The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter, it has been illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic novel All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. As a lawyer he began litigating a series of lawsuits against big monied interests and even won a notorious Supreme Court case against the Standard Oil Company which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from an earlier 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long took his “kingfish” moniker from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty, and healthcare were all atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was set to burst in 1929. Few people in Louisiana had felt the effects of the financial growth. At the time Louisiana was dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted an ambitious progressive redistribution agenda (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically or verbally assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers violently. He wore white linen suits and often relied on insult-lobbing in order to bulldoze the opposition. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for staging mass firings and promoting blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. His focus was squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden people of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss whose tactics were outrageous and Machiavellian. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for disregard of decorum and perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, he decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically threatening people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his own future presidential ambitions). As with most populists, Huey Long was first and foremost concerned with his own pride. His impeachment, which was in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of political allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of evidence against him. Following the impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself almost exclusively on the applause of the mob. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he still refused to relinquish his gubernatorial powers to the Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial to this day. Opinions on Huey Long vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial tactics, and his firebrand style of populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 at the Louisiana state capital where he was attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso. The blast killed him.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind in this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own ambitions, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting despite there being a few minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders –was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). But this is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position –mainly because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s childhood family friends.

Jack hails from an upper class bubble known as Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for “the boss” neither for love nor money, so why does he remain? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed out an older man out who then killed himself in order to offer an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the deceased man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s childhood memories, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which Jack also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we see lacking in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption in politics –when all are guilty, none are above reproach. Thus there are remarkable dangers inherent in populist leaders. And behind every noble king is a knave (or a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling –impressive in scope– but stylistically the novel descends from a particular Faulknerian modernist strain that can be a challenge to track for the less sophisticated reader (like myself). It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men far more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that can be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated in 1936 as a play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from any defense of racial segregation. He openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum known as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled “Huey Long,” narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

On the Definitions, Postulates, and Common Notions of Euclid’s Elements

Euclid’s Elements (“Stoikheîon”) is the foundational text of classical, axiomatic, and deductive geometry (“earth-measurement”). The Elements is composed of thirteen books, each filled with propositions that beautifully unfold a theory of number, shape, proportion, and measurability. The Elements was the essential geomtery textbook for nearly 2,000 years thanks to the preservation efforts of the Byzantines, Arabs, and English. Sadly, the Elements fell out of favor for students in the 20th century and very few, if any, students attempt to summit the extraordinary heights of Euclid in our modern era. The Elements has been cited by every major mathematical and scientific figure including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Whitehead, Russell, Einstein, and so on.

We know almost nothing about Euclid. The only two things we infer about his life, as referenced by ancient sources (primarily Diogenes Laërtius), is that he lived after Plato (died 347 BC) and before Archimedes (287 BC). He worked or perhaps founded a school in Alexandria, Egypt. Thomas L. Heath surmises that Euclid was originally schooled in Athens under the geometric pupils of Plato (in many ways we can see echoes of Plato found in Euclid’s Elements -recall the mathematical instruction of the boy in Plato’s Meno). Take note of a common mistake: Euclid, the author of the Elements, is distinct from Euclid of Megara who appears in Plato’s Theaetetus.

Euclid appears briefly in Archimedes’s On the Sphere and the Cylinder and also in Apollonius’s Conics. There were other “Elements” books circulating in antiquity by Hippocrates, Leo, and Theudius, but Euclid superseded them all and none of the other books have fully survived into the modern day.

Euclid begins his Elements not with a series of “problems” or “equations” like many math modern textbooks but rather with a list of foundational metaphysical claims: Definitions, Postulates, and Common Notions. The Definitions appear first and a general descent occurs. The Postulates follow the Definitions, and lastly we are offered a list of Common Notions. Things that are common occur last in order of importance.

Definitions
The Definitions are 23 statements (they were later numbered by 16th century editors after the advent of the printing press). The Definitions proceed from small elements to constructions of shapes. They are brief declarations that we can imagine as a response to Socratic questions, “what is…?” The Definitions do not permit a modern conception of the infinite. The first Definition is of a point -an irreducible and indivisible element (“A point is that which has no part”). A point gives us a sense place, perspective, and grounding. A point grants permission to draw a line (“breadthless length”) between two points. Where do we draw these elements? On a surface (“that which has length and breadth only”). A surface is presumed to be flat, unlike modern formulations of elliptical and non-linear geometry (i.e. Lobachevsky). This is evidenced by the final Definition of parallel lines (“straight lines which, being in the same plane and being produced indefinitely in both directions, do not meet one another in either direction”). The assumption is that a) the straight could be produced indefinitely in a hypothetical situation and b) the straight lines are produced on an indefinitely flat plane/surface. This is distinct from modern conceptions of rounded or spherical surfaces upon which to conduct geometric demonstrations. We imagine an ancient geometer demonstrating Euclid’s Definitions in the dirt or on a chalk board.

As the Definitions descend we begin with foundational elements like points and lines (Definitions 1-7), then with Definitions pertaining to proportions between foundational elements like angles (Definitions 8-13), and then Definitions concerning shapes or figures (A figure is defined in Definition 14, Definitions 13-18 concern circles, and Definitions 19-23 concern rectilinear figures). It is worth noting that a plane surface does not appear first in the list of Definitions. Instead human activity (i.e. creating a point and a line) takes precedence over the plane surface. Perhaps Euclid’s Elements was not intended to be translated from the conceptual to the physical world (“earth-measurement”). Perhaps it is meant to be an exploration of the Platonic eidos.

Postulates
While the Definitions are firm and unquestionable, the Postulates are a series of “requests” or “demands” placed upon the reader. They are a demonstration of the authority or authorship of Euclid. The Postulates do not necessarily deductively follow from the Definitions, rather they are five rules offered by Euclid.

The five Postulates begin with three active requests: first that it is possible to “draw” a straight line between any two points; second that it possible to “produce” a finite straight line; and third that it is possible to “describe” a circle with any center and distance. The descent of the Postulates begins with three active possibilities: ‘drawing’ lines between points in practice and ‘producing’ lines as well as ‘describing’ circles in concept.

The fourth Postulate concerns the equality of all right angles (in other words, there are no modern notions of gradation), and the fifth and final Postulate concerns lines that pass through parallel lines at an angle which will meet if produced indefinitely, and that the intersecting lines will meet at interior angles that are less than two right angles.

Common Notions
The Common Notions are the most democratic of Euclid’s metaphysical claims. They are ideas everyone understands -common to everyone. They are visual, whereas the Definitions and Postulates are more conceptual and analytical. There are five Common Notions: the first four Common Notions concern equality, and the fifth defines the “whole” as greater than the parts (i.e. a triangle is not superseded by its lines or points -it is a whole triangle).

Unlike Aristotle who often begins his books with commonly held opinions and then proceeds into nuanced discussions of greater depth which ultimately yield a higher perspective, Euclid begins his Elements in Platonic fashion -answering Socratic questions as if posed to a geometer -“What is a point?” “What is a line?” “What is a plane surface?” “What is a figure?” Thus, Euclid’s book is as much an examination of the human mind as it is a lesson in mathematics.


For this reading I used the wonderful translation of Euclid’s Elements by Thomas L. Heath for Green Lion Press. Mr. Heath was a Cambridge scholar who translated Euclid directly from the original Greek in the early 20th century.

On Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” -fictional proverb

The year was 1948. The New Yorker Magazine was celebrating its 23rd anniversary when it published a disturbing little story called “The Lottery.” The story was to cause decades of controversy. At the time, The New Yorker apparently did not distinguish between works of fact or fiction and, as a consequence, they received more angry letters than any other publication. “The Lottery” was written by Shirley Jackson, a troubled writer of horror stories who hailed from the Bay Area before settling in the town of North Bennington, Vermont to start a family. North Bennington is a tiny town in southern Vermont and it bears a great deal of resemblance to the town in “The Lottery.”

The story begins in a beautiful, bucolic summer scene:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

However, the horrifying nature of “The Lottery” occurs precisely because it takes place in a comfortable, safe, familiar setting: summertime in small-town America, in a village not much larger than 300 people. The story distorts this feeling of security and monochrome innocence. By the end, the truth about the lottery is revealed and a gruesome or macabre sense of dread overpowers the reader. In a crude plot twist, the townsfolk gather and draw lots (i.e. a “lottery”) but unlike in a typical lottery, nobody wants to win this contest. Like a heartless pagan ritual, the townsfolk of “The Lottery” gather each summer to select one person to be stoned to death, perhaps to purge the town of evil. The story ends as a woman known as ‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ is selected to be killed. The frenzied townsfolk quickly gather piles of stones while Mrs. Hutchinson screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” The story concludes just as she is about to be stoned to death.

Upon its controversial publication, “The Lottery” spawned an onslaught of public criticism. Almost immediately, The New Yorker received hundreds of angry letters decrying its portrayal of a cult-like small town America. To add some context “The Lottery” was published shortly after the end of World War II, on the heels of the Cold War and the accompanying cultural anxieties related to impending nuclear warfare. In a world where nuclear warfare was an ever-present possibility, a return to innocence in Middle America captured the Zeitgeist however “The Lottery” shockingly localized some of these anxieties and redirected these fears inward toward the safest places in American culture.


Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery,” The New Yorker, June 26, 1948.

On The Idea of Home in Housekeeping

Housekeeping is a novel that celebrates the idea of the commonplace, the everyday, and the ordinary, yet somehow it is not a vulgar or an ugly work. Instead, Housekeeping brings to life the experience of solitude, oddity, and simplicity. The novel unfolds slowly, revealing the seasons of life through the eyes of Ruth, the novel’s protagonist, whose names bears allusion to the wonderful biblical fantasy book of Ruth (a personal favorite of mine from the Hebrew Bible). Of course in the Bible, Ruth becomes the grandmother of King David. In the novel, Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, are raised in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho (a town reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s upbringing in Sandpoint, Idaho). They live in a house built by their grandfather that sits beside a vast lake on an orchard. Ruth and Lucille are cared for by a succession of relatives: first their grandmother (who dies), then their babbling great-aunts, and finally their quirky and slightly unstable Aunt Sylvie. In the early chapters, we are offered glimpses into the family’s tragic past -in particular their grandfather’s suicide by driving off a nearby bridge into the lake, and their mother who also abandons the girls and commits suicide.

In Housekeeping, a complex and intriguing plot is sacrificed for lavishly adorned prose. The central image offered in the novel is a complicated mosaic that pieces together the memory and identity of the protagonist as she ‘cleaves’ to her sister and her Aunt Sylvie -‘cleaving’ or ‘clinging’ is a significant metaphor in the Book of Ruth. The novel takes us through a series of moments in Ruth’s life -her scattered upbringing, schooling, a great flood in Fingerbone, the transience of Aunt Sylvie, the angry departure of Lucille, and finally the authorities removing the girls from the care of Sylvie. In the end, Ruth and Sylvie burn down the family home and pledge to live a nomadic life on the road. For them, housekeeping has come to an end and wandering takes precedence. They run across the bridge of Fingerbone while the old family home burns -a home filled with old piled up newspapers, a moldy kitchen, and birds nesting on the second floor. Many years later (at least seven years) we are offered a reflection by Ruth. She has worked many odd-jobs in different cities around the country, from Portland and Seattle to Montana. Sometimes Ruth and Sylvie take the train as it passes through Fingerbone but they do not return home. Sylvie carries with her a newspaper clipping about the night they fled -a search party was formed but never found them. Ruth imagines the life of her sister Lucille -perhaps she has moved onto the family property in Fingerbone, or perhaps she fulfilled her childhood dream and moved to Boston.

Housekeeping contains hundreds of little stories inside it, reminiscent of great literature like John. Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The idea of ‘housekeeping’ in the novel is a meditation on the grounded-ness of people to a particular place with its own unique history and meaning. Is it possible to feel connected to a fixed place without the stability of family? The idea of a home is about something more than a place. There is a tone of haunting somberness throughout the novel, yet it is not terrifying or dreadful. Rather, it makes the novel alluring. In some ways, it is an exploration into uprootedness. Perhaps running way from home is a deep response to the experience of grief.

Marilynne Robinson originally began writing the novel as an examination of Emersonian metaphor, shortly after finishing her dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II. She wrote the novel long-hand over a period of about eighteen months (she found the sound of a typewriter distracting). While I cannot say Marilynne Robinson is my favorite novelist, her entrancing diction and penetrating prose are undeniable. Robinson’s writing contains echoes of the great American transcendentalists: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and others including Emily Dickinson -she is an American original and well-deserving of recognition.


About The 1982 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, ultimately losing to John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich (Updike’s first of two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels). The other finalist in 1982 was A Flag For Sunrise by Robert Stone, a novel about Americans drawn to Central America on the brink of revolution. The 1982 Fiction Jury consisted of: Margaret Manning (Chair), book editor for the Boston Globe and finalist for the Pulitzer in the field of Criticism in 1985; Julian Moynahan, a literary critic, novelist, and Professor of English at Rutgers University; and N. Scott Momaday, a Professor of English at Stanford University and a Native American Renaissance writer whose novel, House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer in 1969.

Housekeeping did win the PEN/Hemingway award for best novel, and it has since been placed on a number of lists of the best novels. Of course, Robinson won the Pulitzer for her second novel Gilead (2004) -feel free to read my reflections on Gilead here. Gilead is the first in a series of novels Robinson wrote about John Ames (a sentimental Iowa pastor) and his family –Gilead was followed by Home (2008), Lila (2014), and Jack (2020). In fact, Housekeeping is Robinson’s only novel that does not focus on the John Ames saga. She has also written voluminous non-fiction essays on topics ranging from predatory fishing and deforestation, to Calvinist theology and nuclear power. In reading a variety of her interviews, particularly her delightful interview in The Paris Review in the Fall of 2008, Marilynne Robinson comes to light as an impressive intellectual force gifted with an extraordinary mind.


Quotations from Housekeeping:
“My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house , my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad , who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place” -opening lines of the novel.

“In a month those flowers would bloom. In a month all dormant life and arrested decay would begin again. In a month she would not mourn, because in that season it had never seemed to her that they were married, she and the silent Methodist Edmund who wore a necktie and suspenders even to hunt wildflowers, and who remembered just where they grew from years to year, and who dipped his handkerchief in a puddle to wrap the stems, and who put out his elbow to help her over the steep and stony places, with a wordless and impersonal courtesy she did not resent because she had never really wished to feel married to anyone” (16-17). Grandmother’s memory of her husband after his suicide.

“So she was borne to the depths, my grandmother, into the undifferentiated past, and her comb had no more of the warmth of a hand about it than Helen of Troy’s would have” (41) -following her dream and news of her grandmother’s death.

“Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere” (62).

“She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished” (160).


Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York, Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux under Pan Book Ltd), 1981.

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