BARRON'S BOOK NOTES (tm) on CD-ROM Windows (tm) Ver. 2.0
All the King's Men Robert Penn Warren
ROBERT PENN WARREN'S
ALL THE KING'S MEN
by Jane Yarbrough
University of Wisconsin Center- Marinette
Murray Bromberg, Principal,
Wang High School of Queens, Holliswood, New York
Past President, High School Principals Association of New York City
Our thanks to Milton Katz and Julius Liebb for their contribution to
the Book Notes series.
(C) Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text (C) Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
SECTION............................ SEARCH ON
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES............................. WALLAUTH
The Plot............................................. WALLPLOT
The Characters....................................... WALLCHAR
Point of View................................... WALLVIEW
Form and Structure.............................. WALLFORM
THE STORY............................................ WALLSTOR
A STEP BEYOND
Tests and Answers.................................... WALLTEST
Term Paper Ideas and other Topics for Writing........ WALLTERM
The Critics.......................................... WALLCRIT
Advisory Board....................................... WALLADVB
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES (WALLAUTH) -
Huey P. Long, known as "The Kingfish," controlled Louisiana politics for some ten years, until he was assassinated in 1935. He was the law, he was above the law- he ruled with the force of royalty through an effective political machine while serving as governor of the state (1928-31) and U.S. Senator (1931-35). But just as Humpty Dumpty in the nursery rhyme toppled off his perch, so did Robert Penn Warren's fictionalized Huey Long, Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Willie sat high on a wall, but had a great fall- and as you read Warren's novel you will understand why all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Willie together again.
On one level, then, All the King's Men is the study of the rise and fall of a political dictator in the southern United States. On another level, it is the study of a man's journey toward self-knowledge along the winding and difficult paths that emerge from the past. Many elements of Warren's own past went into making this novel. And although the novel explores age-old philosophical ideas, the ideas are not stale or moldy. They come alive because Warren grounds them in his own experience and in vivid characters who flourish and perish in a particular landscape- the American South.
Warren was born in 1905 in the tobacco country of Guthrie, Kentucky, the eldest son of a businessman and a schoolteacher. Political violence was a part of his earliest memories, The Kentucky tobacco wars of 1905 to 1908 raged in the surrounding areas. Many tobacco growers organized themselves against the big buyers, often riding into the night to terrorize other growers who were unsympathetic to their crusade for better prices. These events provided the background for Warren's first published novel, Night Rider (1939).
Poetry and history were also a part of Warren's childhood. His maternal grandfather, a Confederate cavalry officer in the Civil War, frequently quoted poetry to Warren and introduced him to Southern history. As a boy, Warren developed an allegiance to the South, a sense of history, and a love for literature. He read widely, from the great biologist Charles Darwin to detective stories, from Boy Scout manuals to American history books.
At sixteen, Warren entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville,
Tennessee, intending to become a chemical engineer. But while taking a freshman English course with the famous poet John Crowe Ransom, he turned toward a career in literature. As an undergraduate, Warren helped edit The Fugitive- a literary journal named for the image of the wandering outcast- and in it he published his first poems. The group- particularly John Crowe Ransom, Donald G. Davidson, Allen Tate, and Warren- are credited with originating a Southern literary renaissance. They wrote poetry and ushered in a new movement of literary criticism, named the New Criticism by Ransom. As witnesses to the rapid industrialization of the South by Northern industries, the Fugitives feared that technology would strip nature, as well as humanity, of its sensuous and contemplative qualities. Through their poetry they expressed their belief in a return to reverence for land and for human experience. For the New Critics, however, the poem was more than a means of expression; it had a mystical authority of its own, separate from the poet's intentions or the reader's interpretation.
By 1925, when Warren graduated from Vanderbilt with highest honors, the Fugitives were going their separate ways, pursuing individual interests. Warren left the South to study literature as a graduate student first at the University of California at Berkeley, then at Yale University, and finally at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar. While at Oxford, Warren published his first book, a biography called John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929), about the well-known abolitionist John Brown.
Meanwhile, several Fugitives adopted a more political position on social change and literature. They wanted to do something to stop nationwide industrialization and to show the entire country the importance of clinging to such traditional Southern values as devotion to the soil. A new group was formed- the Agrarians. Warren shared their antitechnological views and joined them in publishing a controversial book called I'll Take My Stand (1930). Warren's contribution, "The Briar Patch," argues that unless the Southern agricultural tradition is reinforced, blacks will continue to defect to their dream of the good life in the industrial North, which Warren believed brought them misery. Much later, in Segregation (1956), Warren modified his position and talked about the vast potential of blacks in American society. After their attempt at social criticism in I'll Take My Stand, Warren and the other Agrarians abandoned social reform and sought expression in literature.
In 1931, Warren returned to Vanderbilt as an assistant professor of English. There, during the depths of the Great Depression, the idea for All the King's Men began taking form. Warren saw how Tennessee, like the entire nation, was suffering from a devastated economy. He
saw incredible poverty. He saw lives disrupted by political corruption and greed. And while witnessing this pervasive social and political melodrama, he experienced a misfortune of his own: The universities were cutting down on personnel, and he was let go by Vanderbilt. Louisiana, on the other hand, was expanding its educational system under the leadership of Senator Long. In September 1934, Warren left his Tennessee farm and drove to Baton Rouge to begin a new job as English professor at Louisiana State University. On the way he picked up a hitchhiker, a scruffy old fellow who told him about the miracles that Huey Long had wrought in Louisiana. Long had built toll-free highways and new hospitals and had provided public-school children with free textbooks. The senator, who came from a background of poverty, wanted to help the impoverished people of the state, but he often used bribery and blackmail, as well as rigged elections, to achieve his ends. He was loved by the poor, illiterate masses and despised by the wealthy, educated elite. From the hitchhiker's recital and from the hundreds of tales he heard later, Warren realized that the different accounts of Huey Long's use of power addressed a continuing problem- the conflict between the high-minded ideals of the wealthy class and the realistic demands of the poor.
While Warren was teaching literature and creative writing in Louisiana, he developed the idea for a story about a Southern demagogue, a leader who plays on the fears and prejudices of the people to gain power. Warren had no personal contact with Long, although Long's daughter, Rose, was in one of Warren's Shakespeare courses. In the same course, Warren lectured on the political background to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. During the two weeks he spent on this play, he thought about the ageless question of power and ethics and about the parallels between Caesar and Long. Both men were ambitious, vain, and arrogant; yet, they seemed to be the only leaders strong enough to hold their people together in times of strife. Apparently, the students also saw the similarities, because, as Warren noted, they were unusually attentive. Strangely, a little after the course ended, Huey Long, like Caesar, was assassinated. But, as you shall see, All the King's Men is more than a fictionalized presentation of a dictator. The author's major concern is with moral conflicts and their resolution.
Warren has said that Long was not the sole inspiration for All the King's Men. Even before he moved to Louisiana, he was intrigued by power struggles in the South. Warren's interests also included ancient and modern writings on political philosophy. And the career of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator who held power from 1922 to 1943 and was allied with the German dictator Adolf Hitler in World War
II, especially fascinated him.
In 1936, a year after Long's assassination, Warren began planning a play about a politician corrupted by the very evil he sets out to eliminate. With funds provided by a Guggenheim fellowship, he went to Italy where, in the summer of 1938, he began to write the verse drama Proud Flesh. Thus, in Mussolini's Italy, Warren wrote about Governor Willie Talos, who became Willie Stark in All the King's Men.
Warren's play was not performed or published for many years. He put it aside until 1943, when he was teaching at the University of Minnesota. That year he published his second novel, At Heaven's Gate, which also dealt with the themes of self-knowledge, responsibility, and spiritual emptiness. After rereading Proud Flesh, he decided that a novel was a better vehicle for his characters and ideas than a verse drama. But he didn't know from whose point of view to present the story. In the play, he had employed a chorus of surgeons to help the audience see Willie's tragic story from a detached perspective. In the novel, he eliminated the chorus and used Jack Burden as the narrator of Willie's life. As such, you do not get inside Willie's head. Willie's experiences are filtered through the observations and emotions of one of his men. This story-telling strategy imitates the way that Warren actually came to know Long- never personally, always through the perceptions of others.
All the King's Men, Warren's third novel, was published in 1946. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The film version appeared in 1949 and received the Academy Award for best movie of the year. Eventually, Proud Flesh became a theatrical production. It was staged off-Broadway in 1959 and the next year was published under the title All the King's Men: A Play. And in 1981 the novel was the source for Carlisle Floyd's music drama Willie Stark.
After All the King's Men, Warren wrote a number of additional novels, including the ambitious Southern novel World Enough and Time (1950). He also wrote many short stories and put together several distinguished collections of poetry. His poetry collection, Promises (1957), won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1958. Nevertheless, All the King's Men remains his best-known work. Indeed, its universal themes and its skillful and powerful use of language have made it an American classic and have led the influential critic Malcolm Cowley to call Warren "more richly endowed than any other American novelist born in the present century."
THE NOVEL -
THE PLOT (WALLPLOT)
Willie Stark, a young politician in an impoverished area of an unidentified Southern state, suddenly rises to prominence as a result of a local tragedy. He had previously warned everyone that the contractor for the new schoolhouse had a reputation for using inferior bricks. But no one listened. Now, the building had collapsed, killing three children. Willie's unwavering conviction that the local politicians were in collusion with the contractor gains him statewide publicity.
Eventually, Willie Stark is chosen to run for governor. However, he doesn't realize that the bosses are using him as a dummy candidate to split the rural vote. When he finds out, his rage overcomes his disillusionment. He is angry not only because he has been played for a fool but also because the state's poor people have been deceived. In a high-spirited, emotionally charged speech he tells the people that all "hicks," including himself, are the politicians' dummies. The crowd loves his speech. But Willie resigns from the race and energetically campaigns against the candidate of the people who fooled him. In the process, he makes a name for himself. Four years later, Willie is elected governor.
Jack Burden, a young reporter for the capital city's newspaper, has closely followed Willie's rise to power. He finds much to admire in the dynamic politician. Shortly after Willie moves into the governor's mansion, Jack begins working as one of Willie's aides. Jack is a trained historian, and Willie therefore assigns him research tasks. Jack's main job is to discover scandalous evidence against Willie's political enemies.
Unlike Willie, Jack grew up in a well-to-do, aristocratic community. One of the outstanding members of the community is Judge Irwin, a longtime friend of Jack's. When the Judge defies Willie on a political matter, Jack is assigned to dig up some dirt that will ruin the Judge's reputation. Jack hesitates because the Judge has always been like a father to him. But then he decides that the task is simply another piece of historical research. Besides, the Judge has a sterling reputation, which surely no amount of research can smear. Willie knows better; every person, he believes, is harboring some secret sin, and the Judge is no exception. Indeed, after seven months of research, Jack does uncover a scandal in the Judge's past. The scandal involves not only the Judge but also the former governor, Joel Stanton, the deceased father of Jack's best friends, Adam and Anne Stanton.
Jack hopes that he is never forced to use his information. But the old scandal becomes known to the Stantons when Jack has to convince Adam, a famous surgeon and a man of high ideals, to become director of
Willie's new hospital. The hospital is Willie's grand plan for helping the poor people and for ensuring his own immortality. Adam does not want to become involved in Willie's corrupt administration. But when he discovers that his father was involved in a serious political scandal, he compromises his ideals and agrees to direct Willie's hospital. Adam's sister, Anne, also compromises her ideals upon learning of her father's indiscretion and becomes Willie's mistress. Jack, who has loved Anne since she was a teenager, feels betrayed, but he realizes that, in part, he is responsible for Anne's actions.
Meanwhile, Willie's administration becomes more and more corrupt. Yet, Willie holds on to one idealistic dream: He refuses to let his hospital be tainted by political wheeling and dealing. But fate takes another complex turn. Sam MacMurfee, Willie's most powerful political enemy, has discovered that Tom, Willie's son, may soon be the father of an illegitimate child. MacM