All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, tells the story of a corrupt politician’s rise to power in the midst of the Great Depression. Partially based on the life of Huey “Kingfish” Long, who served as Governor and Senator of Louisiana, this novel is a fascinating look into the wide variety of personalities that get bound up by the desire for power and influence.
While any book about American politics is almost guaranteed to hold my attention, this particular one offered significantly more food for thought. In the course of the novel, the narrator, Jack Burden, shares his own life’s story, which is riddled with started-but-unresolved undertakings: friendships, romances, a doctorate, a book, and conflict with his family. He eventually finds himself as the right-hand man to Willie Stark, a populist politician on a rapid rise to become Governor. Jack and Willie’s paths to “success” leave countless broken lives, relationships, and opportunities in their wake.
Towards the end of the book, Governor Stark remarks, “It might have been all different, Jack.” Now that’s a troubling observation for anyone prone to asking “But what if…?”
Sometimes this question is helpful in reevaluating one’s priorities. What might Stark’s career have looked like if he hadn’t involved himself in blackmail and bribery? What if Jack had taken the risk of more fully investing himself in his relationship with former girlfriend Anna, rather than avoid commitment?
On the other hand, this type of question can also lead to crippling self-doubt. What if I’m not in the right career? What if I should have gone to this school rather than that one? What if I had made a different group of friends? The line of questions can be seemingly endless.
The Governor was absolutely right in observing “It might have been all different.” Taking the time to consider how our past decisions shape our present is critically important, so long as this process helps us to grow and flourish, rather than trapping us in a downward spiral of self-doubt.
Cover image courtesy Flickr CC user cdrummbks, found here.