Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Kings and Eggs

NOW FINISHED: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

I'm sure it is high time I pondered the relevance of the title All the King's Men. Now of course, we all can recite a little Humpty-Dumpty who had a great fall. And when you get to the end of Warren's book, the ways in which all of Willie Stark's men cannot put him together again are many and varied. Still, why that line in lieu of any others? Why a nursery rhyme at all? If I had a book group I might start the discussion by asking them these questions.

Speaking of book groups, I am jonesing for one right now. If I were settling anywhere I would start one. Instead I will just have to wait. This little blog of mine (I'm gonna let it shine) would be kind of like a book group, if anyone actually read it and commented on it. (Very few exceptions duly noted and appreciated.) Which means I clearly need to stimulate some discussion about books on here. I actually have misgivings about online book groups (see e.g. Infinite Summer) although they are not based on any particular bad experience. But I digress.

So all the king's men ... could not put Humpty together. I was thinking about why Robert Penn Warren (or any poet/writer/nursery rhyme composer) would liken a mighty politician/king's fall to a shattering egg, irrevocably damaged, as opposed to, you know, something that breaks but could be mended, at least a little. Then, I realized that I have a different question: Why is Humpty-Dumpty an egg? It never says that Humpty-Dumpty is an egg. In fact, it says that he is sitting on a wall. Since when do eggs go around sitting on walls?

A little Wikipedia action told me that the rhyme was presented as a riddle a couple centuries ago, a la "What falls off the wall and can never be put back together again." So, if the Humpty-Dumpty rhyme is a riddle, and the answer is that Humpty is an egg, and that is why he cannot be put back together again, I am somewhat back to my original question of why did the composer of the riddle rhyme invoke all the king's (horses and) men? What did that phrase "all the king's men" mean to a 17th-century nursery rhymer? Was it a common phrase about when something was tried to the utmost, or was it a genuine political allusion?

Furthermore, I read that a "Humpty-Dumpty" was an ale and brandy drink. Which I might have to try ordering next time I go to happy hour. And doesn't it make at least as much sense that it was about dropping your drink as about dropping an egg?

Now that I am thoroughly confused about what the phrase means, I still think about why RPW chose it. He was definitely thinking political, not egg, even though he says his novel is not about politics but merely set in politics. Oh how the mighty fall, etc. The interesting thing (to me) about Willie Stark is that I do not really think he changed all that much. A lot of commentary on the book goes on and on about how Willie of the noble intentions ends up just as corrupt as the next politician. I am not sure that is the case. (I would discuss this with my book group also.) I think Willie's handlers and hangers-on and minions are the ones who get corrupted, and begin to see Willie as someone who can give them something, be it a favor, or money, or power. With the exception of Sugar-Boy, who remains genuine. Dumb, but genuine, and not without his own special talents.

Willie, on the other hand, just seems to be more and more sure of how able he is to get things done, things he wants. He is more cocky than corrupt.

Highly highly highly recommend the book ... and currently am trying to figure out if I know anyone who's read it! As usual. At least Brian's reading this one with me, but now I've finished way ahead of him (he's working a lot, but I took a plane trip) so I have to wait a few hundred pages to have this conversation with him.

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