markers on progress on the landscape – namely roads and public schools.[4]

Robert Penn Warren begins his novel in the very first scene with an illustration of progress and social relations.

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll   come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a [black worker] [he used a different term] chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!” And the next [black worker] down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first [black worker] will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph.[5]

Warren’s first image in the book is a freshly tarred road (an image of technological progress) with black workers in the field (an image of past racial servitude).  In the early twentieth century, Roads were visible markers of economic prosperity and technological advancement.[6] Yet, the South’s lack of paved roads in the early 20th century posed a concern that appeared numerous times in National Geographic magazine. David Janson, in his articleAmerican National Identity and the Progress of the New South in “National Geographic Magazine” writes: “For the First half of the twentieth Century, the South’s roads were a concern for National Geographic writers. “Although the wealthiest counties of the state have their own excellent paved highways, there is no dodging Georgia’s deficiency with respect to many of her roads.” Janson continues that “Roads were clearly important to Economic development which is why a National Geographic writer observed with approval when “rough old roads of sand or clay [had] widened into smooth paved highways.”[7]

Just as Warren’s description of the smooth black top leading to Mason City is highlighted as a triumph of Willie Stark – a candidate whose political messages were populist in their promise to deliver government services to more than just the wealthy – the presence of African Americans in the fields suggests that progress remains illusive for some in the South.   As Stark and his crew travel down the good new blacktop, off to the side Warren’s African American field workers are in the distance – close enough to see the march of progress before them, to chuckle at the irony of tragedy in the face of progress, yet clearly not be in the path of progress.

That exclusion of African Americans from economic progress in the south also impacts Willie Stark.   In chapter two, Jack Burden retells being assigned to cover a School Bond issue in Mason City where Stark served as the elected County treasurer.   The reader is immediately tuned in that things are not on the road to progress in Mason City as Jack Burden drives “with his jaws clamped tight when driving over the road described as a “washboard” leaving dust in his trail.  Jack discovers, talking to people on the street, that the schoolhouse bond has stalled because Stark wants the county to “take the low bid” for the building of the new schoolhouse. It becomes clear very soon that “taking the low bid” means two things in Mason: giving jobs to African Americans and conversely taking jobs away from white folk. Burden reflects on this saying “Yeah, I said to myself, so that is the tale, for Mason County is red-neck country and they don’t like black people, not strange black people anyway, and they haven’t got many of their own.”   The last word from folks on the street, however is that giving jobs to African Americans meant taking jobs from white folk. Dolph Pilsbury, the chairman of the Mason City Commissioners, sees the problem the same way,  saying to Burden when asked if the Winning Bid was low says:

“Now look a-here—” and the shadow passed from Mr. Pills-bury’s face and he sat up in his chair as suddenly as though he had been stuck by a pin—“ you talk like that, and ain’t nuthen done but legal. Ain’t nobody can tell the Board what bid to take. Anybody can come along and put in a little piss-ant bid, but the Board doan have to take it. Naw-sir-ee. The Board takes somebody kin do the work right.”

Later, they refer to Stark as a “lover of [black people]” before telling Burden to “Git out.” Burden walks away from the meeting with Pilsbury and the Sheriff contemplating whether they are “real.”  Their archetype of rural politics seemed too fake and in a strange place.  But then, Burden is able to hold the contradictions together – of course they were real and grew up wading in creeks, and watching sunsets, and having babies and wives and having reasons for why they do what they do.

But these are not the only contradictions relating to the schoolhouse.  The exchange suggests to Burden that the sole reason why the Commissioners preferred the higher bid was because of the racial dimension.  But as we delve deeper into the story we learn that the problem is far more complicated. As Stark tells the story the problem of race was merely bait to turn the locals’ interest away from the fact that two other bids were presented that were also lower than the winning bid.  Dolph Pilsbury had a financial stake in seeing that the bid was awarded to the contractor that prevailed. The fact that African Americans stood to be paid more money (as more skilled laborers) than white workers from Mason City, threw oil on the fire.  As Warren would later argue in The Legacy of the Civil War, once race was implicated, everything in the south became about race, even if it wasn’t.[8]  This tension reflects the complicated relationship that race held with the South and with Warren.

Warren himself early in his career approached the problem of race with the idea that segregation was intractable. In his early essay the Briar Patch, Warren perceived the race problem as one of common respect, but which was not easily resolved by forced desegregation.[9]   Later coming off of that opinion, Warren observed that his view of race was primarily informed by his image of south.  He said “The image of the south I carried in my head was one of massive immobility in all ways, in both its virtues and vices – it was an image of the unchangeable human condition, beautiful, sad, tragic.”[10]  Despite changing his views on segregation, one aspect of Warren’s perception of the race problem did not change – its source.  Much of the angst against African Americans stemmed from poor whites who were afraid that Black Mobility meant diminished economic opportunity for white folks.  Warren saw this challenge as one that led to increased violence by poorer white persons who felt isolated by their wealthy white counterparts and black workers looking to obtain a foothold.  Thus Warren wrote in the Briar Patch, “What the white workman must learn… is that he may respect himself as a white man, but if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.”[11] In Warren’s South – there is always the them versus us that is prevalent in how choices are made.

When Willie chooses sides (or at least chooses to be different from the southerners of Mason City’s government) it’s merely a confirmation that Willie was never an us, even if he wasn’t a them. Willie’s pseudo color-blind approach reflects Warren’s early views on race and relationships.   The school project was never about the black people for Willie, it was about the fairness of the government process. The black workers are merely on the side of the road, watching the progress pass along the side.  Like the early Warren, the violence against a particular people is largely irrelevant as long as there is fairness in how the violence is doled out.


[1] Progress and the question of Progress – namely industrialization – was a primary focus of the Southern Agrarians in their Work I’ll take my Stand.  Seeking to preserve rural identity of the south as a positive value, only Warren takes up the question of race directly.  See Ealy,supra note 15.

[2] Brian Abel Ragen, ‘We’ve Always Gone West:’ Automobiles, Innocence, and All the King’s Men in Weeks, supra note 7.

[3] Lana K. Payton, Out of the Strong shall come forth Sweetness: Women in All the King’s Men, in Weeks, supra note 7.

[4] An ample discussion could also be had of Willie’s hospital.

[5] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men 1.

[6] David Janson, American National Identity and the Progress of the New South in “National Geographic Magazine National Geographic Review 93 Geographical Review 359 (2003).

[7] Id.

[8] Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War .

[9] See Simpson, supra note 5

[10] Id.

[11] See Robert Penn Warren, The Briar Patch, in Donaldson, supra note 15.

 

 

 

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