All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, has sometimes been called the best political novel written in the United States. Nevertheless, its emphasis is on the private psychological roots of action that is played out on a public political stage. The social milieu is authentically drawn, with redneck farmers pitted against entrenched aristocratic families.
Jack Burden is in between the political forces, initially simply a spectator and a reporter from an upper-middle-class background, watching with curiosity and a certain fascination as a man from the farm becomes a self-taught lawyer and moves into politics. Plain-speaking Willie Stark, who hardly looks like a hero, learns to capture an audience of poor dirt farmers and small-town businessmen, in whom he inspires almost fanatical devotion. He is a cunning, hardworking, expedient politician, promising to build roads and bridges in the isolated rural areas and hospitals for the common people.
It is a story of men who do not know themselves. Willie Stark thinks he can use evil means to achieve good ends. Jack Burden tries to avoid guilt by running away from it or simply not seeing it, and he does not recognize his own father and inadvertently kills him. Judge Irwin, representative of the old genteel tradition, literally forgets his original sin. Adam Stanton, the puritan idealist, suddenly casts off all restraints to kill Willie Stark.
Stark attains power partly by understanding and controlling other men. He recruits Jack for his personal staff, partly for his skill in research. Jack’s first task at the outset of their relationship is to “find something” on an old friend of his father, Judge Irwin, who had been like a father to Jack in his younger days. The reason for the investigation is that Judge Irwin has come out for Stark’s opponent in the upcoming election.
Jack pursues this inquiry into Judge Irwin’s background with a curious objectivity, convinced, on one hand, that there can be no hint of wrongdoing in what he calls “the case of the upright judge” and, on the other hand, wondering whether Stark’s assessment of human nature may, after all, be accurate.
Stark’s answer to Jack’s assurances that there could be nothing dishonorable in the background of Judge Irwin is reiterated three times in the novel: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the grave. There is always something.” Burden does, in fact, find “something” in the forgotten...
(The entire section is 1049 words.)
All the King’s Men charts the rise of Willie Stark, a populist political boss based on Huey Long, the Louisiana governor and U.S. senator who was assassinated in 1935. The novel’s real subject, however, is not politics, but the influence of history on personal identity. For Robert Penn Warren, history is the burden of guilt and responsibility that all must bear. The acceptance of guilt and responsibility allows Warren’s characters to know themselves and to take their places in society, while their attempts to assert their innocence and freedom lead only to isolation and a sense that the universe is meaningless.
The real focus of All the King’s Men is not on Stark, but on the narrator, Jack Burden. When the novel opens, Burden is estranged from everyone who has been important to him and uncertain of his role in the world. Having abandoned graduate study in history and a career as a journalist, he works as one of Stark’s henchmen. When ordered to look into the past of Judge Irwin, a longtime friend of Burden’s family, and find something with which Stark can blackmail him, Jack begins an exploration of his own past.
As Burden searches for the flaw in Irwin, he becomes freshly involved in the lives of his childhood friends—Adam Stanton, now a surgeon, and his sister Anne, who was Jack’s first love—and brings them in contact with Stark. Burden is appalled when Anne becomes Stark’s mistress, for he has cherished...
(The entire section is 423 words.)