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. MacMurfee threatens to make the knowledge public, with a paternity suit against Tom, if Willie persists in thinking about running for the U.S. Senate. After several strategies for squelching the paternity suit fail, Willie remembers the research he asked Jack to do on Judge Irwin. The Judge has the power to make MacMurfee withdraw his threat. Willie, therefore, orders Jack to blackmail the Judge into helping Willie out of his dilemma. Jack tells the Judge that the old scandal will become known if he does not cooperate. Rather than submit to a blackmail attempt, the Judge, a man of honor, kills himself. In the commotion following the Judge's suicide, Jack discovers that the Judge was his real father. Suddenly, Jack, the detached historical researcher, must confront the truth of his own identity.
With the Judge dead, only one strategy remains for stopping the paternity suit. Gummy Larson, a building contractor and a powerful friend of MacMurfee's, has been wanting the hospital contract for a long time. Willie agrees to give Larson the job if Larson persuades MacMurfee to back off.
The deal is arranged, and all seems well until Willie's son is paralyzed in a football accident. The crippling of his only child causes Willie to reexamine his life. He cancels the hospital contract, a decision that angers the lieutenant-governor, Tiny Duffy, who had set up the deal in the first place. In retaliation, Tiny tells Adam that he was appointed hospital director because his sister, Anne, is Willie's mistress. Outraged, Adam shoots Willie, seriously wounding him, and is immediately killed by Willie's bodyguard. A few days later, Willies dies.
After this series of tragedies, Jack tries to make sense of his life. He marries Anne and begins writing a biography, not of Willie Stark but of a man whose own tragic experiences during the Civil War
era reflect Jack's personal sense of responsibility to history.
THE CHARACTERS (WALLCHAR) -
All the King's Men has two major characters, Willie Stark and Jack Burden. By understanding their circumstances and motivations, you will grasp the ideas about human nature that Robert Penn Warren offers. But unless you also look into the personalities and motivations of the minor characters- those who surround Willie and Jack and insist on making themselves felt- the story will not come alive for you. Life, as Robert Penn Warren shows you, can be a tangled web of relationships among a large cast of characters; it is a continuing experience, in which historical events influence present circumstances. -
MAJOR CHARACTERS -
Is Willie Stark the people's messiah or a dangerous dictator, a tragic hero or a smooth-tongued tyrant? Does he deserve to be assassinated? How you answer these questions will, in part, influence the meaning that the novel holds for you. And how you answer may also say as much about you as it says about Willie. Do you prefer to put fictional characters into the neat categories of hero and villain? Or do you prefer to see portrayals of life with a double vision, aware that some people are both good and bad? To understand Willie's character, you need to use your powers of double vision. The internal conflicts of his personality do not readily permit you to pass a quick verdict on his life. You will probably discover that Willie, like many powerful leaders, combines opposing elements, often resorting to foul means to achieve good ends.
Willie Stark is an imaginary character, inspired by an actual historical figure Huey Pierce Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1931 and then a U.S. Senator until his assassination in 1935. Some readers have commented that Willie Stark resembles Huey Long too closely. Without a doubt, Long's political career parallels the career that Robert Penn Warren designs for Willie. Both Long and Willie came from a poor Southern background and, through ambitious perseverance, became lawyers. Both held political office at an early age, and each had an unsuccessful first run for governor. As governors, both were charged with bribery and the misuse of state funds and threatened with impeachment. Nevertheless, each had a lifelong passion to improve the lot of his state's poor. By using blackmail and patronage, they financed roads and hospitals and
reworked the state's tax structure in favor of the poor people. Finally, each met his death at the hands of a doctor who had a personal grievance against him.
Warren obviously had Huey Long in mind while constructing his novel. Yet, despite the uncanny similarities between these men, the story of Willie Stark is not merely the story of Huey Long. All the King's Men is not a fictional biography. Rather, Long's public career can be seen as the skeletal outline to which Warren adds flesh and into which he then breathes the life of a dynamic, complex personality who engages the reader's imagination.
In a sense, Willie is every man who rises to power by offering to save the people from their distress and who, during his struggles, becomes corrupted by power. Some, therefore, see him as a stereotype, the character of good intentions who becomes tainted by the system. But you may appreciate Willie, first and foremost, as a human being who has dreams, a family he loves, and passions he yields to, among them a desire for power. Warren doesn't just present a character who functions in a concrete political setting; he shows you a man torn between his visions of an ideal society and stark reality- what it takes in the real world to fulfill one's dreams. Willie's last name gives you a clue to his main way of dealing with power and conflict. He sacrifices his ideals for action. He is a man of stark fact, and he wants results. In the end, Willie reevaluates his life's goals. But it is too late for change. Willie, like his many actual and fictional counterparts, is not given a second chance.
Warren's portrayal of Willie raises the following questions: What psychological toll does the person with a deeply rooted political mission pay? Do the means of accomplishing the mission justify the ends? Can a well-intentioned man who becomes politically corrupt be a hero of the reader's imagination? -
Jack Burden is the narrator of All the King's Men. He is supposedly telling Willie's story. Yet, you will begin to sense, after reading several chapters, that Jack is using Willie's story as a vehicle for clarifying the meaning of his own life. Warren says that he chose Jack as the narrator because he is one of the empty, powerless people who need a character like Willie to bring them to life. Also, because Jack is intelligent and perceptive, he is the best one to tell Willie's story. But still this does not explain why Jack becomes the central character, the most complex character and the one who undergoes the most changes. Why does Jack dominate the novel? Why is he embedding his own story inside of Willie's? Jack,
like most people, is not easy to understand. Nevertheless, by examining several facets of his character, you can glean some insights into his motivations.
In contrast to Willie, who has a well-defined goal- to do good for the poor folk- Jack drifts without direction. He is a keen observer of the meaning that other people give to their lives. For instance, he knows that Willie's wife, Lucy, finds satisfaction in family life, and that Willie's secretary, Sadie, seeks fulfillment by subordinating her talents to the careers of powerful men. But Jack sees no meaning in his own existence. Why does such an intelligent, articulate man lack purpose? Does the cause stem from his childhood, from having been abandoned by his father and then having to compete with a series of stepfathers for his mother's affection? Was he spoiled by the luxuries of his aristocratic upbringing? Is he disillusioned because his love life has not come up to his expectations?
But Jack does have a love life, although, until the novel's end, it is no more than memories and fantasies. He still loves his childhood friend, Anne Stanton. The only goal he ever had, it seems, was to marry Anne. Thus, a second aspect of Jack's character to consider is his deep attachment to Anne. What is it about Anne that causes him to be obsessed with her? Or, looking at it from another angle, what does his memory of her do for him that no real woman can do? His failed marriage to Lois Seager was based on sex, not love. And since his divorce, he has not established any meaningful relationships with women, except perhaps with Lucy Stark. Jack admires Lucy's devotion to her family and her strength of character. But he pays more attention to her appearance than to her personality or character. On each visit to Lucy's farm, he describes in detail her hair, clothing, and furniture.
A third facet of Jack's character, then, is his inability to become emotionally involved- with women, with friends, or with a career. When Jack was in graduate school studying American history, he was on the verge of becoming involved in the life of a man, Cass Mastern, who had died in the Civil War and whose motivations perplexed him. His Ph.D. project was to write a historical account of Mastern. But he walked away from the project and never received his doctorate. As an aide to Willie Stark, he completed an extensive research project- finding a scandalous incident in Judge Irwin's past- and refused to let his friendship for the Judge obstruct his objectivity. "Emotions begone! Truth to the fore!" seemed to be his guiding principle. How could Jack be so detached from his own professional possibilities in graduate school and from his feelings of friendship for the Judge during his research?
Jack, as you'll see, becomes a tireless researcher when he begins to