In the closing paragraphs of All the King’s Men, Jack Burden says, “This has been the story of Willie For I have a story. 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” (656). The story of Willie Stark is also the story of Jack Burden. By telling Willie’s story, and by his involvement with Willie, Jack discovers his own story and comes to terms with the meaning of himself. It’s a pattern of continuous return and release—Jack discovers how much akin to Willie he is precisely because he is so much unlike Willie, and so on. They are opposites in character, but also twins. We find similar parallels and connections between many characters--Judge Irwin and Willie, Anne Stanton and Sadie Burke, Judge Irwin and Cass Mastern. Doppelgangers, dualisms, parallels define this 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren.
A few examples: As a graduate student in history, Jack undertakes to study the life of his ancestor Cass Mastern, who betrayed his best friend Duncan Trice by having an affair with his wife Annabelle. When Duncan learns of the affair, he kills himself but before doing so leaves his wedding ring on his wife’s pillow, a sign to her and presumably to Cass that he had learned of the affair. Cass spends the remainder of his life trying to make up for the betrayal of his friend. He discovers his own culpability and corruption and takes action to make up for them. Jack Burden, rather than take action for his disappointments with himself and his family and his assorted failures, gives in to the Big Sleep and the Great Twitch and does nothing. Acting, and failing to act, are of high significance in All the King’s Men.
Judge Irwin’s best friend is Jack Burden’s ersatz father Ellis Burden. Judge Irwin betrays his best friend by an affair with his wife, thereby engendering Jack. In this relationship, Judge Irwin is the doppelganger to Cass, and Ellis the doppelganger to Duncan, but rather than killing himself he leaves his wife and begins to lead a life of piety and service to the poor.
Jack Burden identifies himself as a twin to Tiny Duffy, whom he holds responsible for Willie Stark’s assassination.
These parallels and dualisms, between different characters and places, between the past and the present, between Burden’s Landing and the capital city, provide the structure of the novel. In a sense, they are what the novel is about.
All the King’s Men focuses primarily on the political and personal lives of white Southerners in the first half of the 20th century. Black characters appear in the background but do not hold roles of significance. None of the characters expresses views we would regard as racially enlightened, and all of them freely use the word “nigger” to refer to African Americans. Once again, as in Welty’s The Golden Apples, although this word reflects the abiding racism of the time in which the novel was written, characters do not usually employ it with conscious racist intent. It was simply a commonly available word deemed as acceptable for designating African Americans. People used it without thinking about its racist meaning. It might seem that the novel is not at all concerned with race, that, like Welty’s The Golden Apples, is primarily about the affairs of white people who exist in a deeply racist world.
Two crucial plot points, however, stress the underlying importance of race in the novel. One is the scandal that jumpstarts Willie Stark’s political career. The company that files the lowest bid on the construction of a public school employs black workers. This fact is used by officials of the local county government as a reason for turning down the low bid and awarding the contract to a company that filed a higher bid, a company that also happens to have ties with various politicians who will profit from the work. The use of substandard construction materials leads directly to the school house fire escape collapse that sets the development of Willie’s career in motion. Another major plot point occurs in the story of Cass Mastern. Annabelle Trice becomes aware that her slave Phoebe is aware of her affair with Mastern. She cannot “abide” the fact of what Phoebe knows, so she takes her to another city and sells her at a slave auction. Cass Mastern knows that Phoebe, who is young and light skinned and attractive, will be used in some way as a sex slave, and he tries unsuccessfully to find and buy her back. To expiate his responsibility for what happens to her, and for his betrayal of his friend, he emancipates all his slaves. Race and racism are underlying issues in the world of this novel. Racism is a form of economic discrimination. Willie Stark bases his campaign on correcting the economic injustices that allow a few men to exploit the downtrodden and poverty-stricken citizens of the state. His campaign against economic disparity is a timely reflection of similar political issues in our own time. So is his corruption as a politician. Economic disparity represented through race- and class-based tensions lies at the heart of All the King’s Men.
Despite Jack’s claim that Willie’s story is his story, Willie’s is the more interesting. Jack’s self-preoccupations, his bitterness, the high-toned folk of Burden’s Landing, can grow tiresome. Perhaps Warren himself viewed the story from Burden’s perspective. Thus Jack’s discovery of the imperfect world, of the imperfections in the important people around him, acquires a certain poignancy—this is a discovery Warren portrays in each of his first four novels, and which therefore must have been important to him. It is a theme in his long poem Brother to Dragons, about Thomas Jefferson. But the discovery of corruption, of sin, in the family tree or the parents or wherever is an old one. At times, with all the discussion of sin and time and past and future, Jack’s narration can begin to sound like a Sunday School lesson—tired and tedious. His self-indulgent romanticism, his lack of ambition (as contrasted to Willie’s), his failure to follow through with anything—his study of Cass Mastern, law school, Anne Stanton naked on his bed—make him an exasperating and not necessarily sympathetic soul. Willie’s world is one in which ideals and virtues still exist, but they are not so indistinguishable from the muck and the mud.
Few of us readers have the privilege of having grown up with the wealth and privilege of Burden’s Landing. Most of us grew up in Willie’s world. Moreover, I think it is far easier to understand Willie’s ambitions and the factors that gradually lead to his corruption than it is to understand Jack Burden. Burden, we are asked to believe, is damaged by the failure of his parents’ marriage—by his always unsatisfied mother, by his weak and ultimately absent father. Despite all the privileges he has enjoyed, the wealth of his parents and the influence of the people around him, especially Judge Irwin, it is difficult to understand what goes wrong. Jack’s unhappiness with himself and his world stems from his inability to reconcile the ideals supposedly embodied by Burden’s Landing with the realities of his parents and the real world in which they all live. Jack narrates his own story, and perhaps he lacks the distance, the objective removal from his situation, that would allow him as narrator to provide a clearer sense of the problem. In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, there is no doubt as to the causes of Emma’s malaise, but for Jack those causes remain more abstract than concrete and thus difficult to understand or describe in a specific way. Jack has to insist on his failures too stridently.
I have read All the King’s Men a number of times. Most recently I listed to an audio recording while driving back and forth to work. What I noticed in the recording was the beauty of the novel’s language. It is lush, descriptive, and a major element in the novel. I also noticed the often artificial cynicism of the narrator Jack Burden. Sometimes it’s a bit too much. It contributes to the generally melodramatic atmosphere of the narrative. But in listening to the novel as a recorded experience, you discover how much the novel is a prolonged meditation on the meaning of existence and of self-consciousness and self-awareness. What are the philosophical underpinnings of the novel? Other than the New Testament, and the Calvinism which Jack and Willie both frequently invoke or at least reflect in their musings, I can’t identify the influences and mean to look further into them.The language that is such a profound strength of the novel also seems to be, at times, a weakness. Perhaps in the guise of Jack Burden, Warren (for he is, in the end, responsible for how and what Burden says) is often so caught up in the dense power and lyricism of language that it often may run away with him. Language becomes its own end rather than a means of conveying the story.