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Retired professor’s latest book sheds new light on Pulitzer Prize-winning American classic

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Posted on Thursday, August 5, 2021

Seventy-five years after its release, Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men still serves as a powerful representation of the political corruption in the Depression-era, Jim Crow South. Now a new book written by Dr. James Perkins, professor emeritus at Westminster College, questions if this 1946 classic novel has been misinterpreted for three quarters of a century.

Black Jack Burden?—Night Thoughts on the Genetics of Race in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, published by Dawn Valley Press, centers around the parentage of Jack Burden—the book’s narrator and, arguably, its main character—bringing into question Burden’s racial identity and, in doing so, opening the door to entirely new interpretations of this classic of American literature.

“Academics have been misreading and mis-teaching All the King’s Men for 75 years now,” says Perkins, a leading Warren scholar who retired from Westminster College’s English department in 2008. “I think Warren’s magnum opus deserves to be reconsidered, particularly with what it has to say about the subject of race in American culture, which is still prominent today.”

Using the process of “close reading,” a method advanced by both Warren and Cleanth Brooks in Understanding Fiction, and paying particular attention to the physical descriptions of the characters in the novel, Perkins submits that Judge Montague Irwin is not Jack Burden’s father, as is the common interpretation. Instead, he invites the possibility that Irwin is actually the son of Phebe (the slave “sold down the river” in Chapter 4). Perkins also suggests that Judge Irwin (who, like Ellis Burden, evidently believes Mrs. Burden’s version of Jack’s parentage) commits suicide to preclude Jack from discovering what Irwin believes to be Jack’s ethnic heritage.

Perkins feels that, although controversial, these findings are important revelations that need to be considered by literary theorists and academics when teaching this influential work.

“Folks don’t like to admit they are wrong,” says Perkins. “They don’t like to admit that all of those dissertations in the library stacks are based on a misreading. The facts, however, are paramount, especially when it comes to literary criticism.”

Perkins has been working on this academic work since 2001. In order to support some of the main ideas advanced in the text, he also involved Dr. Patrick C. McCarthy, retired Westminster biology professor whose major interest is molecular genetics, and Frank D. Allen Jr., a former civil rights lawyer with the United States Department of Justice.

In his chapter, McCarthy summarizes the development of the science of genetics up to 1939, the time of the present action in the book. And in his chapter, Allen presents an overview of the Jim Crow South against the background of which the action in the novel takes place.

“This book and the ideas it presents will intrigue some readers and enrage others,” said Perkins. “But it should at the very least call attention to and renew interest in what many believe is the best American political novel ever written.”

This is the 20th book written by Perkins, who joined the Westminster faculty in 1973. He earned an undergraduate degree from Centre College, a master’s degree from Miami University and a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee.

The book, scheduled for an Aug. 17 release, will be available on Amazon.

Dawn Valley Press, located in Beaver, Pa., began at Westminster College in 1976 through the efforts of then Assistant Professor of English Dr. Nancy E. James. Today it is managed by publisher and Westminster alumnus Valentine J. Brkich ’97.