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Constance Alexander: Three little words from classic book spark timely discussion of timeless issues

Politics, power, and corruption. Can you think of three better words to spark a lively community discussion?

On Monday, September 24, at 6:30 p.m., the Calloway County Public Library is hosting a program focused on Robert Penn Warren’s groundbreaking novel All the King’s Men. The book reflects those three little words and provides a launching pad for civil discourse on timeless issues.

Readings of All the King’s Men are part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The gathering in Murray on September 24 is part of the project. People are invited to participate, whether or not they have read the novel, and the event is free.

Set against the backdrop of the Deep South in the 1930s, All the King’s Men chronicles Willie Stark’s transformation from a hardscrabble country boy to the most powerful political figure in his state.

Willie’s humble beginnings inspired him to begin his political career preaching needed reforms. He helped enact legislation to institute sweeping measures that tax the rich and reduce the burden on the state’s poor farmers. While his plans may have had noble intent, their implementation included blackmail, bullying, and betrayal – three more words relevant to All the King’s Men.

For Willie Stark, betrayals included exploiting women, starting with his wife, the longsuffering Lucy. The former school teacher, a woman of graceful grit, puts up with his dalliances, including a long-term affair with his secretary, Sadie Burke.

The hard-drinking, tough and cynical Sadie stands by her man, but unlike Lucy, Sadie is no beauty. The novel’s narrator, Jack Burden, portrays Sadie in stark, no-nonsense terms.

“She made her way in the world up from the shack in the mud flat by always finding out what you knew and never letting you know what she knew. Her style was not to lead with the chin but with a neat length of lead pipe after you had stepped off balance.”

Sadie was no fashion trendsetter either. Her way of moving was “quick and nervous.” In one scene, she is garbed in “a shapeless shoddy-blue summer suit she must have got by walking into a secondhand store and shutting her eyes and pointing and saying, ‘I’ll take that.’”

A fixer of sorts, Jack Burden is Willie’s right-hand man. He does not shy away from political dirty work and understands and accepts most of the Boss’s moves.

“Many’s the time we’ve settled affairs of state through a bathroom door, the Boss on the inside and me on the outside sitting on a chair with my little black notebook on my knee,” Jack explained matter-of-factly, early in the book.

Former newspaper reporter and failed student of history, Jack abandoned all his principles to become part of Willie’s fake news team. “I had been a piece of furniture a long time,” he remarked as he averted his gaze from one of Willie’s bombastic encounters with Sadie.

“Sure I was a piece of furniture – with two legs and a paycheck coming,” he continued, “but I looked off at the sunset anyway.”

According to Bill Goodman, executive director of Kentucky Humanities, “Politics is one of Americans’ favorite pastimes, regardless of who’s in office. In recent years with the rise of populist movements, the advent of ‘fake news,’ and debate on how the news and social media influence voters, there is renewed interest in the themes that Warren explored in ‘All the King’s Men.’”

Although All the King’s Men was inspired by a real Depression-era, political demagogue — Louisiana’s Huey Long — the story remains relevant today. The incendiary combination of Willie and Jack, fueled by the clatter and cacophony of the other characters, is a unique backdrop for spirited discussion of demagogues, populism, and power: Three more words that describe the authenticity of this masterpiece by a great Kentucky poet and writer.

For more information about Kentucky Reads, visit www.kyhumanities.org. Read the 1946 New York Times review of the novel at archive.nytimes.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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