Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1049
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 past. Not only did the upright judge once accept a bribe, but he was also protected by the equally immaculate Governor Stanton, father of Adam and Anne, Jack’s dearest childhood friends. Anne had been Jack’s first love.
The career of Willie Stark quickly becomes, to Jack, more than an interesting spectator sport, and his employment becomes more than a convenient job serving a dynamic personality. Burden becomes enmeshed in a complex web of relationships and circumstances that involve his own past, as well as the uneasy present and the dubious future. Burden holds on to his knowledge about the judge until Anne herself asks him to convince her brother Adam, now a celebrated surgeon, that he should accept the directorship of the new medical center that Willie wants to build.
Jack understands that the only way to influence Adam in this respect is to change his mind about the moral nature of the world—to break his conviction that good and evil can be kept separate. How better to achieve this than to reveal that the idealized father and the irreproachable judge were themselves guilty of political crimes?
The bitter knowledge of his father’s expedient compromise with honor has the desired effect on the puritanical Adam. He makes an uneasy alliance with Stark (whom he despises) for the sake of doing good. Stark seems to have made his point—good must be made out of evil, because, he says, that is all there is from which to make it. Even Stark, expedient and pragmatic as he is, has a vision of the hospital, which is to be free to anyone who needs medical service, as an unsullied oasis in a grimy world, a monument of his own submerged idealism. This tension between persons who seem unalterably opposed, yet are drawn to a common purpose, is one of Warren’s favorite devices for revealing the moral ambiguity of human motivations.
Burden, still withholding from Stark the information about Irwin, suffers a profound shock when he learns from Stark’s secretary and sometime mistress that Stark has become Anne Stanton’s lover. Burden precipitously drives out West until he is stopped by the Pacific Ocean. There he drops into what he calls the “Great Sleep,” a neurotic reaction which has afflicted him before—once when he walked out on his Ph.D. studies in history and once when he walked out on his wife.
From the Great Sleep, Jack is born again into a bleak but emotionally insulating belief in the “Great Twitch”—an understanding of the world as completely amoral and mechanistic, wherein nobody has any responsibility for what happens. He returns to his job as if nothing had happened. He hardly hesitates at all when Stark wants to use the evidence against Judge Irwin. Burden’s education in hard reality has only begun, however, and the shell of indifference is irrevocably broken with even more unexpected revelations. It is a lesson in tragedy that involves several families, with Jack Burden, Anne Stanton, and Willie Stark’s faithful wife as survivors.
Quite aside from the dramatic elements of political chicanery, adultery, suicide, and murder that make this an exciting story, the novel suggests a more subtle observation about a symbiotic psychological dependency between people. No one is complete and self-sufficient—not even Anne, though the narrator, Jack, early in the book assumes that she is peculiarly integrated and whole. Anne actually shares with Jack an essential passivity that makes them both feed emotionally on the dynamic energy of Willie Stark. The gravitation of the passive personality to the active man also has its political expression, accounting for the success of the demagogue with his constituency, who feel themselves to be socially and politically helpless.