Huey P. Long, known as 'The Kingfish,' controlled Louisiana politics for some ten years, until he was assassinated in 1935. He was the law, he was above the law--he ruled with the force of royalty through an effective political machine while serving as governor of the state (1928-31) and U.S. Senator (1931-35). But just as Humpty Dumpty in the nursery rhyme toppled off his perch, so did Robert Penn Warren's fictionalized Huey Long, Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Willie sat high on a wall, but had a great fall--and as you read Warren's novel you will understand why all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Willie together again.

On one level, then, All the King's Men is the study of the rise and fall of a political dictator in the southern United States. On another level, it is the study of a man's journey toward self-knowledge along the winding and difficult paths that emerge from the past. Many elements of Warren's own past went into making this novel. And although the novel explores age-old philosophical ideas, the ideas are not stale or moldy. They come alive because Warren grounds them in his own experience and in vivid characters who flourish and perish in a particular landscape--the American South.

Warren was born in 1905 in the tobacco country of Guthrie, Kentucky, the eldest son of a businessman and a schoolteacher. Political violence was a part of his earliest memories, The Kentucky tobacco wars of 1905 to 1908 raged in the surrounding areas. Many tobacco growers organized themselves against the big buyers, often riding into the night to terrorize other growers who were unsympathetic to their crusade for better prices. These events provided the background for Warren's first published novel, Night Rider (1939).

Poetry and history were also a part of Warren's childhood. His maternal grandfather, a Confederate cavalry officer in the Civil War, frequently quoted poetry to Warren and introduced him to Southern history. As a boy, Warren developed an allegiance to the South, a sense of history, and a love for literature. He read widely, from the great biologist Charles Darwin to detective stories, from Boy Scout manuals to American history books.

At sixteen, Warren entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, intending to become a chemical engineer. But while taking a freshman English course with the famous poet John Crowe Ransom, he turned toward a career in literature. As an undergraduate, Warren helped edit The Fugitive--a literary journal named for the image of the wandering outcast--and in it he published his first poems. The group--particularly John Crowe Ransom, Donald G. Davidson, Allen Tate, and Warren--are credited with originating a Southern literary renaissance. They wrote poetry and ushered in a new movement of literary criticism, named the New Criticism by Ransom. As witnesses to the rapid industrialization of the South by Northern industries, the Fugitives feared that technology would strip nature, as well as humanity, of its sensuous and contemplative qualities. Through their poetry they expressed their belief in a return to reverence for land and for human experience. For the New Critics, however, the poem was more than a means of expression; it had a mystical authority of its own, separate from the poet's intentions or the reader's interpretation.

By 1925, when Warren graduated from Vanderbilt with highest honors, the Fugitives were going their separate ways, pursuing individual interests. Warren left the South to study literature as a graduate student first at the University of California at Berkeley, then at Yale University, and finally at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar. While at Oxford, Warren published his first book, a biography called John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929), about the well-known abolitionist John Brown.

Meanwhile, several Fugitives adopted a more political position on social change and literature. They wanted to do something to stop nationwide industrialization and to show the entire country the importance of clinging to such traditional Southern values as devotion to the soil. A new group was formed--the Agrarians. Warren shared their antitechnological views and joined them in publishing a controversial book called I'll Take My Stand (1930). Warren's contribution, 'The Briar Patch,' argues that unless the Southern agricultural tradition is reinforced, blacks will continue to defect to their dream of the good life in the industrial North, which Warren believed brought them misery. Much later, in Segregation (1956), Warren modified his position and talked about the vast potential of blacks in American society. After their attempt at social criticism in I'll Take My Stand, Warren and the other Agrarians abandoned social reform and sought expression in literature.

In 1931, Warren returned to Vanderbilt as an assistant professor of English. There, during the depths of the Great Depression, the idea for All the King's Men began taking form. Warren saw how Tennessee, like the entire nation, was suffering from a devastated economy. He saw incredible poverty. He saw lives disrupted by political corruption and greed. And while witnessing this pervasive social and political melodrama, he experienced a misfortune of his own: The universities were cutting down on personnel, and he was let go by Vanderbilt. Louisiana, on the other hand, was expanding its educational system under the leadership of Senator Long. In September 1934, Warren left his Tennessee farm and drove to Baton Rouge to begin a new job as English professor at Louisiana State University. On the way he picked up a hitchhiker, a scruffy old fellow who told him about the miracles that Huey Long had wrought in Louisiana. Long had built toll-free highways and new hospitals and had provided public-school children with free textbooks. The senator, who came from a background of poverty, wanted to help the impoverished people of the state, but he often used bribery and blackmail, as well as rigged elections, to achieve his ends. He was loved by the poor, illiterate masses and despised by the wealthy, educated elite. From the hitchhiker's recital and from the hundreds of tales he heard later, Warren realized that the different accounts of Huey Long's use of power addressed a continuing problem--the conflict between the high-minded ideals of the wealthy class and the realistic demands of the poor.

While Warren was teaching literature and creative writing in Louisiana, he developed the idea for a story about a Southern demagogue, a leader who plays on the fears and prejudices of the people to gain power. Warren had no personal contact with Long, although Long's daughter, Rose, was in one of Warren's Shakespeare courses. In the same course, Warren lectured on the political background to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. During the two weeks he spent on this play, he thought about the ageless question of power and ethics and about the parallels between Caesar and Long. Both men were ambitious, vain, and arrogant; yet, they seemed to be the only leaders strong enough to hold their people together in times of strife. Apparently, the students also saw the similarities, because, as Warren noted, they were unusually attentive. Strangely, a little after the course ended, Huey Long, like Caesar, was assassinated. But, as you shall see, All the King's Men is more than a fictionalized presentation of a dictator. The author's major concern is with moral conflicts and their resolution.

Warren has said that Long was not the sole inspiration for All the King's Men. Even before he moved to Louisiana, he was intrigued by power struggles in the South. Warren's interests also included ancient and modern writings on political philosophy. And the career of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator who held power from 1922 to 1943 and was allied with the German dictator Adolf Hitler in World War II, especially fascinated him.

In 1936, a year after Long's assassination, Warren began planning a play about a politician corrupted by the very evil he sets out to eliminate. With funds provided by a Guggenheim fellowship, he went to Italy where, in the summer of 1938, he began to write the verse drama Proud Flesh. Thus, in Mussolini's Italy, Warren wrote about Governor Willie Talos, who became Willie Stark in All the King's Men.

Warren's play was not performed or published for many years. He put it aside until 1943, when he was teaching at the University of Minnesota. That year he published his second novel, At Heaven's Gate, which also dealt with the themes of self-knowledge, responsibility, and spiritual emptiness. After rereading Proud Flesh, he decided that a novel was a better vehicle for his characters and ideas than a verse drama. But he didn't know from whose point of view to present the story. In the play, he had employed a chorus of surgeons to help the audience see Willie's tragic story from a detached perspective. In the novel, he eliminated the chorus and used Jack Burden as the narrator of Willie's life. As such, you do not get inside Willie's head. Willie's experiences are filtered through the observations and emotions of one of his men. This story-telling strategy imitates the way that Warren actually came to know Long--never personally, always through the perceptions of others.

All the King's Men, Warren's third novel, was published in 1946. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The film version appeared in 1949 and received the Academy Award for best movie of the year. Eventually, Proud Flesh became a theatrical production. It was staged off-Broadway in 1959 and the next year was published under the title All the King's Men: A Play. And in 1981 the novel was the source for Carlisle Floyd's music drama Willie Stark.

After All the King's Men, Warren wrote a number of additional novels, including the ambitious Southern novel World Enough and Time (1950). He also wrote many short stories and put together several distinguished collections of poetry. His poetry collection, Promises (1957), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1958. Nevertheless, All the King's Men remains his best-known work. Indeed, its universal themes and its skillful and powerful use of language have made it an American classic and have led the influential critic Malcolm Cowley to call Warren 'more richly endowed than any other American novelist born in the present century.'


Willie Stark, a young politician in an impoverished area of an unidentified Southern state, suddenly rises to prominence as a result of a local tragedy. He had previously warned everyone that the contractor for the new schoolhouse had a reputation for using inferior bricks. But no one listened. Now, the building had collapsed, killing three children. Willie's unwavering conviction that the local politicians were in collusion with the contractor gains him statewide publicity.

Eventually, Willie Stark is chosen to run for governor. However, he doesn't realize that the bosses are using him as a dummy candidate to split the rural vote. When he finds out, his rage overcomes his disillusionment. He is angry not only because he has been played for a fool but also because the state's poor people have been deceived. In a high-spirited, emotionally charged speech he tells the people that all 'hicks,' including himself, are the politicians' dummies. The crowd loves his speech. But Willie resigns from the race and energetically campaigns against the candidate of the people who fooled him. In the process, he makes a name for himself. Four years later, Willie is elected governor.

Jack Burden, a young reporter for the capital city's newspaper, has closely followed Willie's rise to power. He finds much to admire in the dynamic politician. Shortly after Willie moves into the governor's mansion, Jack begins working as one of Willie's aides. Jack is a trained historian, and Willie therefore assigns him research tasks. Jack's main job is to discover scandalous evidence against Willie's political enemies.

Unlike Willie, Jack grew up in a well-to-do, aristocratic community. One of the outstanding members of the community is Judge Irwin, a longtime friend of Jack's. When the Judge defies Willie on a political matter, Jack is assigned to dig up some dirt that will ruin the Judge's reputation. Jack hesitates because the Judge has always been like a father to him. But then he decides that the task is simply another piece of historical research. Besides, the Judge has a sterling reputation, which surely no amount of research can smear. Willie knows better; every person, he believes, is harboring some secret sin, and the Judge is no exception. Indeed, after seven months of research, Jack does uncover a scandal in the Judge's past. The scandal involves not only the Judge but also the former governor, Joel Stanton, the deceased father of Jack's best friends, Adam and Anne Stanton.

Jack hopes that he is never forced to use his information. But the old scandal becomes known to the Stantons when Jack has to convince Adam, a famous surgeon and a man of high ideals, to become director of Willie's new hospital. The hospital is Willie's grand plan for helping the poor people and for ensuring his own immortality. Adam does not want to become involved in Willie's corrupt administration. But when he discovers that his father was involved in a serious political scandal, he compromises his ideals and agrees to direct Willie's hospital. Adam's sister, Anne, also compromises her ideals upon learning of her father's indiscretion and becomes Willie's mistress. Jack, who has loved Anne since she was a teenager, feels betrayed, but he realizes that, in part, he is responsible for Anne's actions.

Meanwhile, Willie's administration becomes more and more corrupt. Yet, Willie holds on to one idealistic dream: He refuses to let his hospital be tainted by political wheeling and dealing. But fate takes another complex turn. Sam MacMurfee, Willie's most powerful political enemy, has discovered that Tom, Willie's son, may soon be the father of an illegitimate child. MacMurfee threatens to make the knowledge public, with a paternity suit against Tom, if Willie persists in thinking about running for the U.S. Senate. After several strategies for squelching the paternity suit fail, Willie remembers the research he asked Jack to do on Judge Irwin. The Judge has the power to make MacMurfee withdraw his threat. Willie, therefore, orders Jack to blackmail the Judge into helping Willie out of his dilemma. Jack tells the Judge that the old scandal will become known if he does not cooperate. Rather than submit to a blackmail attempt, the Judge, a man of honor, kills himself. In the commotion following the Judge's suicide, Jack discovers that the Judge was his real father. Suddenly, Jack, the detached historical researcher, must confront the truth of his own identity.

With the Judge dead, only one strategy remains for stopping the paternity suit. Gummy Larson, a building contractor and a powerful friend of MacMurfee's, has been wanting the hospital contract for a long time. Willie agrees to give Larson the job if Larson persuades MacMurfee to back off.

The deal is arranged, and all seems well until Willie's son is paralyzed in a football accident. The crippling of his only child causes Willie to reexamine his life. He cancels the hospital contract, a decision that angers the lieutenant-governor, Tiny Duffy, who had set up the deal in the first place. In retaliation, Tiny tells Adam that he was appointed hospital director because his sister, Anne, is Willie's mistress. Outraged, Adam shoots Willie, seriously wounding him, and is immediately killed by Willie's bodyguard. A few days later, Willies dies.

After this series of tragedies, Jack tries to make sense of his life. He marries Anne and begins writing a biography, not of Willie Stark but of a man whose own tragic experiences during the Civil War era reflect Jack's personal sense of responsibility to history.

All the King's Men has two major characters, Willie Stark and Jack Burden. By understanding their circumstances and motivations, you will grasp the ideas about human nature that Robert Penn Warren offers. But unless you also look into the personalities and motivations of the minor characters--those who surround Willie and Jack and insist on making themselves felt--the story will not come alive for you. Life, as Robert Penn Warren shows you, can be a tangled web of relationships among a large cast of characters; it is a continuing experience, in which historical events influence present circumstances.


Is Willie Stark the people's messiah or a dangerous dictator, a tragic hero or a smooth-tongued tyrant? Does he deserve to be assassinated? How you answer these questions will, in part, influence the meaning that the novel holds for you. And how you answer may also say as much about you as it says about Willie. Do you prefer to put fictional characters into the neat categories of hero and villain? Or do you prefer to see portrayals of life with a double vision, aware that some people are both good and bad? To understand Willie's character, you need to use your powers of double vision. The internal conflicts of his personality do not readily permit you to pass a quick verdict on his life. You will probably discover that Willie, like many powerful leaders, combines opposing elements, often resorting to foul means to achieve good ends.

Willie Stark is an imaginary character, inspired by an actual historical figure Huey Pierce Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1931 and then a U.S. Senator until his assassination in 1935. Some readers have commented that Willie Stark resembles Huey Long too closely. Without a doubt, Long's political career parallels the career that Robert Penn Warren designs for Willie. Both Long and Willie came from a poor Southern background and, through ambitious perseverance, became lawyers. Both held political office at an early age, and each had an unsuccessful first run for governor. As governors, both were charged with bribery and the misuse of state funds and threatened with impeachment. Nevertheless, each had a lifelong passion to improve the lot of his state's poor. By using blackmail and patronage, they financed roads and hospitals and reworked the state's tax structure in favor of the poor people. Finally, each met his death at the hands of a doctor who had a personal grievance against him.

Warren obviously had Huey Long in mind while constructing his novel. Yet, despite the uncanny similarities between these men, the story of Willie Stark is not merely the story of Huey Long. All the King's Men is not a fictional biography. Rather, Long's public career can be seen as the skeletal outline to which Warren adds flesh and into which he then breathes the life of a dynamic, complex personality who engages the reader's imagination.

In a sense, Willie is every man who rises to power by offering to save the people from their distress and who, during his struggles, becomes corrupted by power. Some, therefore, see him as a stereotype, the character of good intentions who becomes tainted by the system. But you may appreciate Willie, first and foremost, as a human being who has dreams, a family he loves, and passions he yields to, among them a desire for power. Warren doesn't just present a character who functions in a concrete political setting; he shows you a man torn between his visions of an ideal society and stark reality--what it takes in the real world to fulfill one's dreams. Willie's last name gives you a clue to his main way of dealing with power and conflict. He sacrifices his ideals for action. He is a man of stark fact, and he wants results. In the end, Willie reevaluates his life's goals. But it is too late for change. Willie, like his many actual and fictional counterparts, is not given a second chance.

Warren's portrayal of Willie raises the following questions: What psychological toll does the person with a deeply rooted political mission pay? Do the means of accomplishing the mission justify the ends? Can a well-intentioned man who becomes politically corrupt be a hero of the reader's imagination?


Jack Burden is the narrator of All the King's Men. He is supposedly telling Willie's story. Yet, you will begin to sense, after reading several chapters, that Jack is using Willie's story as a vehicle for clarifying the meaning of his own life. Warren says that he chose Jack as the narrator because he is one of the empty, powerless people who need a character like Willie to bring them to life. Also, because Jack is intelligent and perceptive, he is the best one to tell Willie's story. But still this does not explain why Jack becomes the central character, the most complex character and the one who undergoes the most changes. Why does Jack dominate the novel? Why is he embedding his own story inside of Willie's? Jack, like most people, is not easy to understand. Nevertheless, by examining several facets of his character, you can glean some insights into his motivations.

In contrast to Willie, who has a well-defined goal--to do good for the poor folk--Jack drifts without direction. He is a keen observer of the meaning that other people give to their lives. For instance, he knows that Willie's wife, Lucy, finds satisfaction in family life, and that Willie's secretary, Sadie, seeks fulfillment by subordinating her talents to the careers of powerful men. But Jack sees no meaning in his own existence. Why does such an intelligent, articulate man lack purpose? Does the cause stem from his childhood, from having been abandoned by his father and then having to compete with a series of stepfathers for his mother's affection? Was he spoiled by the luxuries of his aristocratic upbringing? Is he disillusioned because his love life has not come up to his expectations?

But Jack does have a love life, although, until the novel's end, it is no more than memories and fantasies. He still loves his childhood friend, Anne Stanton. The only goal he ever had, it seems, was to marry Anne. Thus, a second aspect of Jack's character to consider is his deep attachment to Anne. What is it about Anne that causes him to be obsessed with her? Or, looking at it from another angle, what does his memory of her do for him that no real woman can do? His failed marriage to Lois Seager was based on sex, not love. And since his divorce, he has not established any meaningful relationships with women, except perhaps with Lucy Stark. Jack admires Lucy's devotion to her family and her strength of character. But he pays more attention to her appearance than to her personality or character. On each visit to Lucy's farm, he describes in detail her hair, clothing, and furniture.

A third facet of Jack's character, then, is his inability to become emotionally involved--with women, with friends, or with a career. When Jack was in graduate school studying American history, he was on the verge of becoming involved in the life of a man, Cass Mastern, who had died in the Civil War and whose motivations perplexed him. His Ph.D. project was to write a historical account of Mastern. But he walked away from the project and never received his doctorate. As an aide to Willie Stark, he completed an extensive research project--finding a scandalous incident in Judge Irwin's past--and refused to let his friendship for the Judge obstruct his objectivity. 'Emotions begone! Truth to the fore!' seemed to be his guiding principle. How could Jack be so detached from his own professional possibilities in graduate school and from his feelings of friendship for the Judge during his research?

Jack, as you'll see, becomes a tireless researcher when he begins to work for Willie; he doesn't let go of a project until he has discovered the truth--regardless of how ugly it may be--of a person's past. As such, a fourth facet to note is his attitude toward history and truth. Jack Burden carries with him the burden of history, and while rejecting his own past, he takes refuge in investigations into the pasts of other people. Nevertheless, he has no more than a dim notion--at least until the end--of why history is important. The technical aspects of historical research fascinate him and, at the same time, help him to avoid confronting his own lack of personal historical consciousness. Why does Jack do Willie's bidding? Why is he interested in the phenomenon of Willie Stark? When does he realize his own vital significance in the flow of history?

Finally, you should consider the question of self-knowledge in trying to understand Jack. Some readers believe that the quest for self-knowledge is subordinate to, and supportive of, all other facets of Jack's character. Such periodic episodes as the 'Great Sleep' and the comfort he takes in the mechanistic theory of the 'Great Twitch' reveal that Jack is escaping from reality. In a sense, he is a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, who lets the world around him change while he waits and hopes for his life to fall in step with the times. Jack doesn't actively seek self-knowledge. The changes in his attitude, in his willingness to get involved and to accept responsibility, appear to result from events outside of his control. Or do they? Is Jack an active seeker of self-knowledge or a fortunate man who comes by it through no effort of his own?

These, then, are some aspects of Jack to consider while attempting to understand him. Other facets of his character will emerge as the novel unfolds.

The following characters are discussed in order of appearance in All the King's Men.


Sugar-Boy, a sugar cube-eating Irishman, is the first character you meet. He is Willie's driver and bodyguard. He can drive a Cadillac with great speed and agility, and he's a deadly accurate target shooter. Beyond that, he stutters, appears to be mentally retarded, and is dominated by one emotion--intense loyalty to Willie.


When you first meet Tiny Duffy, he is Willie Stark's lieutenant governor, the second in command of the state. Later you discover that he was one of the men who deceived Willie during Willie's first campaign for governor. Willie, however, wooed Tiny away from another political camp and made Tiny his chief lackey. Tiny has no loyalty to any political faction--he seeks his own selfish interests and will grovel, if that's what it takes, to maintain a position in state government. But Tiny should not be underestimated; he is a dangerous man. So, like Jack, you may wonder why Willie has raised Tiny to such a powerful place in state politics.


Most of all Lucy, Willie's wife, wants to be a good mother and a good wife. She supports Willie's political ambitions but appears uncomfortable in the role of governor's wife. When she can no longer tolerate seeing what politics has done to Willie and what football stardom has done to their son, she returns to farm life, leaving Willie to his political and sexual intrigues. Yet, she doesn't divorce Willie. Like most other Southern women of her generation, she is devoted to the soil, to the family, and to tradition. But this in itself doesn't explain her loyalty to Willie. She loved him deeply when he was only a county politician. Does she love him later or does she merely love the memory of their good times together?


Willie adores Tom, his only child. But his love blinds him. Unlike Lucy, he doesn't see that Tom is becoming an unbearably arrogant young man. Once Tom becomes the star quarterback of the state university football team, he cannot stay out of trouble. His father, however, always comes to his aid. By refusing to discipline Tom, Willie widens the rift between Lucy and himself. Finally, one of Tom's sexual escapades requires Willie to put his reputation and power on the line. Still, Willie doesn't blame him; after all, he says, Tom is just a boy.


Sadie is always in love with politicians who never marry her. She came from the wrong side of the tracks and will never let anyone forget it. She can curse as well as anyone, and, all in all, she puts on a good show. But behind the mask of a tough, no-nonsense career woman, she desperately wants someone to love her, and for most of the novel she wants that someone to be Willie. She is both Willie's personal secretary and his mistress. With a keen business sense and a quick wit, she comes across as unfeminine and coarse. Consider the ways in which Sadie is similar to, and different from, Anne Stanton and Lucy.


When Jack was growing up, Judge Irwin lived down the street and taught the boy to ride, shoot, and hunt. As Jack says, the Judge was like a father to him. Why, then, as an adult working for Governor Stark, does Jack pursue his research into the Judge's past? How can he betray a lifelong friend? Unlike Jack, the Judge is unswervingly loyal to friends and to tradition. A brilliant man, he has had a distinguished political career--except for one serious indiscretion, the scandal that Jack discovers in the Judge's past. Even when faced with exposure, Judge Irwin does not sacrifice his integrity and self-esteem. After courageously refusing to let Willie blackmail him, he shoots himself.


Whenever Jack visits his mother, he is torn between enjoying her attention to him and experiencing hostility toward her. Some readers believe that Jack's ambivalent feelings for his mother are indicative of an Oedipus complex, the unconscious desire of a son to be attached to his mother. When Ellis Burden abandoned six-year-old Jack and his mother, Jack concentrated all his affections on his mother. But she remarried, bringing first one stepfather into the house, then another. Jack had to share his mother's love with strangers. The resulting resentments, according to psychiatrists, could cause deep-seated emotional conflicts toward one's mother as well as toward all women. Does this theory help to explain Jack's emotional detachment or his love-hate relationship to his mother? Or could it be that his mother's materialistic nature and lack of commitment to marriage are responsible for Jack's behavior toward her?

Jack's mother is not given a name, yet she remains a fascinating character. Despite her apparent fickleness, when she realizes that Jack's natural father, Judge Irwin, has been her only true love, she becomes the ultimate source for Jack's reentry into the rich stream of life.


Since college Jack has been in love with Anne. The two grew up together and planned to be married. But when Jack actually got around to proposing, Anne put him off. She was waiting for him to find direction--a career or a social cause or whatever her 'Jackie-Bird' wanted to do. Jack, however, had no ambitions. Thus, in contrast to Anne's highly respected father, Governor Stanton, and to her brother, Adam, the famous surgeon, Jack was a poor marriage risk. What do Anne's expectations in a husband reveal about her character?

When you first meet Anne, she is an unmarried woman approaching middle age, a volunteer charity worker. Her life seems empty, and she relies upon the traditions of her aristocratic upbringing to give her support. Jack still regards her as an unblemished, highly desirable woman; he is fascinated by her graceful movements and her 'woman's laugh'--until he learns she has become Willie's mistress. He can't understand her actions and blames himself. Why has Anne gravitated toward Willie? What does Willie do for her that Jack can't?


A product of Southern aristocracy, Adam is proud of his heritage, even driven to live up to its ideals, as embodied by his father, Governor Stanton. Like Willie, he is committed to doing good for people, A famous surgeon, he works tirelessly, often without pay, to provide the people with excellent health care. He is striving to achieve the same ends as Willie, but their views on how to get things done clash. Adam thinks in terms of honorable traditions; Willie thinks in terms of manipulating people.

Ironically, each man's strength is also his fatal weakness. Willie's ideal of economic well-being can be accomplished, he believes, only by using bad practices to get good results, at least to get them quickly. And he'll do whatever it takes to get Adam as director of his hospital. But he lets Anne and Jack do the dirty work. When Anne confronts Adam with his father's role in Judge Irwin's scandal, his ideals are shattered. He agrees to direct the hospital. Does he do so as some kind of atonement (payment) for his father's sin? Does the revelation weaken his resistance to being employed by a corrupt politician? Or has he all along wanted to have the power, as well as the vast opportunity to do good, that the directorship brings?


Jack impersonally refers to Ellis Burden, who he thought was his father, as the Scholarly Attorney. When Jack was six, the Scholarly Attorney left his luxurious home, his lucrative law practice, and his attractive wife. He went to the capital city to write religious pamphlets and to help the 'unfortunates.' Jack never understood Burden's desertion. Many years later, after Judge Irwin's death, Jack discovers the reason: The Scholarly Attorney was not his natural father. Jack was conceived during an affair between the Judge and his mother. After this revelation, Jack's view of the Scholarly Attorney as a weak man is reinforced. Nevertheless, Jack acknowledges the man's sensitivity and compassion.


Sam MacMurfee, a powerful politician, is Willie's archenemy. He is often mentioned, but never makes an appearance in the novel. Why do you think he is never shown in a face-to-face confrontation with Willie? What reasons could Jack Burden, the narrator, have for not showing MacMurfee in action?


Cass Mastern appears as part of a story within the story. While a college student, Cass had an affair with the wife of his best friend, Duncan Trice. When Duncan found out, he killed himself. Hence, Cass spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his intense feelings of guilt. As a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, Cass sought death. Finally, a bullet found him. Cass's story was to be the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation that Jack never wrote.

Some readers view the Cass Mastern story in Chapter 4 as an unnecessary digression in the novel. Others, however, see Cass as a major figure and compare him with other characters--for instance, with Willie and the Scholarly Attorney and even with Adam Stanton and Judge Irwin. Is Jack's inability to understand Cass's sense of guilt a symptom of Jack's withdrawal from human involvement? Why do you think the novel ends with Jack's writing a book on Cass Mastern?


Robert Penn Warren began Proud Flesh, the unpublished verse drama that became All the King's Men, in Italy during the days preceding World War II. Mussolini, Italy's Fascist dictator, regularly marched his black-shirted thugs through the cobbled streets of Rome. Warren saw this display of force and was reminded of Louisiana governor Huey Long's private army, called 'Huey's Cossacks,' composed of members of the National Guard and the highway police. Impressed by both these leaders' rise to, and adept use of, power, he sought to explore how and why a person obtains power. In particular, he was intrigued by the roles that time and geography play in the creation of such leaders, who rely on strong-arm tactics to acquire and hold on to power. But Warren didn't write about Italian politics; he set his story in the place he knew best, the southern region of the United States.

During the years after the Civil War and through the 1930s, parts of the southern United States were so poor that many people lived in shacks with holes in the roof large enough to make stargazing possible. Other people lived the comfortable lives of Southern aristocrats and, for the most part, ignored the poor folk. The poor felt helpless. Thus, when leaders emerged who understood their despair and promised to alleviate their suffering, the poor raised their voices in a roar of approval. But these leaders, alas, too often resorted to unethical and corrupt practices for righting decades of wrongs.

The Southern setting of All the King's Men offers a vivid landscape for exploring the universal theme of power--its use and the effect it has on those who use it. Nevertheless, a story similar to Willie Stark's rise to power and Jack Burden's dependence on a man of power could be told in a variety of settings. The ingredients for such a story include a time and place in which the masses are helplessly grasping for a messiah to pull them out of the meaningless chaos of their lives.


One mark of an outstanding novel is its power to stimulate a variety of interpretations. All the King's Men has generated many interpretations because it offers a wide scope of thematic questions, from politics to psychology, from philosophy to religion.


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

You can see that, on one level, All the King's Men is about a great man's fall. If you consider Willie Stark the king (and there is some disagreement on who is the king in the title), one of the main themes of the novel is Willie's moral deterioration. His early political activities were directed toward the welfare of the people. But his growing concern for power and his increased need to preserve it transform the honest politician into a ruthless governor.

Some readers call this the Huey Long theme. Long's early political career was devoted to helping the underprivileged. But as his power grew, wealthy individuals and industries joined his camp; graft, blackmail, and frenzied rhetoric became standard strategies for maintaining control. Then, at the age of forty-three, Long was slain by a physician whose exact reasons for wanting to kill Long still remain a mystery. Long's bodyguards immediately shot the assailant dead.

Very little is known about Long's private life. Whether he experienced psychological conflicts similar to Willie's--that is, internal battles between ideals and results--is uncertain. Thus, although Warren's novel certainly follows the external course of Long's life, it may or may not reflect Long's private character in its depiction of Willie's path of moral decay.

If you are interested in pursuing the Huey Long theme, you may want to read three other novels inspired by Long's assassination. Hamilton Basso's Sun in Capricorn (1942), a thriller about a political scoundrel and one of his victims; John Dos Passos's Number One (1943), the second volume of a trilogy about the aide of a powerful demagogue; and Andria Locke Langley's A Lion in the Street (1945), a study of the proposition that absolute power corrupts absolutely.


Willie believes that goodness derives from evil because there is nothing else from which to make it. This idea comes from the mature, disillusioned Willie, who has become a tough-minded politician after losing his first political job--when he refused to kowtow to the local kingpins--and after discovering he was manipulated by the bosses who wanted to split rural votes. Willie tells Jack, 'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.' As he sees it, goodness is not an inherent human characteristic. People, basically, are prone to corruption and evil. Goodness has to be made. Adam Stanton hears Willie's philosophy and asks how, then, anyone recognizes what is good. Willie responds, 'You just make it up as you go along.' And he explains that goodness becomes whatever is in the best interests of society at the time.

Yet, in his innermost being, has the young idealistic Willie been totally annihilated by the mature Willie's pessimistic attitude toward human nature? Has he abandoned all hope in the goodness of mankind? Perhaps the epigraph on the title page of the novel offers you a clue. Warren quotes from Dante's Divine Comedy: 'Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde.' ('As long as hope still has its bit of green.') As you read the novel, consider what relation the epigraph has to the novel in general and to Willie's philosophy of human nature in particular.


Most readers believe that All the King's Men is more Jack Burden's story than Willie's. Jack is one of the king's men but not one of his stooges. He keeps his distance from the internal politics of Willie's administration. Nevertheless, Jack needs Willie. Some readers interpret Jack's relation to Willie as one of son to father. At an early age, Jack was abandoned by the man who he thought was his father, Ellis Burden. Jack could never understand Burden's actions or respect him. He regarded him as weak. He felt dispossessed and sought a spiritual father in the strong and energetic Willie Stark, but even Willie disappoints him. Thus, Jack's discovery of his actual father--Judge Irwin, whom Jack has always respected--is a turning point in his life.


Some readers believe that man's search for knowledge is the primary theme of All the King's Men. For them, every aspect of the novel revolves around Jack's journey toward self-knowledge. Jack's path twists through the politics of his times and frequently leads back into the past. Like other characters, Jack finds that his greatest problem is his lack of knowledge. Specifically, he doesn't understand why his parents got divorced, what meaning life holds for him, or how he fits into the patterns of history. Self-knowledge, he learns, is not easily gained. He pays dearly for it, through the deaths of his closest friends--Judge Irwin, Adam Stanton, and Willie Stark. He concludes that 'all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood.' Perhaps self-knowledge is gained through suffering. It's not a pleasant prospect. What do you think? Do you learn the most about yourself through your successes and good times or through your failures and disappointments?


Who are the happiest, most self-fulfilled, most admirable people--those who cling to ideals or those who are willing to abandon ideals when they stand in the way of pleasure and power? All the King's Men asks this question by presenting you with characters such as Adam Stanton and Lucy Stark, who live in accordance with traditional values, and Tiny Duffy and Sadie Burke, who seek gratification through any available means. Jack and Willie, however, live the more complex lives; the conflicting traits of being idealistic and practical at the same time are at war in their own personalities. They seem to have a vision of what counts as excellent human attributes, but their behavior often reflects the belief that the world is merely a set of physical circumstances to be manipulated. As you'll see, Willie uses people to put his ideas into action, and Jack embraces the 'Great Twitch'--which says that human actions are no more significant than a facial tic--to avoid heartfelt pain. But note that in the end both men return to the importance of such human values as responsibility and loyalty to loved ones.


All the King's Men in part is an exploration of the age-old philosophical debate between free will and determinism. Jack's theory of the Great Twitch, which he concocts after learning that Anne Stanton has become Willie Stark's mistress, is a deterministic theory. A twitch on an old man's face fascinates Jack because the man is not aware of the involuntary jerks. Jack generalizes from this phenomenon to all of life and says that human action results merely from physical stimuli, not from such ideas as moral principles. This theory allows him to deny his responsibility in what he sees as Anne's fall from purity and to believe that Anne herself is not responsible for her actions. According to Jack, human beings are no more than cogs in the wheels of a mechanical universe. But Jack does not remain a strict determinist, that is, a person who denies the possibility of human will altering the course of events. Throughout the novel, he vacillates between believing that people are tangled in a web of events over which they have no control and believing that they are ultimately responsible--by virtue of their free will to choose one action over another--for what happens to them and to others.


When discussing an author's style, you are referring to the distinctive way in which the writer uses language to tell a story or to express ideas. In All the King's Men, Warren brings together images of the real world and ideas he has fashioned from experience, and through the voice of Jack Burden he weaves these elements of style into a conversation with you. In general, then, the style of the novel is conversational, yet at times, as you'll see, the conversation goes beyond casual talk--it reveals the actual structure of Jack's way of thinking.

The following brief analysis of an excerpt from the novel may help you to get a grasp on Warren's narrative style. Here, from Chapter 8, Jack is telling you about his trip home from California, where he fled after learning that Anne, the woman he has always loved, is now Willie's mistress.

In a settlement named Don Jon, New Mexico, I talked to a man propped against the shady side of a filling station, enjoying the only patch of shade in a hundred miles due east. He was an old fellow, seventy-five if a day, with a face like sun-brittled leather and pale-blue eyes under the brim of a felt hat which had once been black. The only thing remarkable about him was the fact that while you looked into the sun-brittled leather of the face, which seemed as stiff and devitalized as the hide on a mummy's jaw, you would suddenly see a twitch in the left cheek, up toward the pale-blue eye. You would think he was going to wink, but he wasn't going to wink. The twitch was simply an independent phenomenon, unrelated to the face or to what was behind the face or to anything in the whole tissue of phenomena which is the world we are lost in. It was remarkable, in that face, the twitch which lived that little life all its own. I squatted by his side, where he sat on a bundle of rags from which the handle of a tin skillet protruded, and listened to him talk. But the words were not alive. What was alive was the twitch, of which he was no longer aware.

One of the first things you probably noticed about this passage is that most of the sentences are long and descriptive (word pictures are drawn so that you can see the old man as Jack saw him). The sentence length and structure mimics speech. There are word repetitions (for example, 'sun-brittled leather,' 'remarkable') and tag-on phrases ('which once was black,' 'up toward the pale-blue eye')--all typical of conversation. Also, you may have noticed that Jack is talking to you, as if you and he were passengers together on a trip. Jack shares his impressions by using colloquial phrases ('seventy-five if a day') and pictorial comparisons ('as still and devitalized as the hide on a mummy's jaw').

In the fifth sentence, Jack switches from describing the old man to giving you some insight into his view of the world. From the concrete experience of meeting the old man, Jack presents a philosophy of life. Instead of describing felt hats and winks, he talks about 'the whole tissue of phenomena which is the world we are lost in.' Jack is telling you how he feels-human actions and words are insignificant; the world is a mechanism so complicated that no one can ever understand it, nor should anyone even try to do so. Jack, of course, is depressed and disillusioned. At the moment, he has a narrow, insulated perspective and can't see the larger texture of life. How do you know? Not because Jack tells you, but because Warren shows you the structure of Jack's way of thinking, through the organization of Jack's talk and through the concrete image of the twitch.

The form of language used by Warren tells you almost as much about the personality and attitude of a character as the content of the speech. For example, Sadie Burke's language is the equivalent, for her time, of today's street talk. It is often coarse, vulgar, and candid. Willie's speech is subdued and subservient in his early political career, but once he wields power, he speaks quickly and usually says whatever is on his mind, without regard for other people's feelings. You might compare the changes in Willie's use of language with the changes in his personality, looking at the parallels between his rise to power and his increasingly pointed speech.

Another significant aspect of Warren's style is his use of images. Keep in mind that Warren is a poet as well as a novelist. In poetry an image is a word or a series of words that paint mind-pictures of someone's sensory experiences or emotions. For Warren, then, images are vivid, concrete ways of expressing characters' perceptions, feelings, motivations. The following are some key images in All the King's Men.

Light and Darkness. Jack often describes his world in terms of light and darkness. Things blaze in the sun, dazzle on the horizon, glitter in someone's eyes, shine in the starlight, flash from the train. Also, things are shuttered in shadows, plunged into blackness, split by darkness, blurred by the speed of a black Cadillac.

Water. Jack often uses water images in talking about his innocent childhood and his love for Anne Stanton. He grew up by the sea. Anne's youthful figure during her puberty fascinates Jack as he watches her float on her back. Both Anne and Jack become sexually aroused by a kiss, as Anne rises from a deep dive into a swimming pool. The night they almost make love, it rains. And when Anne becomes Willie's mistress, Jack sees green scum on a shrunken pool.

Machines and buildings are two other pervasive images in the novel. The novel begins in a black, speeding Cadillac that zips past shacks along the highway and plantations among the distant trees. Willie is often associated with machines--he controls a political machine and he wants to improve the economy of the state through technology. Lucy, on the other hand, is more associated with buildings, especially farmhouses. For Lucy, the homestead on the farm represents the secure, simple, happy life that she seeks for her family.


Jack Burden is both the narrator and the central character of All the King's Men. He tells you about his experiences and shares his reactions to, and reflections on, these events. Thus, the point of view of almost all of All the King's Men is first-person subjective. Jack's biting wit, detached attitude, and suppressed passion are evident throughout the story. He is keenly alert, and, as he tells you, he is a trained historian and an experienced journalist. As such, he attempts to be an objective reporter by recording dialogue, thereby providing insight into the personalities of other characters. But it still remains true that whatever you learn about Willie or Anne or any of the others, you learn from Jack. What you see is what he shows you. Whether you can trust him to give you an accurate account of events is for you to decide.

Only in Chapter 4 does Jack depart from using the first person. Here, he relates the story of another man, Cass Mastern, who lived during the Civil War era, and he uses the third person to tell this story within a story. In fact, during most of this chapter Jack disappears altogether. When he does mention himself, he talks about what Jack Burden--not 'I'--did. Using the third-person point of view has the effect of drawing you into Cass's tale of a sour romance. Jack withdraws and gives Cass the spotlight.


Robert Penn Warren's fascination with the concept of time is reflected in the structure of All the King's Men, which moves forward in time and backward in memory. And through the use of flashbacks, Warren seeks to show that past, present, and future are bound up with one another in the web of life. The flashback, then, is the distinctive feature of the novel's structure. Yet, Warren's frequent use of flashbacks--even flashbacks within flashbacks--can sometimes be confusing to readers.


1850s    Cass Mastern's college days and romance with Annabelle.

1860s    Cass's death from a Civil War wound.

Foreclosure proceedings on Judge Irwin's plantation;

Judge's marriage and mortgage payment in full; Jack, Anne,

and Adam's youth in Burden's Landing.

Anne and Jack's romance begins.

Jack's graduate studies in history and his marriage to


Willie and Jack meet.

The schoolhouse tragedy.

Willie's first campaign for governor.

Willie is elected governor; Jack becomes his aide.

The Byram White affair.

Willie's visit to Pappy's farm; beginning of Jack's

research on Judge Irwin.

Anne's affair with Willie; Jack's trip to California; the

Judge's suicide; Willie's assassination.

Anne and Jack's marriage.

Perspective from which Jack narrates novel.

Warren manipulates time in All the King's Men. Making leaps from one time to another is consistent with the way a person's memory generally works and, in this case, reflects the way that Jack associates events. As mentioned in the Style section, the novel presents you with the structure of Jack's thought, but is also a showpiece for Warren's belief that human action and meaning are a consequence of a complex interaction among the past, present, and future.


All the King's Men has a complex structure, and the relationships among events can be difficult to grasp at the first reading. To clarify the structure, the following discussion divides most chapters into sections. The title of each section refers to the main topic of the section.


Jack Burden begins his story by taking you on a trip from the capital in the southern part of an unnamed state to Mason City, the home of Governor Willie Stark, in the northern part. It's a dazzling, hot day. You pass through the flat country where blacks are working the cotton fields. In the distance you see clumps of live oaks, among which the big houses of the landowners are safely hidden. On the sides of the new blacktop highway are rows of whitewashed shacks, with black children sitting on doorsteps sucking their thumbs.

Then, you pass through the land of red clay hills, on which pine forests once stood. Now the trees are gone. The mills are gone. And the millowners have left, with their pockets full and with diamond rings on their fingers. On the land remain only the poor, unemployed 'hicks.' You are entering Mason City.

NOTE: THE LANDSCAPE  The landscape of All the King's Men is the most subtle 'character' in the novel. It is poor in resources and economically stripped--a portrait of the Depression-era South, ravaged by industry and personal greed. To call the landscape a character may seem odd, but to narrator Jack Burden it is a living thing that forms the characters of men and women. And, in turn, the landscape is formed by men and women. This reciprocal process also occurs within the political structure of the state: Kingmakers form kings and kingmakers are formed by kings. Thus, the intertwining of the landscape's character and the human political character is a significant aspect of the story that Jack tells.

Key words to note in the descriptive opening passages are 'black' and 'dazzle.' Amid the black conditions of the times ('black dirt,' 'black smoke,' 'blackstrap molasses,' 'black skull and crossbones'), Jack Burden is dazzled by the changes that are taking place. Also, notice the narrator's use of 'you' in his attempt to make you, the reader, a part of his experience.

At this point Jack tells you he is remembering an event that happened three years ago in 1936. The Boss, Governor Willie Stark, has assembled an entourage to accompany him to his father's farmhouse in Mason City for family photographs. Driving the Boss's Cadillac is Sugar-Boy, a young, short, balding Irishman who eats sugar cubes, stutters, and carries a handgun. Also in the Cadillac are the Boss's son and wife, political lackey Tiny Duffy, and Jack. In the other car are the Boss's secretary, a photographer, and some reporters.

The party arrives in Mason City on a Saturday afternoon. An unusual feature of the town is the clock on the courthouse tower. It is not a real clock; its painted hands always point to five o'clock. Could the interpretation be that time stands still in Mason City? How might time be said to stand still in this part of the rural South?

NOTE: TIME AND MEMORY  Throughout All the King's Men the concept of time is enormously important. Jack Burden is trying to understand his present situation by looking into his own past and into the past of the major figures in his life. He is struggling to accept his past, so that he can go on with his life.

In order to portray the struggle within Jack's consciousness, Robert Penn Warren uses the narrator's memory of events to organize this tale. Thus, Warren does not employ a strict chronological sequence of events. Memory is spurred by associating one idea with another. One technique to simulate the way that memory works is the flashback. This novel has many flashbacks. Some are elaborate--that is, they tell a minor yet relevant story within the major story--and some are brief remembrances associated with the immediate story.

Willie walks into the drugstore. Suddenly, the crowd of people come alive, because Willie has been recognized. He grabs the hand of an old man, Malaciah, and asks how he's been doing. Malaciah tells him about his son, who has had some 'bad luck' and is now in prison for stabbing someone. Meanwhile, the drugstore owner sets up the house with free colas. And all the people beg Willie to make a speech.

With his head slightly bowed, Willie walks outside and climbs to the top of the courthouse steps. Jack observes the Boss closely. He sees the bulge and glitter of Willie's eyes, which suggest the coming of something important. For Jack, the suspenseful moment before Willie speaks is as cold and clammy as the moment before opening a telegram. Why does Jack experience suspense in this moment? What is he waiting for?

Here, Jack reveals that he is something of a philosopher--that is, a person who seeks to understand the nature of human beings and their place in the universe. He shares a bit of his wisdom with the reader when he says: 'The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't do. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him.' Jack wants to acquire a certain kind of knowledge--self-knowledge. And part of what he wants to know about himself is why he is attracted to Willie. Is it possible that by understanding Willie Jack will understand himself? Why?

Willie tells the crowd of home folk that he is not going to make a speech. But make a speech he does--a speech about not making a speech, about not doing any 'politickin'' today. He says that he has come home to visit his pappy and to eat smokehouse sausage. What the Boss has to say doesn't matter to the crowd. They take pleasure simply in basking in his glow.

As the Cadillac leaves the town square, heading for the Stark homestead, it passes the schoolhouse. This building reminds Jack of the first time he met Willie. It was in 1922, during Prohibition times, in a speakeasy. Willie, in his capacity as Mason County Treasurer, was in the capital on business about a bond issue for a new schoolhouse.

NOTE: PROHIBITION  In 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect. It outlawed the sale and consumption of all intoxicating liquors. Supporters of Prohibition saw it as a means of cleansing Americans of sin and corruption. But during the 'Roaring Twenties,' traditional 'Puritan morality' was giving way to a new freedom. Many Americans turned their backs on efforts to legislate personal behavior. They flocked to 'speakeasies,' illegal liquor establishments that were often ignored by law-enforcement agencies. Lax enforcement led to the growth of organized crime--the gangster Al Capone, for example, got his start in the illegal 'booze' business. When the Depression created a need for more jobs, anti-Prohibitionists argued that the legalization of liquor would increase the market for grain. So, in 1933, Prohibition was repealed.

Jack ends his reminiscence of his first meeting with Willie by telling you that the bond issue passed, and that the new schoolhouse, now more than twelve years old, stands in Mason City. (The schoolhouse issue takes on greater significance in the next chapter.) Still in the speeding Cadillac, the Boss tells Jack to find a good lawyer to represent Malaciah's boy. Willie believes that the stabbing occurred during a fair fight. But, fair or not, without appearing to be involved, he wants the boy freed. This is a political matter, as are most things in the Boss's life.

The entourage pulls up to Pappy's two-story, unpainted farmhouse. The crepe myrtle are blooming, and chickens are wallowing in the dust under the magnolias. The house has not been painted, in order, no doubt, to remind people that Willie and his family are regular, poor country folk. But inside the house, out of the sight of passersby, modern plumbing and a new linoleum floor have been installed.

At the farmhouse, the photographer goes into action, taking pictures of Willie in various poses--with an old dog, with his family, in his childhood bedroom with an old schoolbook in his hands. Reporters take notes. And Jack imagines how the Boss must have been as a boy, freckled and serious, with a nameless feeling of something big inside of him.

Leaving the photography session, Jack walks past the stables, leans against a fence, and admires the sunset. After taking a swig of whiskey from his pocket flask, he hears a gate creak. Feeling that nothing is real, he thinks of himself as an idealist because of his ability to ignore the facts presented by his senses--in this case, the sound warning of another person's approach.

NOTE: IDEALISM  The theory of idealism is that true reality lies in consciousness or reason, not in material objects. The most famous supporter of idealism was the British philosopher and theologian Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753). Berkeley claimed that there is no evidence to support the belief that anything 'outside the mind' exists, with the notable exception of minds other than your own. Materialism, the belief that physical things are the only reality and that even the mind can be explained in terms of physical processes, is the doctrine opposed to idealism.

Jack says, 'If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn't real anyway.' He seems to be seeking an escape from the brute facts of his life. But the curious thing about Jack's brand of idealism is that it does not seem consistent with the way he has been telling the story. He has gone to great lengths to describe the importance to the Boss of appearances--the secret hiring of a lawyer for Malaciah's son, Pappy's unpainted house, the family photographs. He has, in fact, relied heavily on descriptions of physical things--places, people, events--in the tale so far. Why, then, does he suddenly want to deny the reality of his surroundings?

When a voice asks for a slug of his whiskey, Jack realizes that the Boss has been leaning on the fence with him. The gate creaks again. This time it is the Boss's secretary, Sadie Burke. She interrupts the peacefulness of dusk by announcing that Judge Irwin has endorsed a candidate for the Senate who is not the Boss's pick. Clearly disturbed by the news, Willie changes his plans. No quiet sitting around the homestead tonight. With Sugar-Boy driving and Jack in tow, the Boss heads for Judge Irwin's home in Burden's Landing, a bay shore town one hundred thirty miles away.


Jack Burden, as you may have guessed, is related to the people for whom Burden's Landing is named. It was here that he was born and raised. Jack warns the Boss that Judge Irwin will not be easy to frighten. Jack knows. The Judge was like a father to him as he was growing up on the prestigious Row--the drive facing the bay--of Burden's Landing.

As Jack directs Sugar-Boy to the Judge's house at the end of the Row, he thinks about his childhood friends, the children of Governor Stanton--Adam, now a famous surgeon, and Anne, the girl Jack still loves, who is unmarried and living in the city. Also, Jack remembers how, when he was a boy, his father, Ellis Burden, walked out of the house one day and never returned.

NOTE: Although Jack does not yet tell you much about himself, here you discover that he has always had close connections with state politics and politicians. And you can see the contrasts between Willie, a farmboy from the poor, upstate community of Mason City, and Jack, something of a Southern aristocrat from the wealthier and more politically influential community of Burden's Landing. While Willie, as a boy, had to work hard for everything he got, Jack was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

Another thing to note is that although Jack claims he does not want to remember anything ('If the human race didn't remember anything it would be perfectly healthy'), he continually revisits his past.

When the Cadillac stops in front of Judge Irwin's house, the Boss sends Jack to the door. The Judge seems glad to see Jack, until he notices Willie behind him.

Uninvited, the Boss walks in and pours himself some whiskey. Quickly getting to the point, he wants to know why the Judge turned against his 'boy' for the Senate. He suspects that someone has dug up some dirt on his candidate and promises to do the same on the man the Judge has endorsed. The Judge doesn't back down. When Willie suggests that maybe the Judge's hands are not altogether clean, Irwin orders him out of the house.

Heading back to Mason City, the Boss gives Jack another assignment: Find some dirt on the Judge and make it stick! Jack appears reluctant to search for a scandal on the man who was once like a father to him. He tells the Boss that he doubts there is any dirt to find. The Boss responds: 'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.' What does this remark tell you about Willie's view of human nature? You'll notice that Jack repeats Willie's remark several times. You might want to consider why these words made such a big impression on Jack.

In this chapter, the narrator introduces you to two sides of Willie's character. In Mason City, Willie appears to be simply a 'good ol' boy' who loves his family and cares for the poor people of the state. In Burden's Landing, however, his actions reveal that he is also a confident, hard-edged politician who, if necessary, would ruin the reputation of others to get what he is after. As you learn more about Willie, try to discover what he is after. What motivates him? Is it power or money? Or is it something else?

Also in this chapter the narrator introduces you to himself. He calls himself an idealist, who prefers to ignore reality, whenever possible. But his memory keeps interrupting the peace he is trying to make with himself. Jack is searching for answers to a tragedy he cannot forget, a tragedy that he only hints at--the deaths of Judge Irwin, Adam Stanton, and the Boss. What is this burden that Jack Burden carries?


This chapter is the story of Willie Stark's rise to power and the role Jack Burden plays in it. The story begins in 1922, a few months after Jack first met Willie. At the time, Jack is a reporter for the capital city Chronicle. His managing editor tells him that there seems to be a battle going on in the Mason County courthouse--'that fellow Stark' against the local political machine. The battle concerns the bids for building the new schoolhouse. Jack's job is to find out what is going on.

NOTE: Like Chapter 1, this chapter opens with a description of the road to Mason City. Jack compares his first trip, in 1922, with his last one, in 1936. But unlike the first chapter, this one quickly turns from description to dialogue. Jack and his editor engage in a lively, yet slightly hostile, conversation in which Jack exhibits a subtle wit and an understanding of the politics of the state. About the similarities between county and state politics, Jack says: 'They run 'em up there just like they run 'em down here.' In other words, the 'good ol' boy' system that often leads to corrupt political practices is found throughout the state.

In Mason City, Jack sits with the 'old ones' on a bench in front of the harness shop. He describes the bench as a place 'where Time gets tangled in its own feet.' He sits there, hoping to hear some gossip about the schoolhouse issue. But he does not learn much from the old ones, except that they are against Willie because he wants to bring in a 'passel of niggers' and put 'white folks out of work.' As Jack says, Mason County is redneck country.

Next, Jack goes into the courthouse, where he meets the Sheriff and Dolph Pillsbury, the chairman of the County Commissioners. These men are every bit as racist as the old ones on the bench, but their racism is much more dangerous. Together, they run the local political machine. But Jack does not learn much from them, either.

NOTE: The old ones, the Sheriff, and Pillsbury come across as stereotypes. Jack sees them as one-dimensional characters. They fit the familiar pattern of small-town, Southern rednecks.

Stereotyping people is, of course, difficult to avoid in everyday life and in fiction writing. All of us, from time to time, categorize people into types--liberal or conservative, sophisticated or provincial. Why do we stereotype people? Why does Jack do so here? Is Jack himself a stereotype?

Down the hall is Willie Stark's office. Jack describes it as 'the one-man leper colony of Mason City.' Here, Willie begins telling Jack his side of the schoolhouse story. He finishes it about eleven o'clock that night at his father's farm.

Willie tells Jack what he came to hear. Indeed, there are some political shenanigans going on in Mason City. Willie became county treasurer because he is a distant relative of Pillsbury. At least, that was part of the reason. And all was going reasonably well until the bond issue for the new schoolhouse was passed.

Several contractors submitted estimates for building the schoolhouse. Willie wanted to accept the lowest bid, made by a large downstate firm that employed many skilled Negro laborers. But Pillsbury and his cronies insisted on accepting the bid from J. H. Moore. Moore, it turns out, had an interest in a brick kiln owned by Pillsbury's brother-in-law.

Willie protested. But Pillsbury countered his protests by screaming 'nigger-lover' and 'white unemployment.' Because of community pressure, Willie's wife, Lucy, then lost her teaching job. Willie continued fighting against the Moore bid. He pointed out that there were two bids between the lowest bid and Moore's bid. Why not accept one of these if the Pillsbury group was dissatisfied with the downstate firm? Further, he knew that the Moore brick kiln had recently been sued for making rotten bricks. The community did not listen.

Jack takes Willie's story back to the Chronicle. The Chronicle is happy to get it, the first of several articles portraying Willie as a folk hero. But Mason County is not the only place where political skulduggery is going on. The Chronicle also discovers corrupt practices in the courthouses throughout the state. Thus, Jack comes to realize that his newspaper is bent on shaking up the state political machine.

Meanwhile, Willie goes to work on the race for county treasurer but doesn't have a chance of winning the election. The community has typed him as a 'nigger-lover.' And even the local press refuses to run his ads or to print his handbills.

Willie loses the election by a landslide. He continues to live and work on his father's farm. He peddles Fix-It Household Kits. And late at night he studies law.

Then Fate steps in. About two years after the new schoolhouse is built, there is a fire drill. A metal fire escape pulls loose from the brick wall and falls-the bricks were rotten. Three children are killed and a dozen or so are seriously injured. The people remember Willie's opposition to the Moore bid and feel punished for voting against an honest man. This tragic incident, Jack says, is Willie's luck.


Willie is a lawyer now. And although he remains gullible and politically naive, he has a more cynical attitude toward life than he did before he lost the county treasurer election. For example, he studied long and hard for the bar examination, but when he took the exam, he burst out laughing about the simplicity of 'those crappy little questions.'

Willie's reaction is not unusual for someone who has spent a long time working toward what seems to be an unreachable goal. Lawyers, he thought, are people who should be expected to answer difficult questions on an examination. The exam did not challenge him. Perhaps he expected too much.

It is worth noting that Willie seems more interested in the social rewards that knowledge can bring (for instance, being a lawyer or a politician) than he is in having knowledge for its own sake. Social approval and recognition are more important to him than intellectual understanding and self-knowledge. In this respect, Jack and Willie are opposites.

One day some fat men in striped pants come in a big car to the farm and ask Willie to run for governor. Already, there are two men in the race--Joe Harrison, popular with city people, and Sam MacMurfee, popular with rural folk. Willie's visitors are from the Harrison camp, but Willie doesn't know it. Because Willie has become something of a folk hero, they hope he can split the MacMurfee vote. He falls for their flattery and begins to think that perhaps he is the state's messiah. After all, the schoolhouse incident was a pretty convincing show that he has a unique relation to God and Destiny. So Willie, with his ideals and fantasies, goes on the campaign trail.

Jack is the Chronicle reporter assigned to Willie's campaign. Night after night, in an adjoining hotel room, he hears Willie polishing his speech. Day after day, he sees the crowds tune Willie out. Willie's speeches are awful. He spews out facts and figures, awkwardly presents issues, and relies on the sayings and sentiments of men long dead. Finally, Jack tells Willie that he isn't gaining supporters because he talks about issues instead of trying to arouse emotions. What does Jack's comment say about his view of the American voter? Do most audiences prefer emotional excitement to information? Are people generally elected to high office on flash and style? After accidentally learning from Sadie Burke that he's been duped, however, Willie does develop flash and style.

Late one evening Sadie, who is Willie's secretary and a spy for the Harrison group, comes into Jack's hotel room while Willie is openly worrying that he's not going to be governor. Thinking that Willie knows he's been framed, Sadie reveals the truth. Further, she calls him a sap and a sucker. Shocked, Willie reaches for Jack's whiskey, takes his first drink of hard stuff, and keeps drinking until he passes out. The next day, at a barbecue, Willie, despite his considerable hangover, gives a barn-burning speech. Speaking from his heart, he excites the crowd by telling them what it's like to be a redneck and to be used because of it. He tells them what a dummy he has been for the Harrison people. Then he throws his facts-and-figures speech into the air and resigns from the governor's race in favor of MacMurfee. He says, 'Me and the other hicks, we are going to kill Joe Harrison so dead he'll never even run for dog catcher in this state.'

And Willie is as good as his word. Using his own money, he travels the state making speeches for MacMurfee. Standing with a thumb in his overall strap, he begins his speeches with 'Friends, rednecks, suckers and fellow hicks.' Willie has found his own political voice and style. And even though he calls his audience hicks and tells them things they don't want to hear, they listen and vote for MacMurfee. With Willie's energetic support, MacMurfee becomes the next governor.

While MacMurfee is governor, Willie practices law in Mason City. Several of his cases make the state papers, and one, in which he represents an oil company, makes him rich. Then, in 1930, he again runs for governor, and wins. When Willie goes to the capital, he takes with him some of his old enemies--the Harrison people, the most important being Tiny Duffy, one of the fat men who helped to frame Willie. But now Willie wants him around. Why? Well, he tells Jack, Tiny reminds him of something he doesn't ever want to forget: 'That when they come to you sweet talking you better not listen to anything they say.' Jack, however, thinks that Tiny is there for another reason. He sees Tiny as Willie's 'other self,' his contemptible and corruptible self.

NOTE: Some readers think that Robert Penn Warren 'was' Jack Burden, that Jack represented Warren's attitude toward the characters and events in the novel. Warren, however, has said that he is all of the characters and continues to be involved in them. To some extent, then, the novel's characters the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of the author himself.

In a similar fashion, Willie's character can be understood, at least partly, by looking at the people whom he gathers around him. Of course, you learn what Willie is like through his words and actions. But also, by observing his chosen aides and companion--especially Tiny, Sadie, Jack, and, later, Anne Stanton--you learn more about what makes Willie tick. Thus, as you read further, notice the ways in which the other characters provide for Willie a mirror to reflect both admirable and despicable qualities. Also, you might consider to what extent you too surround yourself with people who reflect some of your characteristics--both those that are obvious and others that may be hidden.


In 1930, while Willie is running his own campaign for Governor, Jack quits his job at the Chronicle. The paper is backing incumbent MacMurfee, but Jack's column does not reflect the editor's position. Jack leaves and thus begins the 'Great Sleep.'

Jack describes the Great Sleep as 'dreaming of sleep, sleeping and dreaming of sleep infinitely inward to the center.' Aimlessness, emptiness, and nothing are the order of the day, every day. He lies in his bed and lets his imagination wander. But this experience is not new to Jack. He reacted in the same way on two other occasions--just before he abandoned his Ph.D. dissertation in American history and just before he walked out on his wife, Lois.

The present Great Sleep, like the other two, occurs when Jack loses his direction. He reflects on what has happened and begins to look at what can be, a time of transition. Perhaps you have had your days of Great Sleep. If so, what was it like? Did you, like Jack, hang around familiar places? Did you let your thoughts wander wherever they would without making any effort to discipline or direct them?

During Jack's third Great Sleep you meet Adam Stanton, the friend of his youth. Adam, a bachelor and a famous surgeon, lives in a shabby apartment in the capital. Also, you meet Adam's sister, Anne. Anne is a trim, well-dressed, attractive woman who promotes certain charitable organizations. She, too, is unmarried.

Jack thinks of himself as a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, but he adds a wrinkle to the famous story: 'You went to sleep for a long time, and when you woke up nothing whatsoever had changed.' But things do change. Jack wakes up and finds himself working for Willie, who is now the governor. What will he do for Willie? Willie says, 'Hell, I don't know. Something will turn up.'

NOTE: RIP VAN WINKLE  'Rip Van Winkle' is a story in the American writer Washington Irving's first collection, The Sketch Book (1819-20). Rip, a simple, good-natured fellow, wanders away from the village and his nagging wife to spend a peaceful day in the Kaatskill (Catskill) mountains. After meeting a group of odd-looking, mysterious men and downing some of their liquor, he falls into a deep sleep. When he awakens and returns to town, he discovers that everything has changed--his wife is dead and the American Revolution has come and gone. He has slept for twenty years! Rip spends the rest of his days telling his tale to every passing stranger.

Recent literary studies explore the psychological dimensions of this story, interpreting Rip's sleep as an escape from both his nagging wife and political turmoil (he sleeps through the American Revolution) and his awakening as a rebirth fantasy (his wife is dead and the Thirteen Colonies are independent). Perhaps Warren wants you to compare Rip's tale to Jack's Great Sleep and his eventual awakening (later in the novel) to self-knowledge.


It is 1933 and Jack, now a research aide to Governor Stark, has come home to Burden's Landing for a visit with his mother. He is reluctant to see her, knowing that his visit will end in argument. Nevertheless, he finds her charm irresistible and takes comfort in her affection. For instance, as he rests his head on her lap, she strokes his forehead and expresses concern over how tired he looks. His feelings toward his mother are ambivalent, but he doesn't exactly know why.

While he sits in her parlor, he notices a new breakfront desk. In his memories of this room the years unfold as a series of changes in furniture and changes in men. He remembers that when he was six years old his mother told him his father had gone and was never coming back. His father went away because, she said, 'he didn't love Mother.' After that Jack had a series of stepfathers. First, there was the Tycoon, who died and left Jack's mother very rich. Then there was the Italian Count, whose passion was riding horses. And now there is the Young Executive, Theodore, who at forty-four is eleven years younger than Jack's mother.

Jack has cute titles for all his mother's husbands, including his father, the Scholarly Attorney. These titles reveal his cynicism and a disrespect for his mother. But they also reveal a desire to give some order, through a categorization of his mother's men, to his family life. About the argument that ends this visit home, an argument about working for Willie, Jack says: 'Not that it mattered much what we rowed about. There was a shadow taller and darker than the shadow of Willie standing behind us.' What do you think he means by this?

NOTE: Some readers suggest that Jack's resentment toward his mother stems from an unresolved conflict in early childhood, from the lack of an opportunity to turn away from dependence on his mother toward an identification with, and respect for, his father. In Freudian terms, this source of adult personality disorders is called an Oedipus complex. (In Sophocles' famous drama Oedipus the King, about 430 B.C., Oedipus, without knowing it, kills his father and marries his mother.) Jack loses his father when he is six and then endures a series of stepfathers. Although none of the stepfathers appears to harm him in any way, perhaps Jack saw himself as competing with them for his mother's affection. Could the theory of an Oedipus complex explain Jack's ambivalent feelings toward his mother? Could it explain his emotional detachment in general? You'll soon see that Jack has an abiding love for Anne Stanton. Consider whether she is a mother substitute for Jack.

While in Burden's Landing, Jack is invited to Judge Irwin's home for dinner. All the guests, except Jack, are opposed to Governor Stark's new programs. To the wealthy class of Burden's Landing, Willie is an ignoble Robin Hood who overtaxes the rich to help the poor and uses disreputable means for passing his programs through the legislature. Coming to Willie's defense, the Judge says, 'You don't make omelettes without breaking eggs.' In other words, the Judge, an experienced politician himself, realizes that Willie has had to use questionable ways and means for reaching admirable ends so quickly. Nevertheless, the Judge is not one of Willie's supporters. Does he defend Willie out of friendship for Jack? When criticism of Willie grows harsher, in a spurt of enthusiasm Jack defends Willie's methods for helping the poor. His outburst bewilders the guests. They know, of course, that Jack works for the governor, but they assumed that Jack's heart was really with them and the other Southern aristocrats of Burden's Landing.

In this section you should note the ways in which Warren has revealed aspects of Jack's character--for example, his ambivalent feelings toward his mother, his tendency to clutch old memories, and his attitude toward Willie. Keep in mind that what you learn about Jack is what he, as narrator, chooses to tell you. To understand him well, you have to draw psychological lines between his memories of the past and the immediate objects and events that trigger his memories.


Things are popping in the capital. One of Willie's appointees, State Auditor Byram White, is being threatened with impeachment. The MacMurfee bunch, wanting to regain their old political influence, have accused White of graft. White is indeed guilty and the Boss knows it, but he doesn't fire White. Instead, he scolds him harshly and enjoys watching him grovel. White doesn't have the courage or integrity to resign. When Jack asks why the Boss cruelly humiliates White, Willie says, 'You do it because you are helping Byram fulfill his nature.' Is Willie serious, or sarcastic?

The most important question, however, is, Why does Willie save White from prosecution, even after his wife, Lucy, and his attorney general, Hugh Miller, threaten to leave him if he supports White? Willie, remember, is a political creature. The White incident can weaken his power, can open him to attack, because an attack on one of Willie's men is an attack on Willie himself.

Willie prepares to retaliate. He gives Jack two assignments--to gather incriminating evidence against one of MacMurfee's men and to make a second one realize that going against Willie is not in that man's best interest.

While Willie is outlining his plan, Hugh Miller enters and resigns as attorney general. Clearly, Hugh likes having influenced the state supreme court in support of Willie's programs to help the common folk. Yet, as Willie points out, he is too 'weak-kneed' to tolerate the underside of politics--that is, the harsh means Willie uses to persuade legislators to back his administration. The Boss questions not his resignation but why it took him so long to see that he could not keep his feet clean while wading in muddy political waters. Willie and Hugh part as friends. Yet, behind him Hugh leaves an empty place, not just in Willie's political organization but also on Willie's psychological scales, with their delicate balance between cold facts and high ideals. The representative of Willie's political idealism is now gone. Thus, he has to create a new symbol of that idealism. He vows to build a new hospital, one that will serve without charge the poor people of the state. Before reading on, consider why Willie needs to have such a man of high ideals as Hugh on his staff. How is Hugh's political idealism different from Jack's philosophical idealism? Would you rather have Hugh or Willie as governor of your state? What are your reasons?

After Hugh leaves, Willie tells Jack he's worried that Lucy will leave him. Willie and Sadie Burke are having an affair, and Willie even has brief affairs with other women when he is out of town. Lucy may know that Willie is unfaithful, but that isn't the reason she threatens to leave. She is opposed to Willie's protection of White and is afraid of the corruption that the White incident signals is creeping into Willie's administration.

But Willie does protect White, and Lucy doesn't leave. She stays to help Willie through the bad times ahead, for the White impeachment attempt, it turns out, is merely the first step toward MacMurfee's ultimate goal--the impeachment of Willie himself. Willie is charged with using such illegal means as blackmail and bribery to force legislators to drop impeachment charges against White.

Willie responds to the charges by touring the state, making speeches to his supporters. The day of the impeachment proceedings, the streets outside of the Capitol are filled with people chanting 'Willie, Willie, Willie--We want Willie!' Rednecks, old women, gas station attendants, even county politicians gather from all over the state to support Willie. That evening, on the Capitol steps, Willie tells them that he is still governor. The crowd roars. What he doesn't tell them is that the decision in his favor wasn't made because of their chanting but because MacMurfee's men could be corrupted.

As Jack looks out of a window high in the Capitol and sees the chanting crowd, he reflects on an argument he had with his father, the Scholarly Attorney who became a religious fanatic and pamphlet writer. His father had said, 'God is Fullness of Being.' Jack argued that 'Life is Motion toward Knowledge.' As such, he continued, the existence of Complete Knowledge--God--must be denied because knowledge can never be complete. Jack equates Knowledge with History. And knowledge is acquired by studying the links between the past and the present. The primary activity of life, as he sees it, is the search for knowledge. But like history, the search for knowledge never ends as long as life goes on. Nevertheless, as you will see, some people can make great strides toward acquiring self-knowledge. Jack is one of them.

At this point in the story, however, Jack has only one kind of knowledge. He knows how the drama in the capital's streets will turn out. He has worked behind the scenes toward the only possible conclusion--the corruption of MacMurfee's men. He says, 'But even if I didn't believe in the old man's God I felt like God brooding on History.'

In these passages several of the major themes of the novel come to light--the themes of knowledge, of history, and of time. Keep these passages in mind as you chart Jack's difficult and winding path toward self-knowledge.

Willie returns to the mansion to find that Lucy has locked him out of her room. She did not attend his speech, nor did she let their son, Tom, go. Willie is upset. He wishes that Lucy could understand the practical side of politics. But she cannot. She would, he says, be content to 'sleep on the bare ground and eat red beans.'

Lucy stays with Willie through his reelection in 1934. Somewhat later, she goes to Florida for reasons of health, or so the public story goes. When she returns, she and Tom move to her sister's poultry farm outside the capital.


At the end of Chapter 1, the Boss tells Jack to dig up some dirty details about Judge Irwin's past. Jack doubts that the Judge has dabbled in any shady or dishonest deals. Nevertheless, here Jack tells you that his research was successful. But he does not reveal any details--not yet. Instead, he says that this research, which he calls the 'Case of the Upright Judge,' is his second major historical project. His first excursion into the past was undertaken when he was working on his doctoral dissertation in American history. He did not finish his dissertation. But he does the next best thing (or perhaps this is the best thing): He shares with you the story that haunted him as a graduate student and that haunts him still--the story of Cass Mastern.

NOTE: A 'FRAME' STORY  This chapter is a complete story in itself--a compelling, romantic, yet tragic story. And it is a 'frame' story, told in between descriptions of Jack's life in graduate school. The telling of Cass Mastern's story begins in Jack's student apartment and ends when he walks out of it, leaving the puzzling documents behind. This is a natural way to tell a story that was intended to become Jack's dissertation.

Many readers question why Warren included this story. William Faulkner, the brilliant southern novelist, after reading the publisher's draft of All the King's Men, suggested that Warren throw out the rest of the novel and publish only the Cass Mastern piece! But, as most other readers agree, the novel as a whole is a masterpiece. And the Cass Mastern story is an important part of it. When seen in the light of later events, Jack's first excursion into the past helps him to develop his own sense of moral responsibility.

When Jack came into possession of the Cass Mastern papers, he was studying American history at the university. A distant cousin sent him a parcel containing letters and other documents that belonged to the cousin's grandfather, Gilbert Mastern. Jack looked over the papers and saw some merit in them. He decided to write his dissertation on Cass Mastern's place in history, at least in the history of human emotion and responsibility.

Cass Mastern was related to Jack on the Scholarly Attorney's side of the family. He lived during slave times and died in 1864 from a wound received while he was a Confederate soldier. But the part of his life that interests Jack starts when Cass was a student at Transylvania College in Kentucky. Cass began writing his journal then.

The journal opens with a troubled sound. Cass writes: 'For all men come naked into the world, and in prosperity 'man is prone to evil as the sparks fly upward.'' Cass was born in poverty. But his brother, Gilbert, amassed much wealth and was able to send him to college. In college, Cass says, 'I learned that there is an education for vice as well as for virtue.' He took up gambling, drinking, and womanizing. And his primary instructor in vice was a young banker, Duncan Trice. Cass, however, never mentions his name in the journal or the name of Duncan's wife, Annabelle. Jack had to dig up this information out of old newspaper files. Jack's clue to the identities of Cass's friends was in his reference to the 'accidental' shooting death of the man who was Duncan Trice.

But Annabelle Trice, not Duncan, is Cass's main concern in his journal. When Duncan brings Cass home with him, Cass falls in love with Annabelle at first sight. She was not a beautiful woman--'her beauty was in her eyes'--yet she was graceful and had a musical voice. Cass describes her every movement and expression, and adds that Duncan was passionately devoted to her.

A year later, in a garden, Duncan leaves Annabelle alone with Cass. In a subtle way, Annabelle lets Cass know that she is interested in him. Then, that summer, while Cass is away attending to plantation business, she sends him a note containing only two words: 'Oh, Cass!' The following fall, they become lovers, and the affair continues that year and well into the next, until the day that Duncan is found dead in his library with a bullet in his chest. It appears that he has accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistols.

After the funeral, Cass meets Annabelle at the summerhouse. When she slips a gold band--Duncan's wedding ring--on his finger, Cass discovers the truth: Duncan had deliberately shot himself. Annabelle's personal maid, a slave named Phebe, found the gold band underneath Annabelle's pillow. Somehow, Duncan had learned about Cass and Annabelle's love affair. To rid herself of the constant reminder of guilt, Annabelle sells Phebe 'down the river,' even though Phebe has a husband who works near the Trice home.

NOTE: SLAVERY IN THE SOUTH  Until the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, each state determined whether slavery was legal within its borders. For the most part, slaveholding states were confined to the South. Slavery helped to form Southern traditions, which were far different from traditions in the rest of the nation.

Slaves were white men's property, and they had no civil rights. For example, they could not leave their plantations without written permission, and their marriages were not legally recognized. In fact, as happened to Phebe and her husband, families were often separated when an owner sold a slave. Being sold 'down the river' was one of the worst things that could happen to a slave, because it usually condemned the individual to a short life of hard labor or, sometimes in the case of female slaves, to sexual abuse.

Annabelle's decision to sell Phebe 'down the river' repulses Cass. To soften his own guilt, he goes in search of Phebe but never finds her. So, he returns to the Mississippi plantation that his brother Gilbert gave him to manage, and he prospers. After accumulating enough cash to buy the plantation from Gilbert, he frees the slaves.

In January 1861, Mississippi secedes from the Union, and soon thereafter, the Civil War begins. With his college background, Cass could have been a Confederate officer, but he enlists as a private. He wants to be on the front line of battle, because, he writes in his journal, 'How can I who have taken the life of my friend, take the life of an enemy, for I have used up my right to blood.' Looking for death, Cass marches into battle wearing Duncan's wedding ring on a string around his neck, and he carries a musket that he never fires. Finally, a bullet finds him. Cass dies in an Atlanta hospital from the wound. Gilbert saved his journal, letters, and gold band, all of which, much later, come into Jack's possession.

As a graduate student, Jack lived with the Mastern papers for a year and a half. And after all that time and research, he felt that he did not understand Cass. He had the facts but not the insights into human nature. So, Jack walked away from the feelings and left the facts in a box in his apartment. But as he moved from one apartment to another, the Mastern packet of papers somehow always seemed to catch up with him.

NOTE: THE SPIDER WEB THEORY  One of the passages most often quoted from All the King's Men is the following:

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with all his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God's eye, and the fangs dripping.

But how could Jack Burden, being what he was, understand that?

Try to put the Spider Web Theory into your own words. What does it say about your responsibility to friends, to acquaintances, to mankind, to history? What does it say about the consequences of your actions?


In this chapter Jack tells you about the twists and turns of his second journey into the past. His assignment is to discover something scandalous about Judge Irwin. And he does. Jack is an excellent researcher--perhaps too good.

NOTE: Warren immediately follows the story of Jack's first piece of historical research--the Cass Mastern case--with the story of his second project, the 'Case of the Upright Judge.' The purpose for putting these two historical projects one after the other is, in part, to reveal the process by which Jack comes to embrace the Spider Web Theory of life.

In the first half of All The King's Men, you see Jack attempting to live a life untouched by deep emotions. One significant element introduced by Warren is Jack's failure to understand Cass Mastern's sense of guilt and responsibility for the death of Duncan Trice and for Phebe's fate 'down the river.' And he becomes the Boss's personal historian of the secret scandals of state politicians, with an attitude of indifference toward the effect that his findings may have on people's lives.

In the beginning of Chapter 5, Jack still does not see himself as a responsible agent in the web of life. Even though he is an experienced historical researcher, Jack has not yet realized, as Cass did, that 'the world is all of one piece,' and that the actions of all people, including his own, intertwine to give personal meaning to history. For Jack, history is an escape.

Notice also, Jack's dispassionate attitude toward his search for incriminating information against the Judge, a man who was like a father to him. Consider why Jack says that the Upright Judge case 'was a perfect research job, marred in its technical perfection by only one thing: it meant something.' Does Jack feel that practical results from a research project taint his efforts? Furthermore, why does Jack think that the Mastern research did not mean anything?

After several excursions into the past--Willie's rise to power and the Cass Mastern story--this chapter resumes where Chapter 1 ends. Sugar-Boy, the Boss, and Jack have returned to Mason City from their late-night visit with Judge Irwin in Burden's Landing. As you recall, the Judge refused to support Willie's candidate for senator. Willie then told Jack to dig up some dirt on the Judge. The Boss is positive that his candidate will win. Nevertheless, he wants to have something against the Judge. And, unlike Jack, he is certain that there is something to be found. Further, he does not care how long it takes to find, as Jack puts it, 'the deceased fly among the raisins in the rice pudding.'

The next day, Jack goes to see the man who was once the Judge's closest friend--Ellis Burden, the Scholarly Attorney. Surely, if the Judge had ever stepped out of line, Jack's father would know.

The Scholarly Attorney lives in the capital, above a Mexican restaurant. While waiting for him, Jack sits in the restaurant, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The Scholarly Attorney enters, looking older than Jack remembers. The Mexican woman hands him a bag of bread crusts. Jack follows him when he leaves.

The old man is taking the bread crusts upstairs to George, who, as the old man puts it, is 'an unfortunate.' George does not eat the crusts. He chews them and molds them into angels. The old man tries to feed him soup, but George will not eat anything except chocolate that the old man puts in his mouth.

As Jack watches, an overwhelming feeling transports him back many years. In their white house by the sea, he sees his father tenderly holding out something for him to eat. Now, in the unfortunate's room, he feels a big lump dissolve in his chest. He says, 'Father-' The old man asks what he said, but Jack does not repeat his broken call from the past. Instead, he again wonders why the Scholarly Attorney abandoned him and his mother. He breaks this painful train of thought by asking, 'Tell me about Judge Irwin.'

The old man refuses to talk about the past. He says that the sinful man he was then is now dead. And when Jack tells him that it is the governor who wants to know, he utters, 'Foulness.' The old man is determined never to be a part of politics again. Jack leaves, having learned one thing: There is indeed something buried in the Judge's past.

Some readers see a similarity between the Scholarly Attorney and Cass Mastern. Ellis Burden abandoned his successful law practice, his beautiful wife and home, and his young son, Jack. In a sense, he abandoned the materialistic world. Now, he spends his time helping unfortunates and writing religious pamphlets. Is he, as Cass was, trying to purge himself of some dreadful sin? As the story continues, see whether you agree that the Scholarly Attorney and Cass Mastern are much alike. Are their 'sins' similar?


Jack takes his question about Judge Irwin's past with him on a friendly visit with Anne and Adam Stanton at their childhood home in Burden's Landing, the house the Stantons inherited from their father, the former governor. While Anne lights a fire, Jack watches her with admiration. She's happy and she's laughing. But he destroys her cheerful mood by suddenly asking: 'Was Judge Irwin ever broke?'

Instead of answering his question, she tells Jack that she doesn't understand why he works for Willie, although, she confesses, she recently had lunch with him, hoping to convince him to divert some state money to the Children's Home. Jack is surprised that the daughter of the highly respected former governor would have lunch with the Boss. He warns her that such meetings could hurt her reputation. Could Jack be jealous? Anne defends her action by saying that she wants to do something important. Now, almost thirty-five and unmarried, she feels that she hasn't done enough with her life. Jack says that she could have married him, but marriage is not what she means.

When Adam enters, Jack repeats his question about the Judge. Adam remembers that when he was a child, he heard an argument about money between the Judge and his father.

Despite the serious note of Jack's question, the scene in the Stanton home is one of the most light-hearted in the novel. Still, Jack can't seem to have a good time simply for the sake of having a good time. He must analyze it: 'Were we happy tonight because we were happy or because once, a long time back, we had been happy?' Why does Jack question everything?


From Adam, Jack learns that the Judge needed money in 1913 or 1914. The information gives him the direction he needs to break open the 'Case of the Upright Judge.'

Back in the capital, Jack finds Tiny Duffy pondering the Boss's decision to allocate $6 million for a hospital. Tiny wants the Boss to give the building contract to Gummy Larson, who is one of MacMurfee's friends, but who could easily be bought. Tiny figures that by tying Willie up with Larson, Larson will substantially reward Tiny.

Then Jack gets a call from Anne. She has discovered that the Judge solved his financial problems by marrying a wealthy woman. Anne and Jack are both happy about her discovery. He really wants to prove that the Judge is a scandal-free man. But to prove it, he must follow up on all clues.

His wheels start spinning. If the Judge was broke, then he had to borrow money. To borrow money takes collateral. As collateral the Judge could use his home in Burden's Landing and a plantation he owned up river. If he needed a lot of money, he could mortgage the plantation.

Jack goes to the courthouse in the county where the plantation is located. He discovers that the plantation had indeed been mortgaged and that foreclosure proceedings had been started. But in 1914 the mortgage was paid in full. Of course, the rich wife could have paid it. But was she really wealthy?

Jack travels to Savannah to check into the background of the woman whom the Judge had married. From all indications she had been very rich. Unfortunately, she had spent all her money before Judge Irwin married her.

Jack's dogged research finally proves successful. He discovers that when Judge Irwin was state attorney general under Governor Stanton, he had accepted a bribe for dismissing a suit against an oil company that owed the state over $150,000 in back royalties.

After accepting the bribe, the Judge resigned as attorney general and took a job with a company that had interests in the oil company. A man named Littlepaugh had been fired to make room for the Judge. When Littlepaugh went to Governor Stanton about the matter, Stanton refused to listen, Finally, Littlepaugh wrote a letter to his sister about the situation and then jumped off his fifth-floor balcony. Thus, not only was Judge Irwin indirectly responsible for Littlepaugh's death, but so was Governor Stanton.

Jack ends this segment of the 'Case of the Upright Judge' by saying that 'all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definitions gave them life.' Thus, a conviction that has been lying dormant in Jack since the Cass Mastern case has come to light: The present defines the past.


In the last chapter, Jack presented the details of his seven months of research on the 'Case of the Upright Judge.' In this chapter he tells you about several other important events that took place during the same seven months.

For one thing, Willie's son, Tom Stark, wrecks his sports car. He had been drinking. Unfortunately, the young woman with him is permanently injured. Her father threatens to initiate a lawsuit. Willie makes threats of his own and offers the father a substantial sum of money. Thus, the matter is hushed up.

Except on Willie's home front. Willie's wife, Lucy, is tired of seeing her son being treated like a hero. She sees Tom becoming selfish, lazy, and wild. And she blames Willie: 'You'll be the ruin of him.' Willie, however, enjoys watching Tom have the pleasures and opportunities that Willie himself never had as a young man.

Other events occur during the months of Jack's research. Anne Stanton receives state funds for the Children's Home, and Willie, on national radio broadcasts, attacks one of MacMurfee's men in the U.S. Congress. But for Jack, the most important events are those surrounding Willie's dream to build the biggest and best medical facility in the nation.

Planning the hospital has become Willie's chief concern. He visits some of the finest hospitals in the country. He studies blueprints and reads books on hospital management. The Willie Stark Hospital will be his gift to the rednecks of the state--a monument to his hidden idealistic nature. So, when Tiny Duffy approaches him one more time with his scheme to make Gummy Larson the hospital contractor, Willie flies into a rage. He tells Jack that he does not want his hospital defiled by any political dealings. Further, he is going to hire the best man in the country to run it--Dr. Adam Stanton.

The first section of this chapter reveals several sides of Willie's character, You see Willie the doting father, who refuses to temper Tom's wild impulses. Willie values the 'manly' pursuit of being a football hero. Thus, he does not feel, as Lucy does, a need to insist that Tom lead a more disciplined life. Willie is blinded by his own vanity and by his need to compensate for his own unheroic youth.

You also see Willie the practical politician, who knows how to get things done and how to take the pressure off himself. He uses a variety of ways to do so, offering bribes, threatening to cut off a man's source of income (he did both with the injured woman's father), and publicly exposing a man's secret sins (as with MacMurfee's man in Washington).

But in addition you see Willie the idealist, who wants to be remembered in history for his good deeds. The Willie Stark Hospital is to be the symbol of his love for the common folk. And he cannot let swindlers like Tiny Duffy lay their dirty hands on what he sees as his greatest contribution to the good of the people. Hence, he wants an idealist to run his hospital. In a sense, then, Adam Stanton represents the part of Willie that is committed to ideals, to sacred human values.


Willie tells Jack, 'Get Stanton.' This new assignment amuses Jack. After all, Adam is a friend of his youth, and he knows that Adam is not at all fond of the Boss. In fact, Jack sees the task of convincing Adam to head the Boss's hospital as being more nearly impossible than it was to unearth a past scandal about Judge Irwin.

Nevertheless, Jack goes to Adam's apartment to make Willie's offer: 'Governor Stark wants you to be director of the new hospital and medical center.' Adam sits in stunned silence while Jack presents his argument. In Willie's hospital, Adam would be able to see that all the poor people of the state were taken care of, and he would be paid rather handsomely. Moreover, he could run the hospital in whatever way he liked, without any political interference. Adam responds that he will not be bought by the Boss.

Growing impatient, Jack warns Adam that he will find what he needs to convince Adam to become the hospital director. Although he doesn't tell Adam, Jack is going to Memphis to pick up the letter that implicates Adam's father, the former governor, in the Judge's scandal. Jack leaves, slamming the door.

After he returns from Memphis, Jack responds to an urgent call from Anne. She demands that Jack make Adam accept the Boss's offer, because, she explains, Adam is trying to cut himself off from the world and being hospital director will keep him in touch with reality. Then she insists on knowing why Adam does not want to take advantage of this career opportunity. Jack tells her that it is because Adam is the descendant of a long line of high-minded idealists who thought the world should conform to their standards, and if Anne wants Adam to take the job, she will have to change Adam's idealistic view of the world. When she asks how, Jack says, 'I can give him a history lesson.'

What Jack means by 'history lesson' is, of course, the papers he has on Governor Stanton's role in the Littlepaugh suicide and Irwin bribe affair. By seeing his father as less than perfect morally, Adam may change his view of the world. But will a change in Adam's viewpoint cause him to accept Willie's political practices?

What is Adam's view of the world? As Jack tells Anne, Adam is both a scientist and a romantic. The scientist in him sees everything as a tidy and orderly system; the romantic in him sees the moral world of human conduct in a similar way. For Adam, the bad molecules always behave badly, and the good ones always act in accordance with goodness. Thus, he has no place in his thinking for good molecules that sometimes act badly. Yet, he is about to discover just such a set of molecules when he learns one aspect of his father and Judge Irwin's place in history. With this new knowledge will Adam's view of the world change?

Little does Anne know that her own view of the world is about to change. When Jack tells her about her father's indiscretion, Anne refuses at first to believe it. Several days later, with the incriminating papers in her hand, she visits Adam and then calls Jack with the news: Adam has accepted Willie's offer. But she asks Jack for one favor--not to use the information against Judge Irwin until after the Judge has seen it. Jack agrees.

Jack's news about Adam's acceptance both surprises and pleases Willie. He insists on going to see Adam. Adam emphasizes his lack of respect for Willie's administration, and the Boss lets Adam know that his opinions don't mean a thing to him. Then, Willie shares some of his philosophy with Adam. He says that goodness is not something inherited; goodness is made, and it is made out of badness, because there is nothing else to make it out of.

Later, Jack thinks about the Boss's remarks on goodness. If Willie thinks that you make good from bad, why is he against letting Tiny Duffy make a deal on the hospital contract? Gummy Larson is as competent a builder as any in the state.

Something else is also bothering Jack. If he did not tell Anne about the Boss's offer to Adam and if Adam did not tell her, how did she find out? The answer comes from a raging Sadie Burke, who has just discovered that the Boss is once again 'two-timing' her. Jack jokingly points out that Willie may be two-timing his wife, but he can't be two-timing Sadie. Making threats against the Boss and his new mistress, the irate woman even accuses Jack of being involved. Then the truth finally dawns on Jack. The Boss's new mistress is Anne Stanton.

In a daze, Jack walks to Anne's apartment. No words are exchanged. Anne simply nods.

NOTE: IRONY  This chapter exhibits Warren's skillful use of irony. Irony is an author's technique for presenting a set of circumstances in which the consequences and the implications of someone's behavior turn out to be different from what the characters expected and, often, from what you expected.

For example, while thinking about Adam's reaction to Judge Irwin's bribe, Jack says: 'I couldn't cut the truth to match his ideas. Well, he'd have to make his ideas match the truth.' But when Jack discovers Anne's involvement with the Boss, it is he who has to adapt his picture of the world to the truth.


The discovery of Anne's involvement with the Boss deeply disturbs Jack, and he flees to California.

NOTE: ANOTHER FRAME STORY  Like Chapter 4, this chapter is a frame story. It is the story of the youthful romance between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, framed in the narrative between Jack's description of his eight-day trip to California and back. Jack's way of telling the story, however, differs from the way he tells the Cass Mastern story. This is a personal story that is close to his heart.

His romance with Anne has been in a state of limbo for many years. Yet, even with the new development, he does not see their romance as over. His love for Anne is still alive. And this love may be the only intense emotion that he has not suppressed with his relentless cynicism and dispassionate investigations into other people's pasts. He could view the Mastern story with emotional distance, but he is intimately involved with the Burden-Stanton romance. Further, this story is not over, not even at the chapter's end.

Driving at seventy-five miles per hour through the mostly desert lands of the Southwest, Jack describes himself as 'moving back through time into my memory.' He says it is like seeing an old home movie. He sees his father giving him candy. He sees himself hunting with Judge Irwin. And he sees a succession of stepfathers. But his memories focus on Anne Stanton.

Jack grew up with Governor Stanton's two children, Adam and Anne. Adam is about Jack's age and Anne is four years younger. He remembers her as the little girl who always seemed to be around when he and Adam were playing. But then, in his twenty-first summer, he began to see her in a different light.

In his memory Jack goes back to that time. He is home from the university. In the mornings he, Adam, and Anne play tennis, and in the afternoons they swim and sail. They are a threesome. Then, one evening, when Adam is away, Jack and Anne go to a movie. On the way home they stop at Hardin Point to watch the moonlight on the bay. They sit in silence, as Jack tries to decide whether to kiss her. He does not. After that evening, however, things change between them. The romance has begun.

Anne and Jack spend an affectionate, happy summer together. Often they talk about what they will do when they get married. And one time she asks how he will make a living. Like most women in those days--about 1918--she, of course, will be a mother and a housewife. But Jack needs a career. However, he has not given the matter much thought, so he tells her that he is thinking of studying law. Making money is not important to her, but she does expect him to commit himself to something in life besides simply loving her.

Jack lets their relationship drift along. He thinks of her as a young, sensitive, somewhat timid girl. And he thinks of himself as an older man of the world. They never make love, but they come close one rainy night near summer's end.

As Jack is driving to California, he thinks about what would have happened if he had not refused to make love to Anne and if they had been discovered in his bedroom. Most certainly, he decides, everyone would have insisted on a wedding. Thus, in this intermission in his home movies, Jack thinks, 'My nobility (or whatever it was) had had in my world almost as dire a consequence as Cass Mastern's sin had had in his.' In other words, perhaps his marriage to Anne could have saved him. But saved him from what?

A year later, Jack starts law school and hates it. Anne says that she doesn't care if he studies law; she just wants him to want to do something. He wants to marry her, but she refuses until he has found a purpose in life. Eventually, they go their separate ways. After flunking out of law school, he discovers that he has a keen interest in history and so begins work on a Ph.D. in American history. But a year and a half later he abandons his dissertation, begins working as a reporter for the Chronicle, and marries Lois Seager.

Jack describes Lois as extremely attractive, as better looking than Anne. Yet, he can't figure out why Lois married him--she has plenty of money and is not interested in brilliant conversation. He decides she must have married him for the Burden name. He does, however, include the possibility that she loves him.

The intriguing question, though, is why Jack married Lois. He doesn't love her or respect her. He says that 'the only things Lois knew about love was how to spell the word and how to make the physiological adjustments traditionally associated with the idea.' As long as Lois simply behaves as a lovable, good-looking, sexy animal, the marriage goes well. But when she talks or acts in any way resembling a conscious human being, Jack becomes incredibly annoyed. Finally, Jack goes into his Great Sleep phase and one morning packs his suitcase and walks out of the apartment. Just as he left his dissertation, he abandons Lois. He never sees her again. Was his love for Anne responsible for his refusal to see Lois as a human being? Why did he like the 'machine-Lois' but not the flesh-and-blood Lois? What do you think about Jack's way of dealing with his problems with Lois?

In his role as narrator, Jack then brings the Burden-Stanton relationship up to date. After their breakup, Anne attended a two-year woman's college in Virginia, something of a finishing school. She became engaged several times but never married. When Governor Stanton's health began to fail, she moved home to care for him. He died seven years later. By the time Anne moves to the capital, she is almost thirty.

In the city she finally does become engaged, but, again, does not marry. She reads books, keeps up her appearance, and does volunteer work for an orphanage. Then, Willie comes into the picture, and she becomes his mistress.

Feeling betrayed, Jack heads west, away from the troubling situation. He feels that Anne never really loved him. Instead, he thinks that she 'merely had a mysterious itch in the blood.' But in his heart Jack knows that there was more to it than an itch. In fact, by the end of his reverie in California, Jack comes to see that Anne has always known his problem--his lack of confidence in the world and in himself. And he sees that, in a sense, he handed Anne over to Willie. Jack is beginning to take responsibility for his position in life and in history. He decides to go home.

NOTE: Why is Anne having an affair with Willie? For a short time, Jack seems to be taking all the blame for Anne's affair. But this answer is too simple. For one thing, it does not explain why Anne is attracted to Willie. Perhaps she feels an emptiness of her own that Willie's dynamic personality and self-confidence fulfills. Jack sees that he did not live up to Anne's expectations. But why does she have these expectations? Why has she always insisted that Jack exhibit a sense of purposefulness? Some readers feel that she is looking for a father figure.


Jack leaves California with a new confidence, acquired by his sense of having discovered a secret knowledge. He doesn't really understand this knowledge until he picks up an old hitchhiker in New Mexico. Jack becomes fascinated by a twitch on the old man's leathery cheek. The hitchhiker is not even aware of his twitch. Yet, the twitch seems to reveal all there is about the desperate conditions of the man's life. Suddenly, Jack feels that he has unraveled one of life's well-kept secrets: Life holds no more meaning than does the twitch on the old man's face. Jack experiences a feeling of liberation. He is at peace with the Great Twitch.

NOTE: BEHAVIORISM  Some readers view the theory of the Great Twitch as a literary version of the psychological theory of behaviorism. Behaviorism is the theory that human actions can be explained in terms of how people respond to external, observable influences. As such, people are considered to be no more than complicated mechanisms. Their actions are caused by external forces, over which they have no control. They may believe that they can choose to do this or that. But the notion of having a choice, along with the notion of having a mind, is a delusion. There is no such thing as free will. Therefore, no one is ever responsible for anything. One's actions are no more meaningful than the twitch caused by an electric current passing through the leg of a dead frog.

As long as Jack believes in the Great Twitch, he can deny responsibility for Anne's corruption or for anything else. He is absolved of guilt. His intense disillusionment vanishes. Now he can go on with his life, protected by his secret knowledge. Thus, the second phase in Jack's growth toward self-knowledge is his change from 'brassbound' idealist to unreflective behaviorist. By rejecting idealism he is no longer denying the reality of the physical world, and so is no longer escaping into his own ideas about the world. Rather, he is now escaping from responsibility by believing that life is basically meaningless and does not operate according to moral principles but according to physical laws--and nothing more.

With his secret knowledge, Jack returns to the capital. He feels smug, yet cut off from others. After all, such a secret as his is not something you can simply whisper to another person. You are stuck with it, alone.

For the most part, Jack keeps to himself. One day, however, he visits Adam, who is busy with the new medical center project. But he seems to Jack to be more withdrawn than usual. Nevertheless, Adam talks at length about an operation he is going to perform, a prefrontal lobectomy on a schizophrenic patient. This operation, Adam explains, involves removing a piece of the brain in an attempt to turn someone who is depressed into a cheerful, friendly person. Jack is immensely curious about the possibility of changing someone's personality and moral values through an operation. He requests and receives permission to watch the procedures. It seems that this scientific manipulation confirms Jack's notion of the Great Twitch. Indeed, even human values can be changed with the flick of a scalpel.

Jack doesn't see Adam for a while. Then he learns that Hubert Coffee, one of Gummy Larson's men, has tried to bribe Adam to award the medical contract to Larson. Anne was visiting Adam the night it happened. She tells Jack that Adam hit Coffee, then wrote his resignation to the Boss.

Jack's plan is to convince Willie to arrest Coffee for attempting to bribe an official. This will prove that the governor had nothing to do with the bribe. Of course, Adam will have to swear to the charges. But to make the charges stick, Anne will probably have to testify also. Anne quickly agrees. Then Jack changes his mind, worried that a smart lawyer will discover that Anne is the Boss's mistress. Anne says she doesn't care.

Suddenly, Jack is overcome by a feeling of betrayal. He grows angry. He tells Anne that she is forgetting about Adam's feelings. Then, without thinking, he asks why she became Willie's mistress.

Anne says she loves Willie. After she found out about her father's part in the judge's bribe, she didn't see any reason not to have an affair with him. Besides, Willie wants to marry her, but not now. He can't get a divorce until after he runs for the U.S. Senate.

The Senate business is news to Jack. But that is not what he thinks about as he walks home. He returns to the idea that perhaps he is to blame for what Anne did. But he only told her the truth about her father. Could he be blamed for doing so? He turns the question over and over in his mind.

The Boss readily agrees to swear out a warrant on Coffee. Now, Jack has a twofold task: He has to show Adam that, by swearing out a warrant, the Boss is being true to his word to keep politics out of the hospital deal, and he has to convince Adam not to bring the matter to court. Succeeding, he leaves Adam's apartment with the torn pieces of the letter of resignation in his pocket.

Jack has protected Anne's honor. He thinks everyone is keeping the affair a secret. Probably Sugar-Boy knows, but he is absolutely loyal to the Boss. And Sadie will not tell. She is biding her time, waiting for the affair to blow over.

All seems to be going smoothly that summer. Then, Tom Stark is threatened with a paternity suit by Marvin Frey and his daughter. He admits that he may be the baby's father, but maintains that he was only one of many who might have fathered the child. At first it seems a simple matter to solve, but it turns out that Frey and MacMurfee are working together to cause Willie a public scandal. MacMurfee wants to run for the Senate. So does the Boss. A scandal is one way to lessen the Boss's chances. But as Willie sees it, the case against Tom must not be solid or the suit would already have been in court. So, the Boss has some time to draw up his plans.

Meanwhile, Lucy Stark feels that something is going on, but doesn't know exactly what. Jack drives out to her farm and tells her about the paternity suit. He explains that the baby may not be Tom's, that MacMurfee is trying to cause a scandal. Lucy is disgusted by the idea that politics could play a part in the possibility of her being a grandmother. And she is saddened, too. She doesn't understand why her love for Tom and Willie, and their love for her, hasn't been enough.

In this section, you see Jack become emotionally more involved in the lives of others. When he is in the operating-room pit observing Adam perform a lobectomy, he seems to be in the dark depths of meaninglessness, which he calls the Great Twitch. But gradually he pulls himself back into the light of human involvement. He helps Anne make certain that Adam remains hospital director. In doing so, he is careful to protect Anne's honor. And he never once questions whether he should visit Lucy. He goes to her, he says, not because he feels he owes her anything but because he cares about her.


Governor Stark arrives at a plan for squelching the paternity suit against Tom. He's unable to arrange a deal with Frey and his daughter, because MacMurfee has hidden them in another state. His only alternative is to approach MacMurfee, his archenemy. Willie decides to use someone to whom MacMurfee owes a favor. He thinks of Judge Irwin.

The Boss asks Jack whether he has found anything on the Judge. Jack indicates that he has, but before revealing what it is, Jack says he has promised to give the Judge a chance to prove the findings false, a promise he made to himself and to someone else. He doesn't tell Willie that the other person is Anne.

The Boss is not used to having Jack withhold information from him and is slightly angered by Jack's unusual display of conscience. Nevertheless, he tells Jack to do what he has to do. Jack drives to Burden's Landing.

For nearly twenty years Jack thought of himself as an idealist. But after only a few months of being a believer in the Great Twitch, a seed of doubt is again growing in his mind. If he abandons this belief, will he replace it with an even more cynical one? Or will he replace it with a more optimistic view of human nature?

That afternoon Jack pays a visit to Judge Irwin, but not before first strengthening his emotional armor by having had an argument with his mother. The Judge is lying down. He has not been well. As always, he seems glad to see Jack. Jack, however, is less than cordial. Yet, as he sits in the library, he fervently hopes the Judge can prove that the charges are false. After having a friendly drink with the Judge, he even thinks of destroying the evidence. But Jack feels he must learn the truth.

He begins by asking why the Judge supports MacMurfee instead of Willie, Judge Irwin explains that, although he believes Willie is making some important changes, he is worried about the methods Willie uses. Jack tells the judge about some of MacMurfee's methods, including the paternity suit, which is MacMurfee's way of trying to blackmail Willie not to run for the Senate. When he asks the Judge to convince MacMurfee not to pursue the suit, the Judge refuses. Jack pleads, but still he refuses.

Feeling pushed into a corner, Jack shows the Judge the papers testifying that the Judge many years ago took a bribe. Among the papers is Littlepaugh's suicide letter. Jolted by these remembrances of things past, the Judge confesses they are true. But he refuses to be blackmailed into helping the Boss. Also, he has a few sharp words to say about Jack's part in the dirty business. Jack says he will return tomorrow and hopes the Judge will change his mind.

Later, back at his own house, a scream awakens Jack from an afternoon nap, and he runs to his mother's bedroom. She repeats hysterically, 'You killed him!' When he demands to know whom she is talking about, she says that he killed his father. Judge Irwin has shot himself. In this tragic way, Jack learns that the Judge was his father.

Jack's mother is sick from shock. As Jack sits at her bedside, watching her sleep, he sees everything fall into place. The Scholarly Attorney abandoned Jack and his mother because he could no longer live with the woman who loved the Judge and with the child who was the Judge's son. And for all these years, his mother has loved the Judge. Jack wonders why they had never married. But he feels love for his mother, because, he says, he now sees that she had indeed loved someone.

After the funeral, Jack returns to the capital. He receives a call from the executor of the Judge's will. Jack is the sole heir to Judge Irwin's estate, the same estate that the Judge saved years ago by taking a bribe. Jack bursts out laughing. Then he weeps.

NOTE: ON HONOR AND RESPONSIBILITY  As you have seen, the Judge was an honorable man. But his honor, in Jack's view, was 'twisted.' He never married Jack's mother or revealed to Jack, even when it might have saved his life, that he was Jack's father. Perhaps the Judge recognized the absurdity of his 'honor' in matters of the heart. He shot himself through the heart.

In the end, the Judge could not face his responsibility for misfortunes of the past. Can Jack face his responsibility for the Judge's death? Jack finds it ironic that the suicide for which the Judge was responsible results in the Judge's own suicide. And he also sees the irony in his inheritance from the Judge.

Of course, learning that he is the Judge's son is just as traumatic for Jack as learning about the Judge's death. He is now left alone to create, if he can, his own life of honor and responsibility.


Jack begins this chapter by observing that no story is ever over. The 'Case of the Upright Judge' ends tragically; yet, life goes on. The Judge's story, he says, is merely a chapter in the longer story of Willie Stark.

Instead of going into a Great Sleep or escaping West, as he has done during other crises, Jack returns to work, filled with resolve. He tells Willie that he will no longer do any of his dirty work. Surely, the Boss teases, he will help him to blackmail MacMurfee. Not even MacMurfee, Jack replies. From then on, Jack keeps apart from the dirty business of politics and goes about his 'innocent little chores.' One little chore, for instance, is helping the Boss put together a tax bill.

Meanwhile, the governor has to find a solution to the threat posed by MacMurfee. With Judge Irwin dead, Willie seems to have only two options--either to give up his plans to run for the Senate or to award the hospital contract to Gummy Larson. Either way he emerges a loser. If he buckles under to MacMurfee's pressure, he sacrifices power and pride. If he bribes Larson, he contaminates the hospital with political wheeling and dealing and cuts loose one of his few remaining ties to the political ideals of his youth. He chooses power over ideals.

One night, when Jack visits the governor's mansion, he finds the Boss quite drunk, in the company of Gummy Larson and Tiny Duffy. Apparently, the hospital deal is being cinched. And Willie is obviously miserable, even though Larson has agreed to take care of MacMurfee for him. Before Larson leaves, the Boss threatens that he will rip him open if he so much as leaves off one window latch: 'You hear--that's my hospital--it's mine!'

After Larson and Tiny leave, the Boss continues cursing Larson. And he curses himself for letting dirty politics touch the hospital.

Jack thinks about Tom's role in the Boss's current misery. And he thinks that Willie, in part, brought this on himself by making Tom what he is. In appearance, Tom resembles his father as a young man. But their similarities end there. As a young man, the Boss was energetically trying to discover his purpose in life. Tom, however, is content to be a flashy, arrogant football hero. He breaks training whenever he likes, and the coach ignores it--until one of his tavern fights makes the newspapers. Then he and another player are suspended.

Without their star quarterback, State loses the next game to Georgia. The team still has a chance of winning the Conference championship, but they must win the next game. After the Boss puts pressure on the coach, Tom is allowed to play and the team wins. The next game is an easy one. Tom doesn't even need to be on the field in the second half, but the coach sends him in for some exercise. Tom is showing off a bit when he gets hit. He doesn't get up.

When Tom is taken to the hospital, Adam Stanton is put on the case. Tom's neck is broken and he's paralyzed. Adam advises an immediate operation but admits to Willie that the operation is risky. Without consulting Lucy, the Boss agrees to the operation. Adam looks at Lucy. She also agrees. While they are waiting for the outcome, the Boss says that he is going to name his new hospital the Tom Stark Hospital. Lucy quietly says, 'Oh, Willie, don't you see? Those things don't matter.'

Hours later Adam returns from surgery. Tom will live, but he will be paralyzed. His spinal cord is crushed.

NOTE: DIRECTION  In this section, Jack withdraws into his shell. He shuns involvements of all kinds, from social outings to dirty politics. Perhaps he is recuperating from the loss of his father and from his disillusionment over Anne. Then again, he may be gathering his energies so that he will be able to find a purpose for himself. Until now, he has been drifting along without direction.

After the judge's suicide, Jack witnesses another series of sad events--the Boss's sacrifice of goodness for power and the crippling of Tom Stark. Yet, he sees that all these events are tied together. Tom's sexual excursion leads to Jack's having to tell the Judge that his sinful past has been discovered. The judge's death causes the Boss to turn to Gummy Larson. The Boss's pressure on the coach leads to Tom's paralysis. And time rolls on, with the past affecting the present, the present giving meaning to the past, and the future always being only a breath away. As Jack says, 'But this only affirms what we must affirm: that direction is all.' Jack is growing in wisdom.


Telegrams expressing sympathy flood Willie's office. Jack watches the Boss's men as they enter the office. Tiny comes in, his face a marvel of gloom. But when he discovers that the Boss isn't in, he perks up. Sadie arrives, looks around at the mournful gathering, curses, and goes into her office. For Jack, it's a rather pleasant day. Peering out a window, he describes the landscape as looking like 'the face of a person who has been sick a long time and now feels better and thinks maybe he is going to get well.'

NOTE: You have probably noticed that Jack is fond of describing both the interior design and the outdoor surroundings of the places he visits. Often, the way he sees these places reflects his attitude toward life. In the line just quoted, you can see Jack projecting onto the landscape his feelings of having overcome a long illness. And, as you will see shortly, he is not the only person overcoming a long spiritual illness.

The Boss enters the office. His face shows the ravages of pain, but his eyes are clear. He tells Tiny that the deal with Larson is off.

Jack goes back into his office. Later in the afternoon, he discovers that Sadie tore out of her office like a wildcat after prey. He wonders what is going on. Things seem a bit strange. Then he gets a call from Anne.

When he arrives at her apartment, Anne is in tears. Some man called Adam to tell him that Anne is Willie's mistress, that Adam is the hospital director only because of Anne's hold over Willie, and that now Adam is going to be fired because he has paralyzed Tom by performing a bad operation. Telling Anne that he will not 'be paid pimp to his sister's whore,' Adam has run out of her apartment. Anne now asks Jack to find Adam and talk to him. 'Get him,' she pleads. 'For he's all I've got now.'

Jack goes in search of Adam, He looks all day and leaves messages everywhere. But he doesn't find him. That evening Jack is called to the Capitol.

The legislators are milling around after ending a late session on the new tax bill. Jack sees the Boss talking to several senators. Sugar-Boy is leaning against a marble wall. Jack leans with him and waits. Shortly, the Boss calls Jack over. He says that he has something to tell him.

As they walk into the great lobby under the dome, Jack sees Adam standing near one of the statues. Adam is wet and muddy. Jack calls his name, but Adam ignores him and walks toward the Boss. Willie puts out his hand. Adam puts out his hand. Holding a small pistol, he fires twice.

These shots are immediately followed by a series of louder shots, and Adam falls to the floor. Jack runs to him, but he is already dead. Sugar-Boy stands nearby with a smoking pistol in his hand.

At first, Jack thinks that the Boss was not hit. Then he pushes through a crowd and sees Willie sitting on the floor with both hands covering a wound in his chest. He is taken to the hospital, survives an operation, but dies several days later from an infection. Before he dies, he says, 'It might have all been different, Jack. You got to believe that.'

During his political career, Willie steadily gained more and more control over the state government and over the people who run it. Except for MacMurfee's opposition, Willie's control was practically absolute. But after Tom Stark became paralyzed, something happened to Willie. This situation was one over which he had no control. Apparently, he took stock of himself and decided to turn things around. First, he told Tiny to call off the Larson deal. He appeared to have called off his affair with Anne. Also, something upset Sadie but, at this point, you can only assume that the Boss had cleaned out this unsavory aspect of his life, too. Willie wanted to talk to Jack. But before he could, Adam shot him. He died, saying how it might have all been different. In the few days before he was shot, he seemed to be trying to make things different, perhaps to return to the ideals of his youth. But all the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Willie back together again.

This chapter ends with many issues left unresolved. For instance, what decisions had Willie made that led to his death? Who was the anonymous caller who incited Adam to assassinate the Boss? These questions are answered in the next chapter.


Jack attends Adam's funeral in Burden's Landing and the Boss's funeral in the capital. Then he returns to Burden's Landing to stay a while. Anne is also staying in Burden's Landing. So, as would seem natural, they spend much time together. Most of it is spent in peaceful silence or with Jack reading to Anne. Neither of them talks about what has happened. They drift along in a kind of numbness. But one day the question of who phoned Adam becomes urgent to Jack.

NOTE: THE NARRATOR AS THE CENTRAL CHARACTER  As a final chapter should, Chapter 10 resolves several conflicts that were developed earlier in the book. Among them is the question of the underlying reasons for Willie's assassination. Yet, the primary conflict in All the King's Men has been within the consciousness of the narrator. As one reader puts it, this novel is, at least on one level, an 'autobiography of a mind.' And as most readers agree, the moving force of the novel is the narrator's struggle to reveal the pattern of events that leads to his self-acceptance and self-knowledge, to his sense of direction and sense of responsibility. Nevertheless, some believe that Jack Burden's dual role as narrator and central character is a flaw in an otherwise outstanding novel. They argue that because all the events are filtered through Jack's observations, you cannot know whether you are getting the straight story. In other words, they question the reliability of the narrator. And they cite Jack's introspective digressions and his philosophical flights as examples.

Whether or not you decide that Jack is a reliable narrator, you should notice the ways in which he resolves the conflicts of his life. In particular, notice how he comes to terms with the differences between himself and Willie and with the conflicts in his relationship with his mother. Also, notice that, through a sympathetic understanding of Tiny, Sadie, and Sugar-Boy, Jack gains a greater sense of both the tragic and the heroic aspects of life.

Jack gathers his courage to break the 'conspiracy of silence' that he and Anne have formed in order not to look at the blood on their hands. Jack must know who else is responsible--who is more directly responsible--for the deaths of his friends. But Anne doesn't know who called Adam. She knows only that it was a man. In search of the truth, Jack leaves Burden's Landing.

First, Jack decides to talk to Sadie Burke. He finds her in a sanatorium, where fairly well-to-do people bring their problems and nervous symptoms.

Sadie's only beautiful feature was always her fire-ember eyes. But now Jack sees just ashes. She is burnt out. She explains that she is in a rest home simply because she is tired. Jack has one question for her: Who called Adam? Sadie says that she hasn't any idea. Jack humors her for a moment. Then he quickly turns and tells her that she knows it was Tiny.

Sadie curses Jack. But Jack keeps repeating, 'How do you know?' Without putting up much of a fight, Sadie confesses that she told Tiny to do it. Jack is surprised. He did not suspect Sadie. He hears himself telling her, 'You killed him.' Jack is thinking of Adam. But Sadie is thinking of Willie. She says that Willie dumped her because he was going back to Lucy. She told Willie she would kill him, and she did. And in so doing, she also killed Adam Stanton.

Jack can forgive Sadie because she acted from passion, but he cannot forgive Tiny Duffy. He lets his hatred for Tiny fester. Then he visits Sadie again. Sadie volunteers to make a statement against Tiny. She doesn't want to protect herself. Rather, she resents the gleeful and arrogant way that Tiny acted after the Boss was shot.

Tiny, who had been Willie's lieutenant-governor, is now governor. He tells Jack that all the boys at the Capitol miss him. Further, Tiny wants Jack to work for him. Jack responds, 'You are the stinkingest louse God ever let live.' And he tells Tiny that he has talked to Sadie and so now knows that Tiny killed the Boss just as surely as if he had pulled the trigger himself. Jack leaves, feeling like an avenging hero.

A few days later he receives a notarized statement from Sadie verifying Tiny's action in the Boss's death. She also includes a personal letter to Jack in which she offers some advice. She gives Jack several reasons for not pressing charges against Tiny. For one thing, they won't stand up in court. For another, Tiny does not have the respect of the Party and will not be nominated to run for governor in the next election. And finally, Anne's affair with Willie will become public knowledge, and there is no reason for her to suffer any more. Nevertheless, she says that if Jack persists in being an Eagle Scout, he has her support.

Jack sees the wisdom in her words. Even before her letter arrived, he had reflected on his motives for wanting to kick Tiny around. Tiny's confidence that Jack would work for him spurred Jack's reflection, and he began wondering what kind of image he has been projecting all these years. Now he sees himself to be as much of a political leech as Tiny.

Revolted by his own behavior, Jack sinks back into the despair of the Great Twitch-only this time more severely than before. He is experiencing the realization of loss.

Although Jack does not resort to a Great Sleep this time, he engages in something similar. He sits in his room, doesn't open his mail, and hangs out in the city. He goes to movies, bars, and the public library. One day, in the library, he runs into Sugar-Boy. Sugar-Boy seems to be hanging out, too. With the Boss gone, he doesn't know what to do with himself. But he is still clinging to his ferocious loyalty to Willie. Jack thinks about taking advantage of Sugar-Boy's loyalty. He presents him with a hypothetical question: What if you knew that Adam had been framed so that he would shoot the Boss and you knew who did it--what would you do? Sugar-Boy says that he would kill him, and Jack knows that indeed he would. Also, Jack thinks that, by killing Tiny, Sugar-Boy would perhaps fulfill his reason for existing. But then Jack sees Tiny's face winking at him as if they are brothers of the blood. So, Jack tells Sugar-Boy that he is just kidding. He wishes Sugar-Boy good luck and walks away.


After Jack meets with Sugar-Boy, his need for revenge vanishes but his need to become involved grows. He decides to visit Lucy. She seems fine and asks Jack whether he knows that Tom is dead. He does. Then she shows him a baby, Tom's baby. She has named him Willie Stark, because, she says, 'Willie was a great man.' And she adds, 'I have to believe that.'

Jack realizes that he, too, has to believe that Willie was a great man. By believing in Willie's inherent goodness, Jack can believe in the goodness of other people, including himself. But it also gives him the right to condemn himself. In particular, he is thinking of his relationship to his mother.

His mother calls and asks him to come to Burden's Landing as soon as he can. When he arrives, she tells him that she is leaving her husband, Theodore. She explains that the Judge's death shocked her into realizing that he had been the only man she ever loved. She cannot go on living a lie with Theodore.

Jack walks into the garden and thinks that, by killing his father, perhaps he had saved his mother's soul. Then he thinks that 'all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood.' If so, Jack has paid dearly for his growth in self-knowledge. The cost has been the blood of his three closest friends--the Judge, Adam, and Willie.

Before Jack's mother leaves to get a divorce in Reno, she wants Jack to tell her what he and Judge Irwin talked about that afternoon before the Judge killed himself. Jack tells her that the Judge talked mostly about his failing health. As her train pulls away, he wonders whether he lied to protect himself or to protect his mother. He decides that his lie had been his going-away present to her, perhaps even a kind of wedding present. In a sense, Jack's mother and the Judge have had a spiritual reunion.

And Jack's mother gave him a present. She gave him back the past and filled in the empty spot in his heart. For years he had condemned her as a heartless woman who amused herself with a parade of husbands. He even felt that she used him. And he hated himself for being both attracted to and repelled by her. Now, however, he understands that she loved deeply and continues to love deeply the man who was his father, Judge Irwin. Now Jack has a past he can embrace, and he feels at peace.

That evening Jack visits Anne. He shares with her the story of his mother and Judge Irwin. And together, Jack and Anne share the wisdom of time that you must accept the past, because out of the past you make the future. That night Jack sleeps in his father's house. And not long thereafter, he and Anne live there together as man and wife.

NOTE: Jack's new perspective on life grew out of tragedy and is nurtured by an awareness of 'the awful responsibility of time.' Jack has learned the most by reflecting on the deaths of Adam and Willie. Adam was a man of high ideals who did not really belong to this world. On the other hand, Willie was a man of fact, a man who got things done. One man thought that goodness is an idea valuable for its own sake; the other thought that nothing is valuable until it is a realized fact. In the end, they were doomed to destroy each other.

Jack took lessons from both of them. In a sense, he is a blend of the two. But to say that ignores the complexity of Jack's character. In Chapter 9, Jack compares himself with Willie. He suggests that he is an intellectual who sees history with detachment, while Willie is a man who makes history. Before the assassination, Jack was indeed a detached, cynical intellectual, who believed in the moral neutrality of the Great Twitch. But now he has come down into the real world and is heading 'out of history into history.'

After Jack and Anne are married, the Scholarly Attorney lives with them. He is very sick and will soon die. Yet, he occasionally has the energy to dictate to Anne or Jack material for his religious pamphlets. And Jack is writing, too. He is writing a book on the life of Cass Mastern. When the old man dies and Jack's book is finished, Anne and Jack plan to leave Burden's Landing. And here the novel ends. But as Jack said earlier, no story is ever over.


The poetry, the fiction, and even the critical essays of Robert Penn Warren form a highly unified and consistent body of work. But it would be impossible to reduce it, without distorting simplifications, to some thesis about human life. The work is not tailored to fit a thesis. In the best sense, it is inductive: it explores the human situation and tests against the fullness of human experience our various abstract statements about it. But Warren has his characteristic themes. He is constantly concerned with the meaning of the past and the need for one to accept the past if he is to live meaningfully in the present. In this concern there are resemblances to Faulkner, though Warren's treatment is his own. Again, there are resemblances to W. B. Yeats in Warren's almost obsessive concern to grasp the truth so that 'all is redeemed / In knowledge.'

-Cleanth Brooks, The Hidden God, 1963


Richard Gray has asserted that All the King's Men is typically Southern in its concern with the way past and present are inextricably linked. That is certainly a central theme of the novel, but that is precisely the problem: its generality. Surely all sorts of works in modernist literature are organized around this theme without thereby making them uniquely Southern.

Thus in All the King's Men, and in most of Warren's fiction, the South serves as a setting rather than a theme itself. More important, Warren's dominant concern in All the King's Men is less an evaluation of the collective Southern past than, first, an exploration of the problem of power and political insurgency and, second, of self-definition and identity.

-Richard H. King, A Southern Renaissance, 1980


The point at which to get a grasp on the technique of All the King's Men is the narrative of Jack Burden, for the basic observation about the form of the novel is simply that it consists entirely of a story related by a created character who has observed and participated in the action that makes it up. It is Burden's supposed recollection of past events from a present time, but the attempt throughout (with the exception of the Cass Mastern chapter, occasional remarks of a sentence or two, and the final few pages) is to represent the consciousness of Jack Burden as it was at each past moment rendered, not to exhibit the past as interpreted through a viewpoint achieved in the fictional present. These moments range over his whole earlier life, and thus his narrative constitutes in one sense the autobiography of a mind.

-Neal Woodruff, Jr., in All the King's Men:

A Symposium, ed. Fred A. Sochatoff, 1957


Stanton's decision to assassinate Willie, whom he knows only as an abstraction, characterizes the objective scientist in him. To Stanton, Willie is a cancer, not a human being. The doctor's temporary substitution of 'pure force' for 'pure idea,' therefore, is no reversal since both positions are remote from the human median. What Adam's action does allow, however, is the double irony of a man's being killed by his favorite weapon at the very moment he has decided to lay it aside--a dramatic assertion of the penalties attendant on evil self-willed. Although Willie dies ignorant of Adam's motives and perhaps of his own, yet when he insists on his deathbed that life could have been different he is accepting the notion that his will has always been to some degree free and that he can be blamed or credited to that extent for actions now formally his. In this manner he attempts to rescue identity, to prevent himself from being reduced to mere function in a mechanical universe.

-Leonard Casper, Robert Penn Warren, 1960


Man as well as history, Warren believes, has a dark and evil side, for his nature is depraved. Warren sees man as both good and bad, a coiling, confused darkness of motives which no one can completely understand. This enormous complexity of motives and hidden desires is one reason why we can never fully understand history, which consists as much of the actions of men as of non-human forces. Then, too, Warren believes that man must understand and accept his own individual evil nature before he can formulate values from history and his own past without merely flattering his own black and hidden needs. The nature of man's self consequently limits his ability to make sense of the past, both its human and non-human aspects, and self-understanding is a prerequisite of a right relationship to history. And since man's acts are to Warren the most important part of history, his views on the nature of the self are directly relevant to a study of his philosophy of history.

-L. Hugh Moore, Jr., Robert Penn Warren and History, 1970


What of the book's political morality? It was a pity that the reviewers regarded All the King's Men as primarily another life of Huey Long to be compared with the other lives of Long and not with the other works of Warren. It must be obvious by now, if my account of the book is half-way accurate, that it is not a political treatise about Long or anything else. Like Proud Flesh, it is another study of Warren's constant theme: self-knowledge. Nevertheless, it has political implications--and we will understand them correctly if we see them within the broader frame. Indeed, to say that we must see politics within a broader frame--the frame being morality and human life in general--is precisely Warren's thesis. Willie Stark, Adam Stanton, and Tiny Duffy are wrong politically because they are wrong humanly.

-Eric Bentley, 'The Meaning of Robert Penn Warren's Novels,'

Kenyon Review, 1948


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