When is a book finished? The question is always tricky, but it's grown even trickier in the past couple of decades. At least since the 1986 publication of the Gabler edition of Ulysses, revised texts have popped up with some regularity, competing with or even supplanting previous incarnations of classic and popular works. Literary scholarship never sleeps, of course, but alternate editions have also proven to be popular devices for refocusing attention on particular works, and profitable methods of reintroducing them to the marketplace. In 1990, for example, Stephen King issued a high-profile restoration of his own The Stand, returning the once merely mammoth novel to its gargantuan original form. Last year saw the publication of an attention-getting edition of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, so revised that its editors deemed it deserving of a new title, O Lost. The guiding impulse with most such editions is that the authors' intentions should override the conditions of their works' original publication. This fairly dubious proposition seems dubiously applied to a new version of Robert Penn Warren's classic All The King's Men. After all, a four-decade stretch divides the book's 1946 publication (and subsequent Pulitzer win) and the author's 1989 death, and during that time, Warren apparently felt no need to tinker with the book. Nevertheless, scholar Noel Polk has taken up the cause for this new edition, and the result feels more like a subtly reconfigured director's cut than All The King's Men Redux. The changes run from adjustments in punctuation to the renaming of the novel's central figure, a demagogic, Huey Long-like southern politician whose name has changed from Willie Stark to Warren's original choice, Willie Talos, a name suggesting both a man of bronze out of Greek myth and, with the addition of a single consonant, talons. Whether Polk's restorations make All The King's Men a better novel is a matter of individual taste, but any chance to revisit it can't be called unwelcome. As a tale of an individual with a story as big as America, All The King's Men ranks alongside The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane. Talos' transformation from a populist with high ideals to a petty tyrant largely takes place offstage, but Warren's contrast between early episodes of his life and the late stages of his corruption says virtually everything that needs saying about the way politics grinds its own gears flat. That story would almost be accomplishment enough, but the novel also contains the smaller, richer story of narrator Jack Burden, a one-time journalist co-opted into Talos' circle. Too enmeshed, too amused, and too aware of his own corruption to leave, Burden comes to recognize how his history and the actions of his boss are entangled. Ultimately, All The King's Men is as much Burden's story as Talos', and the distance between them gives Warren an oversized canvas for exploring the relationship of individuals to history, and the moments that force a reconciliation between universal virtues and fallen ideals. The story is as quintessentially American as the rise and fall of great men, and few, if any, have captured it as well as Warren does here.

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