All the King's Men

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All the King's Men
Robert Penn Warren

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Critics greeted the August 1946 publication of All the King's Men with immediate high praise. Diana Trilling in the Nation proclaimed it "a very remarkable piece of novel-writing," adding, "I doubt indeed whether it can be matched in American fiction." Two years later, Walter Allen, reviewing the novel's British release in The New Statesman & Nation called it "a very formidable attempt at a novel on the grand scale."

On a very basic level, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men can be identified as a roman à clef, a novel in which real persons appear as fictional characters. Readers recognized the novel's demagogic southern governor, Willie Stark, as similar to Huey P. Long, "the Kingfish," former governor of Louisiana and that state's U. S. senator in the mid-1930s. Jack Burden, right-hand man to Governor Stark, narrates the novel, recounting the rise and fall of his boss. Willie starts as an idealistic young lawyer, committed to helping the "little guy," but evolves into a politician whose power hinges on the numerous shady deals he makes to carry out his vision of what government should be doing.

But multiple generations of readers can testify that All the King's Men is much more than merely a political or historical novel. Jack's story parallels Willie's; he is a young man struggling to understand who he is and what he believes in. His and Willie's personal transformations rise above the mere retelling of a political tragedy.

If there was any doubt as to the novel's ongoing influence, in 1996, Joe Klein, under the name Anonymous, published Primary Colors, a novel based on Bill Clinton's political rise and machinations. The novel was deeply influenced by Warren's All the King's Men.

Author Biography

Robert Penn Warren is best known for his 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men, chronicling the rise and fall of Willie Stark, the powerful governor of a southern state. Although Warren continually denied the connection, most critics agree that the novel is a thinly disguised telling of the life story of Huey P. Long, the populist governor of Louisiana during the 1930s. Like Stark, Long was assassinated in 1935 by a physician although the real-life assassin had fuzzier motives than the fictional Dr. Adam Stanton has when he murders Stark in the state capital.

Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, on April 24, 1905, Warren grew up in the southern agricultural tradition and was nurtured in oral history and poetry by his maternal grandfather. Warren planned to become a naval officer and was accepted into the United States Naval Academy, but an injury to his eye kept him from attending. Instead, he went to Vanderbilt University in 1921 to study chemical engineering. Within a matter of weeks he realized he was much more interested in literature and history. His freshman English teacher, fellow southerner John Crowe Ransom, invited him to join the Fugitives, a group that met to discuss American social issues and literature—quite an honor for someone so young. Even though he received a degree from Vanderbilt in 1925 and went on to attend other prestigious educational institutions, Warren reported that he always considered this experience with the Fugitives to be a critical part of his education, fueling his interest in poetry, critical theory, and the struggle of southern agrarian traditions against the cultural clout of the industrial North.

Warren received a master's degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1927 and attended Yale and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In 1929, he published his first book, the nonfiction John Brown: The Making of a Martyr. He began teaching English at the Louisiana State University in 1934. While teaching in Baton Rouge, Warren had a front-row view of the political machinations of Governor Long. During this time, he also co-founded the literary journal Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks and Charles Pipkin. The journal espoused the New Criticism, which argues for an analytic reading of a text and for appreciating the text on its own, independent of external information.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Warren and Brooks collaborated on a series of influential books on the New Criticism, including An Approach to Literature and Understanding Poetry. Warren went on to teach at the University of Minnesota and Yale University.

As a poet, playwright, critic, teacher, and novelist, Warren probably won more prizes and honors than any other American writer. He is the only person to have won a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry and enjoyed a large amount of both critical and commercial success. In 1986, the Library of Congress named Warren the first Poet Laureate of the United States. Warren died of cancer on September 15, 1989, in Stratton, Vermont.

Plot Summary

Chapter One

When All the King's Men opens, it is the summer of 1936, but Jack Burden is telling the story of himself and Willie Stark from the vantage point of 1939. Sugar-Boy is driving Governor Willie Stark, his son and his wife, and his assistants Jack Burden, Sadie Burke, and Tiny Duffy to Stark's father's farm outside Mason City, a medium-sized town in the southern United States. They stop in Mason City, where Willie and the others go into a drugstore for a soft drink. From the behavior of the customers and those who work in the store, and from the fact that there is a huge picture of Governor Stark there, he clearly is very well known and well liked among these people.

Willie and the group continue to Willie's widowed father's farm. Willie and the group have come here primarily to take some poignant photographs of Willie at his boyhood home. Sadie, the governor's secretary, alerts Willie and Jack that Judge Irwin has reneged on a promise to support Willie's preferred candidate for the U. S. Senate. After dinner, Willie and Jack drive to Burden's Landing, Judge Irwin's home, as well as Jack's childhood home, to pay a call on the judge. The judge is an old friend of Jack's family, and Jack cautions his boss that the judge does not scare easily.

Willie demands to know why the judge has changed his backing to Callahan, the man running against Willie's candidate, Masters. After Willie vaguely threatens Judge Irwin, the judge tells Willie and Jack to leave. Willie demands that Jack find some dirt on the judge, however long it takes.

The chapter ends with Jack, in 1939, reflecting on what has happened since the summer of 1936. Masters won the Senate race, but he is now dead. Jack's friend, Adam, is also dead, and Jack indicates that he did get some dirt on the judge.

Chapter Two

It is 1922, and Jack is writing for the Chronicle and travels to Mason City to find out about a school construction scandal. Willie is the county treasurer, and he is trying to get the people of the county to see that the county commissioners are scheming to give the construction contract to J. H. Moore, a company that has come in with the highest bid but has ties to one of the county commissioners. Willie has reasons to believe that the bricks J. H. Moore will use are substandard. The commissioners argue that the company with the low bid is unacceptable because it will bring in blacks to do the work at low pay, taking jobs away from whites. Lucy, Willie's wife, loses her teaching job, and Willie loses the next election for county treasurer. He goes back to helping his father on their farm and studying for the bar exam.

Two years later, three children die and a number are crippled when the fire escape pulls away from the brick siding of the school house. Willie's earlier warnings are remembered, and he becomes a hero in the county. Willie is drafted to run in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but doesn't realize that he is part of Joe Harrison's campaign plot to siphon rural votes from a third candidate, Sam MacMurfee. Jack is assigned by his newspaper to cover Willie's campaign.

Willie is a terrible campaigner because his speeches are about the technical details of his ideas for a new tax code. Sadie Burke, who has been secretly assigned to monitor Willie's campaign for Harrison, finally can't stand that Willie is so naïve, so she tells him all about the scheme. Willie is angry and gets drunk for the first time. Jack helps him make a campaign barbecue the next day, at which he tells the voters how he has been duped. The crowd loves his "I am a hick, just like you" speech. He drops out of the campaign, backs MacMurfee, and swears that he will be back.

In 1930, Willie runs in the Democratic primary again and goes on to win the governorship. Jack resigns from the newspaper because he doesn't feel good about using his column to support the other candidate, which the paper's management has been pressuring him to do. Willie calls him and offers him a job.

Chapter Three

The year is 1933. Jack shares more about his childhood and family. He takes some time off and returns to Burden's Landing to visit his mother. They go to Judge Irwin's house for dinner, where a conversation about Governor Stark begins among the guests. The guests complain that he has "taxed this state half to death," but Judge Irwin responds that government must provide more services now than in the past. When Jack speaks about his boss, the guests are stunned because they see that he actually believes in Stark.

Back at work, Jack walks in on the governor berating Byram White, the state's auditor, for attempting to scam the state out of some money. Willie has agreed to fix it for Byram so that he is not impeached, but this means he will be beholden to Willie for the rest of his life. Willie blackmails the legislators who want to prosecute White (and take Willie down with him). Hugh Miller, Willie's attorney general, resigns over this matter. Lucy becomes even more estranged from Willie and eventually moves out of the governor's mansion. In 1934, Willie runs again and wins by a huge majority.

Chapter Four

Jack remembers the visit he and the governor paid to Judge Irwin in the middle of the night and the demand Willie made, concerning Jack digging up some dirt on Irwin. This particular effort to uncover a man's past is Jack's second such historical excursion. The first took place when Jack was in graduate school when he took a year or more to read and write about the journal of his Great Uncle Cass Mastern, who died in the Civil War. Jack receives the journal from another relative and ends up using it as the basis for his doctoral dissertation in history. Jack never finishes the dissertation but falls into one of his depressive states, which he calls the Great Sleep. The weight of his ancestor's history weighs heavily on Jack's mind, and he still feels the evil and shame of slavery.

Chapter Five

Jack, after months and months of research and travel and talking to many people, does find the skeleton in Judge Irwin's closet. He starts by figuring out when the judge was in need of money and follows the trail to when the judge was the state attorney general under Governor Stanton (Anne and Adam's father). He discovers that the American Electric Power Company bribed the judge with a high paying position after he left public service, to dismiss a case against another energy company associated with American Electric. When American Electric gave Irwin the position and the salary, it fired the current employee in that job, Mortimer Littlepaugh. Littlepaugh went to Governor Stanton to tell him about the scheme, but the governor would not listen to him. Soon after, Mortimer fell from a hotel window and died. But, his sister still has the suicide letter Mortimer wrote her, outlining the entire episode. In March of 1937, Jack finds the sister and the letter.

Chapter Six

While Jack is researching the skeletons in Judge Irwin's closet, between the summer of 1936 and the spring of 1937, a number of things happen. One is that Tiny Duffy is annoying Willie by suggesting that the construction contract for the new Willie Stark Hospital go to Gummy Larson, a contractor in MacMurfee's district. The hospital, in fact, is occupying a majority of Willie's time and energy, and he intends for it to be the biggest and best free hospital in the world. Willie asks Jack to get Adam Stanton to serve as the hospital's director. Jack asks Adam, but Adam refuses. Anne tells Jack that she really wants Adam to accept the governor's offer. Jack is surprised because, after all, the Stanton family has never been particularly fond of Governor Stark. Jack decides to tell Anne that Judge Irwin took a bribe and that her father was mixed up in it.

A few days later, Anne calls Jack and demands to see the papers that connect her father to the bribery incident. He gives them to her, and she returns them after about a week, noting that she has shown them to Adam and that he has agreed to take the job as director of the Willie Stark Hospital. Later, Jack begins to wonder how Anne knew about the hospital director's job being offered to Adam. He finds out from Sadie that Anne is Willie's mistress. Jack is stunned and goes to see Anne, who admits to the affair.

Chapter Seven

The shock of imagining Anne as Willie's mistress provokes Jack to leave town for about eight days, to drive west to Long Beach, California. He imagines that the West is "the end of History" and where you go "when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered." Along the drive, he sees a "home movie" in his mind of his life, mostly featuring Anne. He remembers most the summer that he came home from college and realized that he was in love with the seventeen-year-old Anne. Eventually, in Jack's memories, they drift apart. Jack leaves graduate school, gets a job at the newspaper, and marries Lois. Anne goes to college for a couple of years, returns to Burden's Landing, and becomes engaged a number of times. The relationships never result in marriage. Lois and Jack's marriage ends in divorce. After sleeping in a Long Beach hotel for a few days, Jack drives back home.

Chapter Eight

After his drive to the West Coast, Jack returns home refreshed, seemingly a changed man. A man hired by MacMurfee comes to Adam's apartment to pressure him to give the hospital construction contract to Larson. This enrages him, and he writes a letter to Willie resigning his position but does not mail it. Anne asks Jack to get Adam to remain the director. Through some fast talking, Jack is successful, and Adam tears up the resignation letter. Anne also mentions to Jack that she loves Willie, and that he intends to marry her after he runs for the U. S. Senate the following year.

Another crisis ensues when Tom apparently gets a girl, Sibyl Frey, pregnant. The girl's father lives in MacMurfee's district. MacMurfee says that he will help Tom get out of the problem if Willie supports him for the Senate race the following year; but Willie is planning to run himself. Willie asks Jack if he was able to get any dirt on Judge Irwin because he thinks he can force the judge to put some pressure on his friend MacMurfee about this incident. Jack replies that before he tells Willie any of what he's found, he needs to speak with the judge.

Jack goes to Burden's Landing to talk to the judge about the bribery, but the judge acts as though he isn't worried and sends Jack away. Later that day, Jack and his mother get a phone call that the judge has shot himself. This is when Jack discovers that the judge was his real father.

Chapter Nine

Willie decides that the only way to deal with MacMurfee is to give the hospital construction contract to Larson—in effect, buying out Larson so that MacMurfee will help him appease Sibyl's father.

Tom is quarterbacking an important game and is injured. At the hospital, the doctors realize that his injuries are severe, and he may be paralyzed for life. Adam, with Willie's consent, operates on Tom in hopes of repairing the damage to his spine. But Tom's spinal cord has been crushed, and the prognosis is complete paralysis.

When Willie gets back to the office a couple of days later, there are indications that the injury to his son has made him see things in a different light. To begin with, he takes the hospital contract away from Larson and demands that Tiny tell Larson this news.

Anne is frantic because Adam has found out about her and Willie; she believes that her relationship with the governor is why he is the new hospital director. She pleads with Jack to search the town for him. She also tells Jack that Willie is breaking it off with her and going back to Lucy.

Jack eventually finds Adam, looking ragged and tired, at the Capital. Adam, feeling that his sister has been debased by being the governor's mistress, quickly shoots Willie, and Sugar-Boy responds by shooting and killing Adam. Willie lives for a few days in the hospital, then dies. Thousands of people from the country and the city throng the funeral.

Chapter Ten

Jack asks Anne if she knows who called Adam and told him about Anne and Willie's relationship. She says no. Jack returns to town to look for Sadie, one of the few people who knew about Anne and Willie. He discovers that she has checked herself into a sanatorium.

Sadie admits that she told Tiny Duffy to call Adam because she was jealous of Willie's affair with Adam's sister, Anne. She now regrets setting the entire tragedy in motion. But, she remembers that Duffy wasn't so horrified by the result because Willie's death advanced him from lieutenant governor to governor. It is implied that Duffy knew his actions might lead to Willie's death. Jack and Sadie hatch a plan to go after Duffy. Duffy offers Jack a job in his administration, but Jack refuses it.

The next time Jack sees Sugar-Boy, he considers telling him of Duffy's role in Willie's death, hoping that Sugar-Boy will kill Duffy. He decides not to do this. As well, he decides not to go after Duffy because that would mean that Anne and Willie's affair would be made public.

Tom eventually dies of pneumonia associated with his paralysis. Jack goes to see Lucy and discovers that she has adopted Sibyl's child, believing it to be Tom's child, too. Jack eventually moves back to Burden's Landing, to Judge Irwin's house, which he has inherited, and marries Anne.


Ellis Burden

Ellis is Jack's father. He was formerly a well-respected and wealthy attorney from Burden's Landing but left his family to become a missionary in the slums. He spouts religious rhetoric, and the few times Jack visits him, Jack does not understand anything about his father or why he left the family.

Jack Burden

Jack is the first-person narrator of the novel. He is the only son of a well-to-do family in Burden's Landing, named for his relatives. Jack begins his career as a journalist working for the Chronicle but quits after he refuses to write a column in support of Sam MacMurfee's gubernatorial campaign. Eventually, he works as Willie Stark's hatchet man.

Jack's mother is astounded that Jack works for Willie, and on numerous occasions she tells Jack that any one of their well-placed friends would be happy to find him another job. Jack always refuses because he takes some pride in having made his own way throughout his adult life. When his mother expresses disappointment that he wants to attend the local state university instead of an East Coast college, he becomes angry and sarcastic toward her, finally telling her that he doesn't need her money.

Jack has a very subdued personality and has periods of depression. He refers to these as "Great Sleeps"; he sleeps a lot and doesn't leave the house much. He falls into one of these episodes in school when he is about to finish his doctoral degree and again after he leaves the newspaper.

Jack is not a very companionable man and appears to have little social life. His closest friends as an adult are still his former childhood playmates, Anne and Adam Stanton, the children of one of the state's past governors. Jack and Anne fell in love when he was twenty-one and she was seventeen, but for most of his adult life Anne has not returned Jack's interest in her.

Although he doesn't see him often, Jack has a special relationship with the family friend, Judge Irwin. When Jack was a child, he and the judge worked together on building military models. Jack is very aware of the judge's exemplary military service and respects him greatly for this. Jack could not get into the army because of bad feet.

Lois Burden

Lois Burden (her maiden name is Seager) is Jack's ex-wife. He leaves her because of her intellectual dullness, despite the fact that they are physically attracted to each other.

Sadie Burke

Sadie is Willie's secretary and occasionally his lover. She begins the story as an assistant to Joe Harrison when he is running for governor but is the one who breaks it to Willie that he has been taken for a sucker, having been encouraged to run in the primary to siphon off votes from Harrison's main opponent.

Sadie is not a beautiful woman but is very sharp. The indication is that she has pulled herself up from very impoverished beginnings and has made something of her life by her smarts and her willingness to work hard. Jack finds her moderately attractive and is impressed by her political savvy and her toughness.

Count Covelli

Count Covelli is Jack's mother's second husband. She meets him in Europe on one of her trips. He is handsome and rides horses well, but apparently abuses Jack's mother. She eventually divorces him.

Tiny Duffy

Tiny is first seen as a campaign aide to Joe Harrison and is involved in tricking Willie into running in the Democratic primary to siphon votes off Harrison's opponent, MacMurfee. Despite this history, Tiny later works as an assistant to Willie and serves as his lieutenant governor. When Jack asks him why he keeps Tiny around, Willie answers, "'When they come to you talking sweet, you better not listen to anything they say. I don't aim to forget that.'"

Media Adaptations

  • In 1949, Columbia Pictures released a film based on All the King's Men and having the same title. It stars Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, and Mercedes McCambridge. It won the 1950 Oscar for Best Picture and garnered other Oscar awards and nominations. The movie is available on videotape.
  • The novel was adapted for television as an opera by Carlisle Floyd and entitled Willie Stark.
  • Adrian Hall adapted the novel for his play All the King's Men, presented by the Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, Rhode Island, in April 1987.

Sibyl Frey

Sibyl gets pregnant and claims that Tom Stark is the father. She and her father live in the fourth district, MacMurfee's power base, and this event sets off another struggle between Willie and MacMurfee.

Joe Harrison

Joe Harrison is a candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. His aides execute a scheme that encourages Willie to run in the primary. His political bases are the urban areas of the state.

Judge Montague Irwin

Judge Irwin is a long-time family friend of the Burdens and lives near Jack's family home in Burden's Landing. He is well educated, a decorated World War I hero, and a political enemy of Willie Stark. Willie is angered when the judge switches his backing from Willie's preferred senate candidate to another candidate, and when the judge doesn't back down, Willie tells Jack to find any dirt he can on the judge. The judge cannot understand why Jack works for Willie.

Jack has a special relationship with the judge and has childhood memories of the two of them playing with models of military equipment and plotting the movements of ancient battles. When Jack finds out about a bribe the judge took twenty-five years previously, he holds onto the information until he can show it to the judge.

Gummy Larson

Tiny wants Gummy Larson to receive the construction contract for the new Willie Stark Hospital, but Willie will hear none of it. Larson is a powerful businessman in the fourth district, which is run by Willie's enemy, MacMurfee.

Mortimer Littlepaugh

Mortimer Littlepaugh is the vice president and counsel for the American Electric Power Company until he is asked to leave to make room for Judge Irwin. He kills himself and leaves a suicide letter incriminating Judge Irwin and ex-governor Stanton.

Sam MacMurfee

MacMurfee is a candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. His political base is in the rural areas of the state, and Willie is unwittingly brought in by Joe Harrison's campaign to siphon off votes from MacMurfee. Willie discovers this and steps out of the primary, swinging his support to MacMurfee. MacMurfee wins the primary and the election. He is governor until Willie wins the next election but remains a constant thorn in Willie's side.

Hugh Miller

Hugh Miller is attorney general under Governor Willie Stark. He was chosen early in Willie's career as a good person to have around because he is a war hero, was educated at Harvard, and has "clean hands and a pure heart." Eventually he resigns over Stark's unethical behavior in the Byram White incident.

Mrs. Murrell

Mrs. Murrell is Jack Burden's mother. She is an attractive woman in her mid-fifties and is now married to Theodore Murrell, her third husband. She comes from a modest background in rural Arkansas, where Ellis Burden met her and brought her back to Burden's Landing to make her his wife. Mrs. Murrell appears to want only the best for her son and is puzzled by his lack of interest in money and social position. His job with Willie Stark is beyond her, and she continues to suggest that various family friends could help him find other work.

Theodore Murrell

Theodore Murrell is Jack's mother's current husband. He is younger than she is, blond, and handsome. Jack refers to him as the "Young Executive."

Sugar-Boy O'Sheean

Sugar-Boy is Willie's driver while he is governor. He is a reckless driver, taking huge risks with the lives of his passengers by driving well over the speed limit and by passing slow-moving vehicles in the face of oncoming vehicles on the highway. Sugar-Boy carries a .38 special and stutters. Even though he does not appear to be very bright, Willie trusts him to be around when Willie is involved in private conversations. Sugar-Boy received this name because of his fondness for eating sugar cubes.

Dolph Pillsbury

Dolph is the Mason County Commission chairman who helps Willie get into his first political position as county treasurer. He and Willie are at odds, though, when Willie gets wind of a crooked scheme in which Pillsbury is involved.

Sen-Sen Puckett

Sen-Sen is an aide to Joe Harrison's gubernatorial campaign and is credited with probably being the one who thought up the scheme that had Willie running in the primary. He and Sadie date, but not seriously. He gets his name from chewing Sen-Sen mints to keep his breath fresh.

Adam Stanton

Adam is a childhood friend of Jack, the brother of Anne Stanton, and the son of ex-governor Stanton. He is a surgeon and does much of his work for free. He lives in a small apartment where the only valuable piece of furniture is a piano, and he has never married. Jack is able to convince Adam to accept Willie's offer to become the director of the new Willie Stark Hospital, even though Adam does not like the way Willie does business. In the end, Adam murders Willie and is in turn shot to death by Willie's driver, Sugar-Boy.

Anne Stanton

Anne is a childhood friend of Jack, the sister of Adam Stanton, and the daughter of ex-governor Stanton. She is tall and slender. She has never married. Jack was once in love with her and has attempted to date her but is always rebuffed. Anne becomes Willie's mistress. She hides this from Adam and Jack, but they eventually discover it. She does charity work with the underprivileged and sick and seeks to open a children's home.

Lucy Stark

Lucy Stark is Willie's wife. She believes deeply in Willie when he begins in politics but wishes that he would stay in Mason County, practicing law and helping on his father's farm.

Warren draws Lucy as a conservative character who does not drink and behaves very properly. She and Willie have one child, Tom. Willie worries that Lucy is turning Tom into a "momma's boy" because he studies a lot and makes good grades.

Lucy stands by Willie throughout much of the turmoil of his political career and through his womanizing, but eventually she leaves him. Lucy travels to Florida for her "health." When she returns, she moves to her sister's place in the country. Even after that, Lucy occasionally comes to town to attend special events at Willie's side, to keep up appearances for Willie's political career.

Old Man Stark

Old Man Stark ("Pappy") is Willie Stark's father. He is a widower living on the family farm, a very modest property that Willie is improving in small ways, such as by adding a water pump.

Tom Stark

Tom is Lucy and Willie's only child. He is a well-behaved and studious child, but Warren indicates that he has some underlying anger and sullenness. He is a star football player for his high school team. Tom seems to be aware of the increasing tension between his mother and father as Willie's career progresses. When Willie runs home to tell his wife about a rally in his support, Tom appears in front of Lucy's locked bedroom door and tells his father that she does not wish to be disturbed. As he gets to be a teenager, he becomes surly and argumentative and also realizes that he is blessed with great athletic ability.

Willie Stark

Willie Stark ("Boss") is the state governor, elected in 1930. He began his political career in the early 1920s as the county treasurer for Mason County. Willie was raised on a farm, and his political style is grassroots.

Willie's introduction to politics exposed both his sincere desire to help the "little guy" and his naiveté. Willie unsuccessfully tried to warn Mason County voters about their corrupt county commissioners' scheme to buy defective bricks for a schoolhouse project. The schoolhouse was built, but two years later, the school's fire escape collapsed, resulting in the deaths of three children. After that, Willie became a hero in the county.

Willie practices law in Mason City until a group asks him to run in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Unbeknownst to Willie, Joe Harrison's campaign is using him to draw rural votes from Sam MacMurfee, another candidate in the Democratic primary. Eventually, Sadie and Jack tell Willie of this scheme. He angrily exposes the entire ruse to the voters, drops out of the race to support MacMurfee, and successfully captures the governor's mansion in the next election.

Willie is a brilliant politician and knows how to manage both his friends and his enemies to his advantage. He is ruthless but desperately wants to do good and have the love of the voters. Willie ends up making some sneaky deals, offering bribes, and threatening his enemies with exposure but believes that the good coming from all of this bad is the price he and others must pay for a government that helps the "little guy."

Byram White

Byram White is the state auditor while Willie is governor. Willie catches him trying to set up an illegal scheme to get rich and, instead of allowing him to be impeached, creates a situation where Byram's job is saved, but he owes Willie his career and his life. To do this, Willie digs up dirt on the group in the state legislature that is going after White and blackmails them. Willie's attorney general quits over this affair, and his wife becomes even more alienated from him.



An overarching theme in All the King's Men is history and how it affects the present. Structurally, the entire novel can be viewed as the history of Willie Stark's political rise and fall, mimicking in many ways the rise and fall of the real-life southern governor Huey P. Long. Willie uses his associates' personal histories to get them to do his bidding. He believes that all people have something in their past that they do not want known.

Warren places the history of Jack Burden's search for identity and maturity alongside Willie's history. Burden studied history in college and wrote about an ancestor's journal in his abandoned doctoral dissertation; the excerpts of Cass Mastern's journal add yet another layer of history to the novel. In fact, Jack is a repository for histories. Some are secret histories, such as Anne's information about her affair with Willie, and some are not-so-secret histories, such as Cass Mastern's journal.

When Jack has had enough of political machinations, he leaves town and drives to the West, where, he imagines, there is no history—or at least history does not matter and a person can start again without a past.

Finally, when Jack comes to terms with his life and his own past at the end of the novel, he states that he and Anne will "go out of the house and into the convulsion of the world, out of history and into history and the awful responsibility of Time."

Political Power and Corruption

The novel tracks the career of Willie Stark, an absolute expert on wielding political power and achieving what he wants done. Willie receives his baptism by fire into the brotherhood of politicians as an unwitting part of Joe Harrison's scheme to cheat Sam MacMurfee out of the rural vote in a gubernatorial primary. Before he is told of the scheme, Willie is an earnest, if naïve, public servant, traveling throughout the state giving dry but factual campaign speeches. He is motivated by the desire to do good for the little people in the state. The knowledge that he has been duped lights a fire under him, and he gives a speech that makes people realize he has potential as a politician.

When Willie becomes governor, he does not lose the desire to help the voters, but he has acquired the savvy about how that must be done. He now believes that in the world of politics the ends justify the means, and he does everything possible to make sure that his vision succeeds, no matter the cost. Willie believes that sometimes bad things must be done before good can be accomplished and that "goodness" is made out of "badness" because there isn't anything else to make it out of. During a rally in chapter six, Willie tells the supportive crowd, "Your will is my strength," and "Your need is my Justice."

While Willie will swing a contract a certain way to get something accomplished, he feels less comfortable buying out an adversary and more comfortable having that person indebted to him. When he is forced to give the new Willie Stark Hospital construction contract to Larson because his son has most likely made a girl pregnant, Willie gets drunk and shouts, "They made me do it." Says Tiny Duffy in chapter five, "He'd rather bust a man than buy him." There is little illicit exchange of money in Willie Stark's administration and much exchange of secret information. As Jack says in chapter eight, "knowledge is power."


Even though he is the son of a prominent family, Jack Burden suffers from a lack of bonds; he feels no strong connection with anything or anyone. He wants nothing to do with his supposed father, the attorney-turned-missionary, and he feels no warmth for his mother. He has no network of friends outside of work. Anne and Adam are his only social contacts, and they are friends from childhood. His attempt to consummate his relationship with Anne fails until the very end of the novel, and he cannot finish his dissertation, primarily because to complete these things would be to make a commitment or shoulder an obligation.

Jack's living arrangements are spartan and noncommittal; he lives in a residential hotel with very few personal items. When Jack finds the real world, as he has constructed it, too much, he retreats into one of his Great Sleeps.

When Jack begins to work for Governor Stark, he is someone who views the passing world from cars and trains. He wonders about the men and women he sees from his position on the road but never wades into the fray. Even before he is on the governor's staff, Jack almost effortlessly performs the duties of a newspaper reporter, researching and investigating but never becoming emotionally involved in a story. When he goes to Mason City for the first time to investigate the story about the school house contract, his technique for getting information out of the old men who hang out on the bench in front of the harness shop is to slide in and out of their conversation, nearly undetected.

Jack's ability to conduct research on Willie's enemies and think about how the information might be used makes him invaluable. Even when investigating the background of his close family friend, Judge Irwin, he pursues his goal with a kind of relentless and cold fervor, never imagining the impact of the fruits of his labors.

Duty and Responsibility

Jack's search for who he is and what he believes occupies a large portion of the novel. While he is telling the story of how Willie Stark became the governor, he is also telling the story of how he changed from a man with no connections with the world around him into someone who can begin to take some responsibility for his actions.

Jack begins to understand how his choices affect those around him after Judge Irwin's suicide. The shock of the judge's death as well as the discovery that the man was his biological father force him to see that the choices he makes have results; he also comes to understand that he must learn to deal with those results. As he watches the effects of his actions, he also sees the effects of others' actions for the first time; in chapter nine, Jack reminds Willie that his son Tom's indiscretions have forced Willie to have to deal with Larson. Further, Jack sees Tiny and Sadie's personal resentments against Willie snowball into a scheme that results in Willie's death. But after all the blood and violence of the novel's final pages, Jack rejects the easy opportunity to set in motion yet another killing, realizing the responsibility that would be on his hands if he said but a few simple words to Sugar-Boy.

By the end of the story, Jack has begun to understand that he is an undeniable part of history and that he must take responsibility for who he is and what he does. Toward this end, Jack takes in Ellis Burden, marries Anne, and tries to honorably dispose of the money he inherits from Judge Irwin's estate.

Topics for Further Study

  • All the King's Men was made into a movie in 1949. If you were making a new movie of the novel, what actors would star in your version? Would you change anything about the place or time of the novel in your movie? What theme song would you use and who would perform it? Write a "pitch" for your movie that answers these questions and urges a studio to finance your film.
  • Would you like to have a job like the job Jack Burden does for Governor Willie Stark? Write an opinion essay that answers this question and gives reasons for your opinion.
  • Politics in All the King's Men is filled with bribery and schemes and secret deals. Do you think that politics today is similar or different? Explain your answer in an essay.
  • Do research to learn about Huey P. Long. Compare and contrast Long and Willie Stark, presenting your findings in a graphic organizer, such as a Venn diagram or a two-column table with the headings Same and Different.
  • Jack observes a frontal lobe surgery late in the novel. Learn about these surgeries and why they were used for treating mental illnesses. Are they still being done today? Present your findings in a research report.



The character of Jack Burden tells the story of All the King's Men from his point of view. While most of Jack's narration is first person, Warren occasionally switches Jack's narration to third per-son. In those few cases, the narrator is put at a greater distance from the story and the action, as if Jack is speaking about someone other than himself.

Chapter four includes an instance of Jack speaking of himself in the third person. Jack is telling about a time when his mother came to the university to visit him in his apartment, a filthy, rundown flat he shared with two other students. Upon leaving the apartment, Jack's mother asked him why he lived in such a place, to which he responded: "'It's what I'm built for, I reckon.'" Another incidence appears at the end of chapter one, when Jack alters his name slightly, creating even more distance between the action and the narrator. When Willie, the "Boss," asks Jack to find dirt in Judge Irwin's past, and to make it stick, Jack says, almost to himself, "Little Jackie made it stick, all right."

Repetition of Words and Phrases

When an author repeats particular words or phrases, he or she is usually alerting the reader to pay attention to these passages. Warren does this on several occasions, including when Jack suggests to Willie that the judge might not have any skeletons in his closet. Willie responds in chapters one, four, and five each time with: "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."

Sometimes, an author may repeat a phrase simply because of the way it sounds. In chapter seven, when Jack remembers Anne as a seventeen-year-old, he remembers her with a "tight-muscled, soft-fleshed, golden-shouldered body." The words and the beat they produce are repeated again in the paragraph following this sentence.


When a story is told through a single first-person narrator, that narrator has the power to tell facts and events in any order he or she chooses. In All the King's Men, Jack tells the story of Willie Stark from the vantage point of 1939 so he has had time to think about how the story should be told, what information he wants to release, and when he will release that information for the maximum effect. This provides Jack with an almost omniscient view, and allows him to foreshadow certain events. In chapter one, Jack provides a list of people who will be dead three years later, including Willie and Adam, but doesn't give any information about how or why. And when Willie offers Jack a job that he can't quite define, Willie says, "Something will turn up." Jack remembers from his vantage point of 1939, almost with a wink, "He was right about that."


Warren spent much of his writing life as a poet, and his rich use of imagery is apparent in the prose of All the King's Men. One tool he uses frequently is the simile, comparing one thing with another using words such as like or as. Throughout Jack's narration, similes give a broader understanding of an event or moment. In chapter two, Jack is watching Tiny Duffy fall off a stage and describes Tiny as having "a face which was like a surprised custard pie with a hole scooped out of the middle of the meringue." Many of Warren's similes compare a human feature, such as a face or a voice, to an inanimate thing. Some are brief, but many cover several lines, such as the one comparing a house to a middle-aged woman in chapter eight. As well, Warren uses similes when expressing difficult concepts. Describing how Cass Mastern sees interconnectedness of events, Warren explains:

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.


Jack often uses sarcasm when he feels threatened or has been taken off his guard and wants to appear in control. When Anne tells Jack that she has had lunch with Willie, he hides his shock by responding, "Your frock, my dear—what frock did you wear? And flowers? Did you drink champagne cocktails?" Jack also is sarcastic with Ellis Burden, and with some of Willie's assistants. He is even sarcastic about his own situation as Willie's hatchet man. When Jack is searching for information on Judge Irwin for Willie, he goes to Anne. She wants to know who is interested in Judge Irwin, and Jack answers, belittling himself and his position, "It is a pal wants to know. He is my best pal. He hands it to me on the first of the month."

Historical Context

Louisiana Politics and Huey P. Long

The Populist Movement, which espoused increased powers for the farmer and the working man, swept through a large part of the post-Civil War South but failed to find a foothold in Louisiana, thanks to the entrenched wealthy interests that had historically governed Louisiana: Standard Oil, the banks, the railroads, and rich landowners. Average citizens struggled along, sending their children to poorly supported schools over unpaved, pot-holed roads. Many were sharecroppers, who didn't own their own land and who barely made enough money to buy seeds for the next year's crop.

Huey P. Long, the widely acknowledged model for Willie Stark, began his life in politics by winning a position on the state railroad commission. He promptly set up that position as a bully pulpit from which he attacked Standard Oil. He accused the corporate giant of influencing the state government in its favor, making him a hero of the "little people," who felt left out of the prosperity many in Louisiana enjoyed. In 1923, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the governorship, lacking the usual big-money support a candidate would attract in that state. In 1928, he came back to win, supported by a huge majority. Long's impassioned speeches and vibrantly written pamphlets attracted those who felt it was time for a change.

Compare & Contrast

A huge dust storm, described by some as a "Black Blizzard," strikes Kansas in 1934. For the next six years, farmers in the Midwest and Southwest struggle to grow crops and raise livestock in a terrain that is nearly stripped of topsoil and suffers from high temperatures and little rain. Hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners move to California, hoping for a better life.

Today: Some experts worry that the increasing temperatures and reduced rainfall in parts of the United States have increased the risk of severe drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains numerous assistance programs to help victims of drought, and the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a Drought Information Center.
The American Hospital Association creates the Blue Cross plan for hospital costs in 1933, which leads to the Blue Shield program in 1939. In 1938, a national health conference emphasizes the need for a national health program. In 1939, supporters introduce a bill in Congress incorporating the report's recommendations, but it fails to pass the House. Willie Stark's opinion that access to health care is a basic right is still considered radical.

Today: More than forty-two million Americans are without health insurance, and the issue continues to be one of the most hotly debated topics in the public arena.
The glamorous world depicted by Hollywood is cited as an important morale-booster during the Great Depression. A groundbreaking film starring Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz, opens in 1939. In the novel, Jack Burden goes to the movies to escape his psychological depressions.

Today: The movie industry still provides an escape from personal and societal problems. Some organizations and individuals, however, voice concerns that movies are increasingly brutal and have spurred violence at schools and other public places.

The tension between the group of wealthy landowners who had ruled Louisiana for a hundred or more years and Long's supporters forms the backdrop for the relationship between Willie Stark and Anne Stanton in the novel. Anne's family was a part of the elite ruling class, and her father had served as governor. Willie stood for clearing out the ruling elite and spreading their wealth through increased taxes. Their affair would have been a scandal not only because Willie was a married man but because of the taboo associated with members of these two classes associating with each other.

As governor, Long instituted a series of programs to benefit what he saw as the majority of Louisiana citizens, who had never enjoyed any representation in their state government. These included public works programs (for bridges, roads, schools, airports, and municipal buildings) that expressed the optimism of a new period. To pay for all of this, he increased the taxes on the smaller and wealthier portion of Louisianans who did not vote for him. His attempt to impose a tax on Standard Oil resulted in an effort to impeach him. This failed, and he emerged from the fight stronger and more popular than ever.

In 1930, Long was elected to the United States Senate, but he still firmly held the reins of power in Louisiana for some time to come. In fact, the Long family controlled state politics in Louisiana until 1960. Long's heavy-handed tactics to achieve his goals and visions were legendary, but apparently Long felt that he had to employ such means to accomplish his goals.

The Dust Bowl

On April 14, 1934, after months of intense drought, extremely high temperatures, and nonstop winds, huge dark dust clouds blotted out the sun in western Kansas. Over the next few days, the clouds of dust sped south and west toward Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, and New Mexico, eventually covering more than three hundred thousand square miles. But the dust storms affected more than just these central and western states; between May 10 and 12, 1934, about twelve million tons of soil fell on Chicago, and a dust cloud covered the entire East Coast.

In the areas referred to as the Dust Bowl, agriculture slowed significantly or stopped completely. Temperatures remained above one hundred degrees for weeks on end. The winds from additional dust storms cut down stalks of wheat and covered crops still in the fields waiting to be harvested. As farmers lost their crops, loans became due, and banks foreclosed on many properties and families. More than 350,000 people, often referred to as Okies, left the Dust Bowl for California and what they hoped was a better life.

Unfortunately, California was not the land of milk and honey as so many had hoped. Images from Hollywood films had given the migrants the impression of a golden land where they could make a new start. As in the novel, many who fled to California eventually returned to their homes in the Midwest.

By 1939, heavy rains and efforts by President Roosevelt's administration had reduced the Dust Bowl area from a high of more than eight million acres to a bit over one million acres.

The Great Depression

Within two years of the stock market crash of 1929, economic depression was worldwide. In the United States, unemployment soared from a pre-crash rate of just over three percent to more than twenty-five percent in 1933. The drop in the gross national product (the amount of goods and services produced in a year) by 1933 sent that index to levels not seen in twenty years. Why this happened was a mystery, as there were plenty of men lined up to work while factories stayed shuttered and dark. There had been no war or natural disaster, and yet there were stories of men in the Pacific Northwest setting forest fires just to be hired to extinguish them. Young men wandered the country searching for any kind of work, and families lived in small shantytowns called Hoovervilles (after Herbert Hoover, the president at the time of the crash) on the outskirts of the cities. The suicide rate rose thirty percent between 1928 and 1930. Farmers began dumping or holding back their products to protest the low prices they were receiving. The dust storms in the Midwest also contributed to the depression.

Eventually, through various government efforts, signs of a recovery began to appear in 1937. Huey P. Long, the model for Willie Stark, led a movement that pushed for a dramatic redistribution of wealth through taxes and other programs. But the economy showed mixed signals until after 1939, when the United States began increasing its military spending in anticipation of World War II.

African Americans in the 1930s

The language used in the novel to describe African Americans—specifically the use of the word "nigger"—reflected common practice in the 1930s southern United States. Blacks in the South found movie theaters, water fountains, hotels, restaurants, and swimming pools either off limits or restricted in their use by blacks. In many states, African Americans were kept from voting through a number of techniques including poll taxes and literacy tests. Jim Crow laws (legislation separating the races) in many southern states relegated blacks legally to second-class status. Lynchings of innocent blacks were not uncommon.

But there were signs that the times were changing. Roosevelt appointed blacks to positions in the administration of the New Deal programs and nominated the first African-American federal judge, William Hastie. In 1939, African-American author James Baldwin published Native Son, and the book became an immediate hit. African Americans suffered disproportionately from the depression but took steps to help their communities through the economic downturn. For example, in New York, Harlem residents led the "Don't Shop Where You Can't Work" campaign.

Critical Overview

By the time All the King's Men was published in 1946, Robert Penn Warren was a highly respected writer, probably better known for his poetry and criticism than for fiction. But this novel firmly placed him on the fiction map, especially with laudatory reviews such as the one written by Diana Trilling in the Nation:

For sheer virtuosity, for the sustained drive of its prose, for the speed and the evenness of its pacing, for its precision of language, its genius of colloquialism, I doubt indeed whether it can be matched in American fiction.

And while critics and readers received the novel with generally high praise, Richard Luckett in The Spectator notes that the book caused a fuss upon its release because Willie Stark bore a great resemblance to the audacious and powerful Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, assassinated eleven years prior. Long evoked either adoration or abhorrence, and Warren's attempt to write about him in "a fairly sympathetic manner caused him to be branded a fascist" by some, according to Luckett. Critic R. Gray, in the Journal of American Studies, notes that these commentators attacked Warren for squelching some of Long's less pleasant activities for the sake of his tale, asking "how can this ever be defended?" Trilling, too, questions whether Warren properly exposed the evil behind a powerful and corrupt politician, noting, "it is in fact difficult not to infer from Mr. Warren's novel that Willie Stark's absolute power is justified by such public benefactions as the fine hospital he builds."

According to Gray, most critics have approached the novel either by taking issue with Warren's accuracy in recounting the story behind Huey Long or by analyzing the book's symbols and images. As well, Gray notes that many critics have attempted to study the novel outside of its obvious historical references, focusing entirely on the author's fictional skills and thereby paying tribute to the school of New Criticism, or formalism, to which Warren ascribed early in his career. This school of criticism argues for an analytic reading of a text and for appreciating the text on its own, independent of external information.

But the very fact that the novel has remained on bookshelves for more than a half century makes any analysis or criticism based on history a moot point, according to Joseph Blotner in the foreword to the book's fiftieth anniversary edition:

Its early classification as just another violent roman à clef has faded as the years have distanced it from Huey Long, and the private and public—the global—violence of this century has shown it to be realistic rather than melodramatic.

According to Blotner, the novel "has a firm moral basis and philosophical implications" and goes well beyond merely being one more historical or political novel.

One interesting anomaly appears when looking over the differences between the American and English reviews of the novel before the 1970s. Eng-lish publishers originally released the book without its fourth chapter, the one that covers Jack Burden's telling of Cass Mastern's journal and the part it played in his incomplete doctoral dissertation. Not until the mid-1970s did the book appear in England with the deleted chapter restored. Luckett explains this bit of surgery as a symptom of the times, when publishers (on both sides of the Atlantic, he argues) "had strong views on what national audiences would or would not take." Jonathan S. Cullick, in Studies in American Fiction, argues, however, "We might question whether the narrative of Stark would even exist had Burden not read Mastern's journal, because it is from that journal that Burden learns to place himself in history." So, this editing of the English edition might explain Walter Allen's review in 1948 in The New Statesman & Nation. While generally positive, Allen does comment that Jack Burden's character "will probably be something of a problem for the English reader," unable to reconcile the tough talk of Burden the newspaperman and the historical awareness of Burden the scholar. But the American educator Leslie Fiedler, in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, makes a similar complaint about Burden's language, commenting that one of the problems of the novel lies in the fact that "its hysterical rhetoric had to be disguised as the tough-guy patter of Jack Burden."

As well, much has been made of how Jack Burden deals with history. Cullick writes, "As Burden discovers his connection to history, he becomes less detached as a narrator, surrendering his pose of objectivity." The younger Burden feels alienated from his family and world, but this defense mechanism falls away as he learns more about how his actions have an effect on his surroundings. And the more Burden learns about history, according to Cullick, through both Cass Mastern's journal and the historical work he does for Willie Stark, the more he must "correct his false assumption that he can remain neutral." Philip Dubuisson Castille, in The Southern Literary Journal, also notes that only by acknowledging his past, especially his supposed father, Ellis Burden, can Burden come to terms with being an adult and throw off feelings of inadequacy and failure spawned by his sexual underperformance with Anne. "After half a lifetime of feeling inadequate and seething in shame and spite, Jack can at last claim an adult identity as a committed husband and perhaps, in time, a father."

Ultimately, All the King's Men has survived the half century since its original publication because it is a book that tackles issues well beyond the purely historic. According to Blotner, the novel's lessons that "means can contaminate ends, no matter how idealistically inspired, and evasion of responsibility can prove fatal" are messages that exceed the limits of literature fixed in time.


Susan Sanderson

Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, she examines how Warren's novel can be viewed as a story of Jack Burden overcoming three father figures in his life to emerge from the story closer to being an adult and less detached from the world.

Jack Burden's value as a character in All the King's Men goes well beyond his usefulness as narrator and recorder of Willie Stark's political rise and fall. Woven through Jack's description of Willie's machinations is his own chronicle of interior thoughts and dreams. The novel serves as a record not only of a politician's downfall but also of the emotional and ethical maturation of a man who has been unable to complete the steps toward adulthood despite being close to forty years old. Jack's success in coming to grips with his three father figures—Willie Stark, Judge Irwin, and Ellis Burden—opens the way for him to become more involved in the world.

When Jack begins telling the story, he views the world from a safe distance. This distance allows him to feel superior and detached from humanity, protects him from messy commitments, and, as well, puts him in a position to display the sarcasm he so often does. When he and Willie and the others drive to Mason City that summer day in 1936, Jack is literally along for the ride, squished in the back seat like a child. As the car gets closer to Old Man Stark's farm, Jack looks out the car window and imagines the people inside the houses he is passing in the car. "She listens to the flies cruising around the room, and then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance," he thinks, painting an image of his coming and going without much of an impact.

This image is repeated throughout the early part of the novel. One evening before Willie is elected governor, Jack's connection with the world is through the thick glass of a train window. He sees a woman standing in her backyard, and as the train pulls away he thinks, "She'll stay there. And all at once, you think that you are the one who is running away." Moments later he sees a cow through the window and becomes sad. "And all at once you feel like crying. But the train is going fast and almost immediately whatever you feel is taken away from you, too." Jack's shaky relationship with the world is as fragile as a young child's, whose emotions can be fleeting.

When Jack is faced with a real, live human being, even one he knows well, his response is hardly that of someone who has emerged from adolescence. While leaning against a fence in chapter one, he hears someone walk toward him but does not turn around to see who it is:

If I didn't look around it would not be true that someone had opened the gate…. I had got hold of that principle out of a book when I was in college, and I had hung onto it for grim death…. It does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn't real anyway.

Jack's response here is similar to that of a child who hides his head or closes his eyes and believes that if he can't see something, it doesn't exist. And such philosophies serve him well as Willie's chief investigator and hatchet man. Jack views his job simply as being Willie's errand boy and doesn't believe that his actions have any impact on the world around him. His choices and actions mean nothing, and that is how he would have it. He doesn't see any complicity on his part in finding out about Judge Irwin's bribe-taking twenty-five years in the past, even though he accepted Willie's assignment to find the dirt and pursued it with some relish. When Anne is upset at learning about the bribe and her father's part in it, Jack's response has all the sensitivity expected in someone who hasn't reached maturity: "I only told her the truth … and she can't blame me for the truth!"

Jack's relationships with women are like those of a teenage boy, and he hasn't a clue about how to act around women. He feels absolutely no warmth for his mother, and while he thinks she is an attractive woman, he considers her unearthly, "something which was so precious that it couldn't be tied down to God's green globe." He condemns his father for walking out on his mother but, at the same time, speaks of her as if she always has something up her sleeve. His and Anne's relationship is stagnant, stalled out nearly twenty years previous when Jack couldn't make love to her. After his love for Anne fails to progress, Jack marries Lois, a rich girl whose only attraction seemed to be that they were great in bed together. In chapter seven, he thinks of her, remembering that "as long as I hadn't begun to notice that the sounds she made were words, there was no harm in her and no harm in the really extraordinary pleasure she could provide." The distance he feels from people and from women especially is revealed in his frustrated comment that Anne and Lois are exactly alike and, in fact, there are no differences among any women.

As well, Jack's behavior when making decisions about school and a career is positively Peter Pan-like; he doesn't want to grow up. Annoyed when Anne asks him what he might do after college, he blurts out "law school," even though he has absolutely no interest in it. After attending law school briefly, he takes great glee in getting kicked out. He re-enrolls at the university as a history graduate student, works at that for quite some time, but then one day begins one of the three periods he calls the Great Sleep. Not wanting to make any decision or take any action, Jack sleeps for twelve or more hours a day, days on end, not doing much of anything else. While these Great Sleep periods are no doubt extreme bouts of depression, Jack's tendency to revert into a womb-like place when life demands action or choice reaffirms his pre-adult stage throughout more than half of the novel.

Yet, by the end of the novel, Jack has married Anne, accepted responsibility for Judge Irwin's death, come to terms with his mother, and taken in his sick father—a man whom he long avoided and despised for being weak and foolish. What happens to bring about this change?

Before Jack can put himself on the road to becoming an adult, he must come to terms with the three father figures in his life: Willie Stark, Judge Irwin, and Ellis Burden. Willie is a man of action, something Jack always condemned Ellis Burden, whom he thought was his father, for not being. Jack believes that Ellis left his mother because he couldn't give her what she wanted or needed. Judge Irwin was always around when Jack was a child, both before and after Ellis left the family, and Jack has fond memories of spending time playing with the judge. Jack discovers after the judge's suicide that he is his biological father.

Like many tragic heroes of myth and literature, Jack must overcome each of his "fathers" before he can consider himself a full-fledged adult and member of the community. And it is an incident involving Willie that helps Jack see where he stands. Jack's discovery of Anne and Willie's affair begins to make him aware that even his inactions have consequences. While on a sudden car trip to the West Coast prompted by the shock of the affair, Jack remembers the events and choices nearly twenty years prior that ended his relationship with Anne. Even though he drives to the West, into a land "at the end of History," the trip forces him to come to grips with the fact that his lack of decisive actions has handed Anne over to Willie.

Jack sees a change in Willie in the few days between Tom's injury and Willie's assassination, and learns from it. Willie's last words to Jack, whom he no doubt loved, are, "It might have been all different, Jack," referring to possibilities of choice. In the scheme of Jack's maturation, Willie must die. With Willie alive, Jack might have continued as Willie's errand boy, avoiding responsibility and watching life from the sidelines. But soon after Willie dies, Jack gets a chance to make a decision and to understand the ramifications of that choice when he decides not to tell Sugar-Boy about Tiny's part in Willie's death. Thinking back on that incident, Jack says to himself, "But there was a difference now, in my own mind if not the circumstances of my life."

And as it was necessary for Willie to die so that Jack could grow, Judge Irwin's death fulfills a similar role. Even though Jack's story does not completely mesh with the ancient tale of Oedipus (he does not mistakenly marry his mother), enough similarities exist to warrant some mention. In fact, as with Oedipus' discovery about the identity of his father, Jack does not discover that Judge Irwin is his father until after the man's death, when Jack's mother begins to scream, "Your father and oh! you, killed him." But the result is the same; the father moves out of the way so that the son may fulfill his own role in the world. As well, the judge's death allows Jack to see the relationship between act and consequence; Jack's information about the bribery sets the wheels in motion that culminate in the judge's suicide. Jack's epiphany about these consequences comes at the end of chapter eight when, after laughing at the irony that he is the sole heir to Judge Irwin's estate, he discovers that he is really weeping "and saying over and over again, 'The poor old bugger, the poor old bugger.' It was like the ice breaking up after a long winter. And the winter had been long." A change is taking place in Jack.

After Willie's assassination and Judge Irwin's suicide, Jack is well on his way to seeing that living his life as a child has consequences he does not want. Acceptance of Ellis Burden, the man he believed to be his father for nearly forty years, is one of Jack's last acts signifying his exit from childhood. Jack's mother, with whom he comes to some resolution, precipitates Jack's acknowledgment and forgiveness of Ellis. "My mother gave me back the past. I could now accept the past which I had before felt was tainted and horrible," says Jack.

When Jack accepts Ellis into his house, his transformation into adulthood is complete. He realizes that the story all along has not only been Willie's but his own:

It is the story of a man who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way. The change did not happen all at once…. There was, in fact, a time when he came to believe that nobody had any responsibility for anything.

But now, Jack Burden knows that to be untrue. He and Anne will leave Burden's Landing, the home of two of his fathers. They will return but not to either father's house, he swears. With that step, Jack, who at the beginning of the novel surveyed the world through car and train windows, embraces the world.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on All the King's Men, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

James H. Justus

In the following essay, Justus examines Warren's inspiration and intent in All the King's Men, calling it "in the most explicit way a fictional ordering of events and motifs crucial to Warren's maturity."


Warren reports that he "stumbled" into the writing of fiction when he was at Oxford, where he sought to put down on paper some of the "tales" he had once talked about with his friend Paul Rosenfeld. "Fiction was for me," he remembers, "a way of reliving life that I was separate from—3,000 miles away from." Those oral tales became "Prime Leaf," and this early version of Night Rider reflected the imaginative "reliving," not of narrative lines (whose literal events occurred about the time Warren was born), but of the human circumstances of the action readily available to the amalgamating memory of a young Rhodes Scholar: people whose characteristic principles and behavior were recognizably human because they were first true to the place that nurtured them. If poetry is what Warren calls "a more direct way of trying to know the self, to make sense of experience—freer from place" than fiction, both modes are imaginatively generated from "an observed fact of life," which then invites an "ethical issue" that will invest the fact with significance. From "Prime Leaf" onward, Warren's fiction reveals the double predilection of a writer who imposes ethical patterns on the felt life of a place he is separate from.

By the time All the King's Men appeared in 1946, Warren had already explored the hardy theme of the conflict between the public and private self, the actual and the ideal, commitment and disengagement—primarily by concentrating on the uses of political power. In both Night Rider and At Heaven's Gate he had tried to transform relatively abstract embodiments of power (the tobacco growers' association in one, Bogan Murdock in the other) into particularized, sensuously immediate politicians whose motives and acts are set in a context of rich circumstantiality.

That brand of circumstantiality is most decisively apparent in his third novel, in which Warren was able to give credible life to a political organization, as he was not able to do in Night Rider, and to a flesh-and-blood political boss, which he was not able to do in At Heaven's Gate. Warren's tenure at Louisiana State University (1934–1942) encompassed both the kinetic atmosphere of Huey Long's awesome and sometimes comic domination of state politics and the corrupting aftermath of the King-fish's assassination. There is no doubt that Warren's residence in Long's Louisiana constitutes the generative base of his most popular novel, and All The King's Men is not merely an extension of the compositional pattern of the "observed fact" and the "ethical issue" which is evident in the first two novels; it is also an intensification of this pattern. Night Rider is the re-creation of events of his father's generational—a collocation of regional history and family legend centering upon the Black Patch Wars; At Heaven's Gate has at its center a fictionalized version of Luke Lea, a Tennessee financier the peak of whose shady career coincided with Warren's undergraduate years at Vanderbilt. All the King's Men, despite its publication date, is in the most explicit way a fictional ordering of events and motifs crucial to Warren's maturity—events transpiring in his day-to-day activities at "Huey Long's university" and motifs of profound relevance to a Great Depression society of which he was still a part. For the first time in his career, that relevance in the actual world of the 1930s—politically, psychologically, philosophically, and culturally—intersects with Warren's most significant aesthetic and moral concerns.

Just as Huey Long was not merely another in the familiar class of southern demagogue, so Willie Stark is given the insight, procedural skill, and innovative intelligence lacking in such real-life demagogues as Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi or "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman of South Carolina. The career of Warren's politician generally follows that of Huey Long, not some conflated history of the southern demagogue. All the King's Men is of course more than this, and it is unsurprising that, faced with so many literalist sensibilities, Warren has always been prompted to deemphasize the convergence of his fiction and modern Louisiana history. His explanation, however, that Long provided him merely with atmosphere or "myth" should not obscure the nature of that convergence.

In addition to the literal pattern of similarity, there is the pragmatic base of end over means in Long which becomes a central philosophic issue in Warren's novel. "You sometimes fight fire with fire," Long is quoted as saying. "The end justifies the means. I would do it some other way if there was time or if it wasn't necessary to do it this way." As recounted in T. Harry Williams' superb biography, certain details about Long's career are also reflected in Warren's account of Stark—Long's practice, for example, of requiring political appointees to sign undated resignations, or the aristocratic conservatives' opposition to most of Long's measures partly because a boor was proposing them. Warren's Sugar-Boy bears a striking resemblance to Joe Messina, Long's devoted but unintelligent bodyguard. Long's matter-of-fact assumption that every man had something in his past worthy of concealing is dramatized in Stark's pungent doctrine of man, and Jack Burden as Stark's chief investigator of opponents' secrets dramatizes Long's well-known practice of keeping a lockbox stuffed with damaging records of and affidavits on potential enemies that could be used when the governor thought it necessary. Warren's fictive economy shows up in the case of Tiny Duffy, a conflated and concentrated example of many figures in Long's retinue. "He liked to break people, especially the strong, and then build them up again," intimates reported of Long; "then they knew their place."

That Willie Stark strongly resembles Louisiana's potlikker tyrannos would be, finally, a contention of little moment were it not for the fact that it simultaneously seems so obvious to so many and so critically disreputable to so many others. Most of the early reviewers made much of the resemblance and waxed moralistically because of it; later critics of All the King's Men have tended to see Huey Long almost as an accidental ingredient in the novel's genesis. Neither position should be ignored, though Warren's entire career, from which perspective we can see a persistent personal engagement with his own past, suggests that the author's Baton Rouge years—coming at the end of the era of Long's hegemony—should not be underestimated in their contribution to what Warren has called "the coiling, interfused forces" that go into literary decisions.

Warren tells us that worrying his politician into shape began in the winter and summer of 1938 in Louisiana and Italy (in a verse drama called Proud Flesh), resumed in the summer of 1940 and in the spring of 1943, and only gradually emerged as the protagonist of All the King's Men. Into this study of a southern demagogue, whose name was changed from Talos to Stark, went not only the example of Huey Long but also Warren's wide reading in Dante, Machiavelli, Elizabethan tragedy, American history, William James, and his observation of the very real day-to-day melodrama of depression in America and fascism in Italy. Like so many American works written in the shadow of World War II, All the King's Men is infused with the theme of power, its distribution, ethics, and consequences.

The urge to dramatize the Willie Stark story was not lessened by the enormous critical and popular response to the novel nor by its author's winning of the Pulitzer Prize. Warren was not yet done with his politician. The tinkering and reshaping of the by now multiversioned drama resulted in numerous theatrical performances, most of them shortlived, from 1946 to 1959. Finally the text of All the King's Men: A Play appeared, presumably in the dramatic form that satisfied Warren. The weaknesses of these versions are apparent: stilted dialogue, old-fashioned artiness in the Eliot manner, abstract moralisms imposed upon the action, belabored polarities too categorically parceled out. But the most obvious reason for the dramatic failures was the generic necessity to deemphasize Jack Burden, the narrator of the novel. This diminishment looms over all, changing all. Burden's transformation from a nearly undifferentiated bystander to chief among the king's men, from mere observer of the spectacle to narrator of and participator in the Willie Stark story, is, as most critics now agree, the peculiar strength of All the King's Men as a novel.


The fleshing out of Burden was from the start, as Warren himself has pointed out, a technical choice. The novel fairly cried out for a more sensitive consciousness than that of the politician whose story had to be told. Call him Ishmael or Carraway, Burden is another in a long line of American narrators who by dint of their special positions in the stories they tell end by telling their own stories as well. The case of Willie Stark readily invited naturalistic treatment, but the "impingement of that material … upon a special temperament" allowed Warren "another perspective than the reportorial one," and it also provided the basis for "some range of style." Both author and narrator finally agree that the story of Willie Stark is also the story of Jack Burden.

Almost alone among the earliest critics, however, Norton Girault was able to see the focus of the novel in the character and sensibility of Burden, in his language of rebirth, in his halting, stumbling movements from ignorance to knowledge. Though the progress from Cousin Willie to Governor Stark may be the tale told in the book, it is Burden's revelation of that progress that is the experience of the book. And revelation in two ways: first, his discovery of the meaning of Stark's rise and fall and of his own identity through these events, and second, his articulation of those meanings in a long I-narration. Perhaps no other modern novel so clearly demonstrates the fact that a happy technical choice alters the very meaning of materials that it must shape.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (1998), edited by John Burt, Warren's literary executor, gathers together every poem Warren ever published, with the exception of "Brother to Dragons."
  • Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men: Three Stage Versions, published in 2000, includes two previously unpublished stage plays that were precursors to the novel, Proud Flesh and Willie Stark: His Rise and Fall, and a dramatic version of the novel that was later published as All the King's Men.
  • Making History: The Biographical Narratives of Robert Penn Warren (2000), by Jonathan S. Cullick, surveys the entire biographical work of Robert Penn Warren.
  • Primary Colors (1996), by Anonymous, is Joe Klein's fictionalized account of Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency in 1992. The story is told through the eyes of Henry Burton, campaign aide to Jack Stanton, a fictional southern governor running for president of the United States.
  • The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck and originally published in 1939, tells the story of the Joad family as they flee the Dust Bowl for California, only to find that hunger, discrimination, and death await them there.

Nothing is more naturally dramatic or susceptible of significance than Willie Stark's story, the hard narrative facts isolated and untouched by a consciousness other than the author's. But both the drama and the meaning of that story are significantly redirected and heightened by having those facts experienced and related by an intervening consciousness. As a man of imagination and intelligence, Burden's own drama is, as James observed of Lambert Strether's, "under stress, the drama of discrimination," the shucking off of first one, then another, alternative to meaning until he sees and in the seeing allows the reader to follow the painful progress to moral awareness. From the desire to remain innocent, to resist the costly maturity of rebirth, Burden moves through even more costly immersions into experience, which he misinterprets and revises until he is forced to acknowledge his portion of evil.

Burden is a most unlikely learner when we meet him. Smug, astute, world-weary, he could almost pass for a New South variety of Conrad's Decoud in Nostromo. But the empty boulevardier, who scribbles his self-regenerative letter in the focus of battle, has pushed a habit of vision to its limits; Burden's memoir is itself the symbol of regeneration, a product of, not an ingredient in, his moral education. Such a memoir is All the King's Men, produced by a man who, after having arrived at a certain stage of self-knowledge, reenacts the costly process. We are constantly aware of growth as something both achieved and being achieved. But however insistent the interweaving of product and process—the necessary impingement of present attitudes on past beliefs and acts—the shaping perspective is that of the educated Jack Burden, the "legal, biological, and perhaps even metaphysical continuator" of the earlier king's man.

Burden's change has sometimes been thought phony or self-deceiving. It is true that Jack Burden is no Cass Mastern; neither is he a Scholarly Attorney. He has nothing of the humility of the first nor the radical spirituality of the latter. But in his learning Burden does achieve a measure of both humility and spirituality. If we are tempted to think of Burden as unchanging because he does not become either a Cass Mastern or a Scholarly Attorney, we might well speculate on the novelistic failure of All the King's Men had Burden's conversion taken on the obsessive coloration of those two figures. One of the thematic constants in Warren's fiction is that single-mindedness of whatever sort destroys human balance; it leads to a warping of man's need for community as well as for personal identity. Hence, the narrator's slower progress. If with his customary brio Burden calls Trollope "Anthony," it is only good craftsmanship to make the new Burden in certain tangible ways consistent with the old. Even the disasters tumbling in profusion about him cannot rout the tendencies of a lifetime—the easy cynicism of the newspaperman grafted onto the floating romanticism of the graduate student.

It is also true that the narrator seems callous in episodes that, upon proper assessment, require sensitivity; and he turns unduly sensitive at times when we would prefer the Hurt Young Man to be less touchy in his garrulity. But we are offended, and properly so, by his on-again, off-again, hard-boiled detective moods interspersed with debilitatingly romantic fancies. Hemingway demonstrated long ago that the modern stoic tough guy hides a sentimental idealist. Warren suggests such a functional split in Burden by vacillations between pretentious philosophizing and wise-guy witticisms. The split in his narrator serves in fact as a trope, compacted and made interior, for the entire novel. If a study of its theme and structure shows any-thing, it is that All the King's Men is one writer's concern about "the terrible division of [our] age," explored not only through explicit antitheses (man of idea/man of fact, means/ends, science/nature) but also through the subtle and pervasive doubling of characters: Stark/Burden, Burden/Duffy, Irwin/Mastern, Stark/Irwin, Stark/Stanton. Burden, with his problems of spiritual integration, is the front-and-center figure within the play of larger, if not more meaningful, antitheses; furthermore, we know him only through a narration that reveals qualities which in actual people we could just as well do without. Tough guys and ersatz philosophers in our own time can be just as tiresome as the efficient housekeepers and virtuous companions of Victorian fiction.

As the twentieth-century wise guy who has put his learning to work for him, Burden must take shape, more imperatively even than Stark, literally through his own words. As public figure, he is in-the-know; as private figure, he seeks to know. His rhetoric, both as narrator and as character, reflects this split, appropriately embodying the strain between Burden as Sam Spade and Burden as Stephen Dedalus. He is alternately garrulous and noncommittal; he is cynically efficient, always prepared to "deliver" or to "make it stick." Privately, he belittles his efficiency, and we become increasingly aware of his real distaste for the particular person he has become. He chides himself frequently, referring to himself in the third person. With cocksure stridency he announces "the curse" of Jack Burden: "he was invulnerable." But even as he talks, he shows how vulnerable he is—to nostalgia, sentimentality, and those tangential events that nudge him into newer versions of himself and reality.

The Burden who remains after the fall of the king is a different person from the king's man; indeed, after those ambivalent and tentative loyalties, he takes a stand similar to Cass Mastern's. Partially responsible for at least three deaths and several lesser disasters, he comes to accept them fully in the "awful responsibility of time." He ends with a healthier respect for flawed humanity, extending to both Judge Irwin and Willie Stark, and with discomfort even sees his connection, spiritual as well as physical, with such a hack as Tiny Duffy. As acting son and stenographer, he cares for the Schol-arly Attorney in his last days; and instead of con-descending toward his marriage-prone mother he shows an admirable if low-keyed compassion. He devotes himself to the long-delayed editorial task of publishing the diary of Cass Mastern. He refuses to say the word to Sugar-Boy that would destroy not only Duffy but Sugar-Boy as well. In marrying Anne Stanton he wins a belated victory over the paralyzing image of purity that he holds of her throughout much of the novel. Perhaps most important, he even hints of his return to active politics in some future administration.

Burden is a conscious artist, scrupulously constructing his story from an open position, manipulating the early versions of himself from his newer one of control, growth, and moral self-evaluation. Although he perceives more at the end than at the beginning of the novel, he is careful in his verbal reconstruction to permit his earlier self full rein to maneuver within those limited terms. If he occasionally sounds hysterical or even absurd, that impression is one that the narrator who reconstructs himself is the first to recognize. Such is the risk that the educated Burden willingly takes to present honestly the learning Burden. Certainly the final position at which he arrives is neither absurd nor hysterical. It is, in fact, a measure of his integrity that he can submit an imperfect image of himself with only such sporadic glossing as "that was the way I argued the case back then."

Burden's rhetoric throughout maintains certain characteristics: wisecracks, fancy metaphors, self-irony, the mingling of the elegant and the colloquial. His general diction and syntax do not change substantially, since the entire story is a memoir of events from 1922 (and occasionally earlier) to 1939, told in the language of the latest stage of his growth. Just as there is no dramatic physical alteration in Burden—he presumably looks much the same in the late 1930s as he did in the early 1920s—so there is no obvious change in the physical shape of his words. The changes in Burden are philosophical and psychological, and the changes in his language are largely tonal. The mature Burden still clings to the wise-guy idiom of his Great Twitch days, but more important is the fact that the tone of that idiom shifts perceptibly. Here is the typical early Burden style:

In a town like Mason City the bench in front of the harness shop is—or was twenty years ago before the concrete slab got laid down—the place where Time gets tangled in its own feet and lies down like an old hound and gives up the struggle. It is a place where you sit down and wait for night to come and arteriosclerosis. It is the place the local undertaker looks at with confidence and thinks he is not going to starve as long as that much work is cut out for him … You sit there among the elder gods, disturbed by no sound except the slight râle of the one who has asthma, and wait for them to lean from the Olympian and sunlit detachment and comment, with their unenvious and foreknowing irony, on the goings-on of the folks who are still snared in the toils of mortal compulsions.

The subject, courthouse characters, is not an unusual one for the narrator at any time; neither is the feeling of bemused superiority which seeps out of his own Olympian syntax and the brash imagery. But if the subject and the observer's clear-eyed view of it do not vary greatly during Burden's education, the tone does. Here is a similar passage from the last chapter: "And I sat for hours in the newspaper room of the public library, the place which like railway stations and missions and public latrines is where the catarrhal old men and bums go and where they sit to thumb the papers which tell about the world in which they live for a certain number of years or to sit and wheeze and stare while the gray rain slides down the big window-panes above them." In his final phase the narrator's wisecracks become muted, the tough line relaxes, the naturalistic observations become a trifle lame, the superiority itself undergoes chastening: all these changes reflect the sadness and near-inertia of an exhausted man.

Warren has said that the key device for making his narrator work satisfactorily was finding his "lingo", and certainly Burden's striking shifts from pretentious philosopher to streetwise pol attest to both his literal position in the narrative and the symbolic self-division of a character whose moral drama claims its own share of our attraction. But there is also a quieter, less intrusive verbal pattern in All the King's Men that is shaped more directly by the author himself than by his narrator. There is, for example, the steady accretion of the contrasting images of ice and water, corresponding to emotional states of, on the one hand, rigidity, stasis, and purity, and on the other, immersion, flowing, drowning. Fixity—psychological and ideological—means protection from the contingence of actuality. Both Adam Stanton and Sugar-Boy are significantly linked by the image of ice: the body-guard stares at Jack in the library "through the last preserving glaze of ice," and Adam's smile is described as "the stab of an icicle through the heart." Primitive purity and lethal innocence find common spiritual ground. Burden's dominant image of Anne is that of "some clean bright and gold leaf" buried in the clear ice of a frozen stream; later that image "breaks up" as in a spring thaw, which then threatens to sweep him under, to engulf him in "the moving stream of time." The thaw of Chapter 6 continues in later chapters as "the full dark stream of the world," "the flow," "the flux," "the current," and "drowning in West."

Such informing images verbally reinforce the narrator's efforts to close his emotional and intellectual gaps. Burden's struggle for spiritual unity is in fact reinforced by every aspect of the larger scheme of the novel. Consider, for example, the title of All the King's Men and its Dantean epigraph. With these juxtaposed elements Warren establishes, anterior to the novel itself, two apparently contradictory positions that suggest the basis of the conflict in Burden's difficult progress to self-knowledge. The title, with its nursery-rhyme allusion, connotes a pattern of thought and behavior dominated by acquiescence to the phenomenal, the factual, the way things are. The factual motif is posited by Stark's own proverb: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." Like older tragic protagonists, Willie Stark falls from the clash of opposing motives. His doubleness cannot be erased; he is now tyrant, now hero, alternately damned and praised. As Burden finally and reluctantly discovers in his Case of the Upright Judge: "There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the bloodstream." And that discovery brings Burden around once again to his kinsman's final vision of "the common guilt of man." These conclusions are further reinforced by the Scholarly Attorney's tract statement that "the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself, and to be separate from God is to be sinful." This pattern, in short, asserts the natural depravity of man, the way—whether he likes it or not—man is.

Against the shattered world of Humpty-Dumpty, Burden comes to juxtapose his own experience in that tragedy and to conclude from it that he has not only been affected by the tragedy but that he has also affected it. As a Student of History, he must accept Cass Mastern's insistence upon personal involvement in the guilt of others; as a student of human nature he must share the blame in an affair that takes the lives of his two best friends and almost wrecks the life of the woman he loves. The deterministic resonance of the title, however, is counterpointed by the fragmentary epigraph from the Purgatorio—Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde. The hope that survives the Stark story may appear more gray than green, but it is hope nevertheless.

Acceptance of the way things are, without hope, may be merely sentimental complacency. As a graduate student Burden had flippantly visualized his future in some junior college "long on Jesus and short on funds" where he would have watched "the slow withering of the green wisp of dream," but later he can find a green wisp in the most basic fact of all: "there were some of us left." Since he halts further bloodshed by a willed silence in his last meeting with Sugar-Boy, survival is earned. He and Anne read Trollope together, uncurious about how equilibriums are changing; caught in a "massive and bemusing tide," they accept that tide's own "pace and time." Acceptance is earned. Seeing the grandson of Stark, Burden agrees with Lucy that she must believe that the Boss had been a great man even though the "greatness and ungreatness" had been so mixed he could not tell them apart. History is neutral, but man, working through history, is not. For all the ruck of irresistible fact that conditions him, man must still exercise his will. There is fact and there is hope. Certain theological and psychological benefits may be gained from accepting the way things are; but whatever his nature man still lives in a defective world with other defective men, and mutual responsibility involves more of his energies than a posture of weary resignation. Picking up the pieces may not put together another king, but the reminder of human fragility may stimulate the survivors to cherish what virtues remain.

These opposing attitudes associated with the factual and the hopeful are established, then, before the novel begins, in its title and epigraph. Within the novel they are developed through the metaphorical possibilities of rest and motion. The way things are, man's depravity, the familiar pattern of failure after great effort: all these suggest rest, the state of certainty, the problem solved, the contest won (or lost). The possibility of hope even in these terms, the perpetual testing of values, the willingness to risk becoming reconciled after grandly repudiating: all these suggest motion, the trying-out of grace, direction if not destination. The confident Burden is the cocky newspaperman who pursues the embarrassing deed out of the past to "make it stick," the cynical observer of the political animals at play, the Student of History who ex-changes without undue upheaval his brassbound Idealism for the positivism of the Great Twitch (and is perfectly certain that in each case he has arrived at Truth, or at least truth). In one of his definitive acts—his flight West—he says, "meaning is never in the event but in the motion through event." This assertion that, for man, "direction is all" is confirmed in his theological parries with the Scholarly Attorney. "Life is motion," Burden repeats several times; "if the object which a man looks at changes constantly so that knowledge of it is constantly untrue and is therefore Non-Knowledge, then Eternal Motion is possible." But these statements of self-assurance come from the king's man; in the end Burden affirms the truth of both rest and motion.

The famous final paragraph of All the King's Men is a capping rhetorical union of these two patterns. With its emphasis on depleted energies, memory, and nostalgia, the emotional associations are with rest; but the syntax and diction suggest motion: to walk down the Row, walk down the beach, diving floats life gently, footfall, we shall move, we shall go out, and go into. The substance of the final paragraph is that even nostalgia will have no easy time of it; even that indulgence "will be a long time from now." The price of seeing things as they are has been high. Burden has seen his two friends, Stark and Stanton, "doomed," but they have also been men of individual will. Thus the burden of Jack Burden is what he learns to bear: man, though he accepts inscrutable providence, cannot luxuriate in inaction because of that surety. The tone of the later Burden cannot be called optimistic. He no longer rests his case in the firmly bound, well-labeled file folders of the private eye. Except for his acknowledgment of man's situation "in the world in which we live from birth to death," he comes to see all other judgments as tentative, judgments that therefore require retesting to be continually relevant.

Our pervasive sense of this work's political context in its largest sense, the great world in which personal values are ratified, extended, distorted, or extinguished, accounts for the special poignancy of the final chapter of All the King's Men, particularly its sliding weariness of nuance that reminds us of the frightful toll that the public life extracts from the individual. The shattering of private lives is the most obvious sign of that toll: in the inner narrative, that of Cass Mastern, his adulterous partner, and the slave Phebe, a physical and moral collapse which images forth the great public issues of slavery, secession, and war; and in the central narrative, the lives of most of Jack Burden's friends who are caught up in the swirling issues of demagoguery, dictatorship, and the political testing of personal loyalties. The sad waste dramatized by the deaths of the governor and the doctor is not completed in that violent moment but is extended through days of anticlimax. Sadie Burke vegetating in the sanitarium, a purposeless Sugar-Boy idling his time away in the public library, Tiny Duffy eagerly assuming the stained mantle of Willie Stark: all become visible analogues for Jack Burden of his potential fate. What is notable about Warren's ethical denouement is that, despite the treacherous impact of public life on private identity, All the King's Men is finally not a preachment against the bruising and corrupting world of politics and the mixed rewards of social reform.

Jack Burden is a most battered man at the end of the novel, yet the most poisonous influence has not been Willie Stark's pragmatic political programs or the sour rankling between the partisans of Mason City and Burden's Landing. Jack Burden suffers most from a sense of self-betrayal. He himself pictures for us how easy it was for him to live with a fuzzy self-definition before there was a public context to his life: his lazy tennis-and-swimming summers with Anne Stanton, his professional drift, his self-indulgent marriage to Lois. Subliminal discontent, however, like a faint toothache, can be tolerated without substantial disruption of the psyche; not so the blatant daily barrage of conflicting principles and loyalties. Burden's victory in coming through the Willie Stark years with self-respect is obviously limited. Salvaging honor in purely personal ways is an understandable resolution to this protagonist's dilemmas, and the most engaging of his acts after the deaths of Stark and Stanton are acts of reclamation in personal relationships: becoming a husband to Anne, serving as stenographer and nurse to Ellis Burden, understanding his mother. Important as they are, however, two other decisions suggest that for Jack Burden the merely personal is not enough for the satisfactory definition of the self: leaving Irwin's house and selling the family property that is now legally his, and his tentative interest in reentering politics, this time under the aegis of the honest Hugh Miller. Both decisions imply that there is no achieved self-definition possible, that it is only process, and that such a process necessarily requires the continued testing of the self in the great world. Thus, like Warren's view of Conrad, the lesson of Jack Burden is the human necessity to go "naked into the pit, again and again, to make the same old struggle for his truth." Like Nostromo, All the King's Men dramatizes "the cost of awareness and the difficulty of virtue …"

If Burden achieves a victory, it is in recognizing that the self must be submitted to motion, that it must act upon the slender green hope in the face of defeat. One of the achievements of Burden's memoir is that it can reveal the victory while simultaneously celebrating the often debilitating movements toward it. While in the tentative rest of the final period the tone of the narrator is less patronizing, less dogmatic, the basic thrust of his rhetoric is the same. Burden as narrator never allows even his guilt, rooted in the magnitude of recent events, to paralyze his ability to tell his own story effectively; and although he reconstructs his own past with as much detachment as he does the whole Stark era, he still bears the personal marks of that ordeal. His name, we can see now, suggests his vital centrality in that general reconstruction. Thematically he bears his past with difficulty, heavy obligation, and great expense. And even the future must be borne. Structurally, and here the musical signification of burden is pertinent, his story carries the "ground" for the more obvious pattern of Stark's story—those obligatory measures in the novel. When Burden permits the learning character to catch up with the narrator who has learned, he admits how tempting it has been to try to shoulder the least painful parts of his burden. He is denied, for instance, the "inexpensive satisfaction in virtue" when, upon trying to give what is left of Irwin's estate to Miss Littlepaugh, he finds she has died.

At the end of All the King's Men, Burden is both his own judge and his own accused who, deprived of many of the intellectual and emotional conditions that he formerly demanded, must now accept his own burden of being man. He is like Bunyan's Christian at the beginning of the journey. But for Jack Burden that journey lies beyond the confines of the novel, beyond 1939, in the "convulsion of the world" where, we may assume, his own travail will be convulsive before his burden can be rolled away.


When All the King's Men appeared in 1946, most readers saw it as a political novel, and most of them were not overly concerned that the fictive testing of its philosophical assumptions resembled spiritual autobiography more than it did fiction by Upton Sinclair (who was still writing his Lanny Budd novels) of John Dos Passos. More serious readers, however, directed us properly and acutely to the moral import of the novel. So successful were they that most of us now tend to regard All the King's Men almost solely as a moral fiction. But its original reception was not wholly misinterpreted; the political base of the novel is firm. I have already suggested that for those readers who do not remember the Huey Long years, T. Harry Williams' definitive biography suggests the revealing parallels of Warren's novel and this historical moment as well as some equally revealing divergences. Despite Warren's own exasperations with having such links pointed out, logic will have its say.

But there is another logic at work, too, one that is both farther reaching in the political implications of the novel and more narrowly relevant to the story of Jack Burden's struggle for moral identity. This logic is located within the novel itself, both what is put in and what is left out. If Jack Burden can at one point muse on the curious and unsettling feeling that he is like God brooding on history (during the impeachment proceedings), it is also true that overall, at all points, Warren is like the historian, another surrogate God, brooding on history.

When Jack writes on the last page, "So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden's Landing," we are suddenly jolted by the specificity of the date (more than a year has passed since Stark's assassination in late 1937). The narrative sequence in the last fourth of the novel requires no such specificity: only the sequence of deaths and their causes are required. After the profusion of losses, Jack and Anne slowly regain their "perilous equilibrium" in the lemon-pale sun of late autumn, reading Trollope, and submitting them-selves to the "enormous drift" of events that knows "its own pace and time." But then the pace and time pick up. Jack's final meeting with Sugar-Boy in the public library occurs in February. In May, Jack goes to see Lucy Stark in the country. In "early summer" he returns to Burden's Landing for a final visit with his mother. When she remarks vaguely that she had originally intended to go to Europe, Jack responds with "You better stay out of Europe … All hell is going to break loose over there and not long either." This seemingly is Warren's only direct allusion to the events that were to crowd and jostle each other until their eruption on September 1, 1939.

Despite the rhetorical dying fall of the last several pages of the novel, despite the exhaustion and weariness that hound Jack Burden in his fragile task of picking up the pieces of at least two shattered lives, the moral note suggested by these pages is a curious compound of wary hope and nostalgia: that is, the text of the novel looks both forward and backward. And in the interstices of the text we can read the larger implications of a regional story of morality and politics.

Although the composition of All the King's Men stretches from at least 1940 to 1945, the action of the novel ends during the year before the first stage of composition. Thus, what is omitted from the story is the convulsion of the world beginning with 1939. Jack Burden stands at the threshold of World War II, but his creator stands at its conclusion. Warren's strategy is a rhetorical one, incorporating within the experience of the novel, as one critic has put it, "the knowledge of a reader who has lived through what it anticipates."

The confused moral principles working them-selves out in such violent ways in a southern state in the 1930s, especially as they are registered on a tortured sensibility, have their louder political resonance in the ideological debates in Europe. In fact the story of Jack Burden, the divided man who after spiritual drift and moral paralysis finally comes to do the right thing, reads like a conflation, a miniaturized history, of the larger political and moral story of the late 1930s. Warren, no less than his contemporary W. H. Auden, knew the truth of what 1939 was like:

  In the nightmare of the dark
  All the dogs of Europe bark,
  And the living nations wait,
  Each sequestered in its hate;

a similar registering can be found in some of Warren's poems contemporaneous with the early composition of the novel and preserved in Selected Poems: 1923–1943. One of the recurring themes in these is echoed in Warren's theory that the man of power is powerful only because he responds to the blank needs of people around him. What is missing in these poems is the explicit man of power (though Fascist leaders lurk in the shadows); what we see instead are the confused and compensatory acts of those cursed with "blanknesses and needs": Harry L., whose "heart bled speed" in a plane; some "whose passionate emptiness and tidal/Lust swayed toward the debris of Madrid"; and still others awash in Europe's greater tidal lust who continue to "sink/To rest in lobbies, or pace gardens where/The slow god crumbles and the fountains prink …" Both the flight to surrogate commitments and the heedless pursuit of transient pleasures are seen as postponements of an inevitable reckoning. For the personae in these early poems, self-confrontation cannot be denied:

  Till you sit alone—which is the beginning of error—
  Behind you the music and lights of the great hotel:
  Solution, perhaps, is public, despair personal,
  But history held to your breath clouds like a mirror.

On the battlefield or on the beaches of fashionable watering places, the spiritual state is the same.

For the narrator of All the King's Men, the Great Sleep and the Great Twitch are psychologically definitive gestures of a man who cherishes his innocence and his spiritual stasis all the more urgently as events nudge him into facing truths about himself and his involvement in those events. Jack Burden's political experiences, no less than his personal ones, turn out to exemplify the truths he would shun. Evasions, feints, and flanking actions are not necessarily easier maneuvers than headlong confrontations; but they are partial, inadequate, and finally dishonest.

Self-confrontation means holding history to your breath; the personae in these early poems and Jack Burden in All the King's Men must admit their participation in history—and thus their responsibility to it. If, as Warren knew, betrayal stained so many lives and careers in a political machine in the South, betrayal on a grander scale, as he knew equally well, was to become the name of diplomacy in all the Mason Cities of western Europe. Behind Warren's sonorous abstractions—"into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time"—are those specific public convulsions that give resonance to and that perhaps are the literal referents of these abstractions: Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France; the Channel War, Dresden, Belsen, Stalingrad. These public eruptions, varied as they were militarily, demonstrate a common fact, the inescapable entanglement of the moral and the political—which is also the inescapable lesson that Jack Burden learns. History is neutral, but man is not. Breathing the very air of depletion, Jack Burden muses on his own lately recognized responsibility; in the retrospection of recent history, Robert Penn Warren suggests that the bouts of European Great Sleeps and European Great Twitches merely postponed the reckoning.

Source: James H. Justus, "All the Burdens of All the King's Men," in The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren, Louisiana State University Press, 1981, pp. 191-206.


Allen, Walter, Review in New Statesman & Nation, Vol. 25, No. 900, June 5, 1948, p. 464.

Blotner, Joseph, Preface to All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1996, pp. vii-x.

Castille, Philip Duboisson, "Spiritual and Sexual Healing in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring 1999, p. 80.

Cullick, Jonathan S., "From 'Jack Burden' to 'I': The Narrator's Transformation in All the King's Men," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 197-211.

Fiedler, Leslie, "Three Notes on Robert Penn Warren," in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, Volume I, Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 33-53.

Gray, R., "The American Novelist and American History: A Revaluation of All the King's Men," in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, December 1972, pp. 297-307.

Luckett, Richard, "Richard Luckett on a Novelist of Fact," in Spectator, Vol. 232, No. 7596, January 26, 1974, p. 106.

Trilling, Diana, "All the King's Men," in Nation, Vol. 163, No. 8, August 1946, p. 220.

Further Reading

Blotner, Joseph L., Robert Penn Warren: A Biography, Random House, 1997.

This work is the first full-scale biography of Robert Penn Warren. The author began this book with Warren's approval and help.

Long, Huey P., Every Man a King: The Autobiography of Huey P. Long, De Capo Press, 1996.

This text is the Louisiana governor's autobiography, originally published in 1933, some say as a piece of campaign material for his hoped-for run at the United States presidency.

Williams, Thomas Harry, Huey Long, Vintage Books, 1981. This extensive biography won a Pulitzer Prize when it was published.