In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men, the two main characters, Willie Stark and Jack Burden, pay a number of prices to get ahead in the world. Warren’s novel charts Stark’s rise to political power as he becomes the governor of an unidentified southern state. (The novel was inspired by the rise of Huey Long, who became a highly controversial governor and senator in Louisiana from 1928-1935 and who was ultimately assassinated.) Jack Burden, one of Stark’s main assistants, eventually becomes disillusioned with his ambitious and immoral boss.
Willie’s losses include the following:
- the loss of his early values, when he crusaded against political corruption
- the loss of his originally faithful relationship with his wife, since he later takes two mistresses
- the loss of the full health of his son, Tom, who is seriously injured in a football accident
- the loss of Willie’s own life when a doctor whom he had tried to manipulate guns him down in an act of assassination
Jack’s losses include the following:
- the loss of Jack’s early idealism and innocence as he increasingly becomes one of “the king’s men”
- the loss of Jack’s original respect for Willie
- the loss of Jack’s own moral integrity when he agrees to participate in Willie’s efforts to intimidate other people
- the loss of Anne Stanton, a woman to whom Jack is attracted but who eventually becomes Willie’s mistress
- the loss of Jack’s respect for Judge Irwin, who at first had seemed incorruptible but whose early shortcomings Jack discovers at Willie’s behest
- the loss of Judge Irwin himself, who commits suicide when Jack reveals what he has discovered about the judge – a man, it turns out, who was actually Jack’s own father
- the loss of the kinds of friendship Jack eulogizes in one of the novel’s most famous passages, when Jack reflects that the
Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore, speaks a name – Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave – which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger.
In passages such as this one, Jack implies that the process of growing older is often a process of losing the best times, and best friends, of our lives.