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All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
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All the King's Men: Robert Penn Warren's Spider Web

"It all began, as I have said, when the Boss, sitting in the black Cadillac which sped through the night, said to me (to Me who was what Jack Burden, the student of history, had grown up to be) "There is always something."
And I said, "Maybe not on the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."


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First Edition, Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1946

If you're expecting a fictional recounting that serves as a short cut to T. Harry William's masterful biography of Huey Long this isn't it.

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But Williams does have something to say that pointedly echoes the themes Warren wove into a masterpiece of American politics.

"I believe that some men, men of power, can influence the course of history. They appear in response to conditions, but they may alter the conditions, may give a new direction to history. In the process they may do great good or evil or both, but whatever the case they leave a different kind of world behind them.", p.ix, Preface, T. Harry Williams, Huey Long,Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.


That Willie Stark is a stand in for Huey Long, Robert Penn Warren frankly admits. I was fortunate to find the Thirty-Fifth Edition of the novel, published in 1981. It contained a new, and very informative introduction by Warren.

Warren did not originally envision this work as a novel, but as a tragic drama entitled "Proud Flesh." Warren ended up putting that manuscript away. He realized that he had focused on a man of power rather than those few people who are always surrounding that man of power, and in writing "All the King's Men," Warren focused on the "Greek" chorus to whom he had not given proper voice in his originally conceived work.

So, there we have the title, "All the King's Men," the chorus that relates the rise and fall of Willie Stark. For all great men have an inner circle, some of whom are as vague as phantoms, performing the will of the King and they will perform that will whether it be good or evil. But all the King's Men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Warren proposes the question of whether those minions are mere pawns or whether they recognize the consequences of their actions and accept responsibility for them, and if so can they find redemption for the evil they do, even when it is couched in terms of doing good. Willie Stark, the Boss, is a practical man. So, politics is a dirty business. He tells us,

"Dirt's a funny thing, come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.">


Jack Burden is a one man Greek Chorus that tells us the story of Willie Stark. And it is Jack Burden who provides the moral center of the novel. In one long narrative voice, Jack, a child of privilege, intrigues us relating the present and the past, not only Willie's but his own. Willie's rise is rather straight forward. As Williams tells us in Long's biography, Willie appears on the Louisiana scene in response to conditions of the Great Depression, which seemingly provided the fuel for Populism common to that era.

Jack comes from a level of society that comprised the previous leaders of Louisiana, a class who would forever be opposed to a man of Willie Stark's origin and philosophy. He is the friend of Adam and Anne Stanton, the children of the governor preceding Stark. His mentor is Judge Irwin who advised and influenced Jack from his youth. His father, Ellis Burden, the "scholarly lawyer" is a good friend of the Judge. His mother is beautiful, poised, and confident.

So, why would Ellis Burden walk out of his law office one day to become a street evangelist? But Jack's mother has no problem keeping a stream of husbands in her bed. It's enough to make a fellow a little cynical. Rebellious, too. Rebellious enough to go to State University and study history.

Jack has a future. He's working on his doctorate, studying the papers of an ancestor named Cass Mastern. The papers of Mastern serve as a mirror of Jack's life. But Mastern, who betrayed a friend by having a love affair with his friend's wife, lives the rest of his life with the knowledge of that betrayal. It is Cass who writes in his journal,

The world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping."


The long and the short of it is that our actions have consequences and we owe a responsibility for the consequences of our actions. This is a premise that Jack would rather reject.

Rather, Jack grasps on to the theory of the "Great Twitch," a world in which the actions of people are no more controllable than the muscles of a frog's leg twitching in response to an electrical impulse. However it is Cass Mastern who was correct. In rejecting his ancestor's journal, Jack becomes the cynical, wisecracking news reporter assigned to cover Willie Stark's first gubernatorial election. It is Jack Burden, along with savvy political advisor Sadie Burke who tell Stark he's been duped into running to split the vote of the opposing candidate to bring about the win by yet another politician.

It is that campaign that transforms not only Willie Stark into a Kingfish lookalike, but transforms Jack into Stark's most trusted fix it man. "Maybe not the Judge." Oh, yes, even the Judge. And so it is that a chain of consequences begins to be unveiled, each the result of a deliberate, undeniable action.

Even the death of Willie Stark is a consequence of one of the Boss's improvident decisions. As Warren wrote, "The end of man is knowledge but there's one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it would save him."

Willie's death comes about, not from an assassin who believes him to be a dictator, but for a very personal reason. Nor will I even resort to a spoiler alert. I'm simply not going to tell you, because I want you to read this book.

And what of Jack? I will share the final sentence, and I remind you that Jack is the narrator.

"Go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time." Perhaps Jack Burden has come to terms with his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

To say this is a masterpiece about American politics is true. But it goes much further than that. It is a reminder that the past is the father of the future. They are inevitably inseparable.

THIS IS A MUST READ. I'd give it a 10 if it were allowed.

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Reading Progress

07/26/2012 page 258
47.0% "I'm reading the 35th Anniversary Edition, a true joy. Robert Penn Warren's Introduction for this edition is invaluable. A fine example of bookmaking. Beautifully slip-cased. Picked up for peanuts at a garage sale. Oh, yeah, and I'm enjoying the heck out of the book which I haven't read since I was a freshman in Under grad."
07/27/2012 page 413
76.0% "Oh, I've come such a long way since I was a freshman in college. The things I missed back then now hit me between the eyes as an animal being slaughtered. Jack Burden is a one man Greek Chorus. Oh, the Boss is there, but the story is of the people around him. This isn't simply a fictionalized life of the Long administration." 3 comments

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Kathy Was this your first read or was it another savoring?


Mike Sorry to be so long in responding. I initially read this in college as a freshman. I went on a Warren binge. My love of Warren was cemented by Professor O.B. Emerson, a master of Southern Lit. *smile*


message 3: by s.penkevich (new) - added it

s.penkevich Powerful review!


Drew I'd forgotten just how much I liked Warren's writing. That quote about "he can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him" is one I marked as well.


Drew And nice review, by the way.


Wordsmith 07/27 page 413 76.0% "Oh, I've come such a long way since I was a freshman in college. The things I missed back then now hit me between the eyes as an animal being slaughtered. Jack Burden is a one man Greek Chorus. Oh, the Boss is there, but the story is of the people around him. This isn't simply a fictionalized life of the Long administration."

Absolutely. I want to re-read everything I *thought* I understood so well at twenty. Heck, at fifteen. Someone should of slapped me-HARD! ; ) Not that I would of listened. What a great review. Maybe this is why I have FOUR copies (all different, published in different era's) of this novel, yet couldn't put my hands on any one copy of In Cold Blood.

( Nooo, THAT still doesn't make any sense. I'll just have to keep looking)


Jeffrey Keeten How odd? I know I liked this before. My like was stolen, absconded with, jettisoned, lost in the cosmos. Masterpiece indeed, my friend, I know I will reread this book and I don't say that about many books.


Mike Jeffrey wrote: "How odd? I know I liked this before. My like was stolen, absconded with, jettisoned, lost in the cosmos. Masterpiece indeed, my friend, I know I will reread this book and I don't say that about man..."

Hmmm, I remember that, too. I think you commented as well. So, GR burped. *chuckle* Glad to have your like back. I am way behind. But the reading is glorious.


Mike Drew wrote: "And nice review, by the way."

Please accept my apology for not having acknowledged your post. Between moderating a group on Southern Lit, reading and reviewing, I sometimes lose all track of time. Thank you for having taken the time to read the review and comment.


message 10: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Wordsmith wrote: "07/27 page 413 76.0% "Oh, I've come such a long way since I was a freshman in college. The things I missed back then now hit me between the eyes as an animal being slaughtered. Jack Burden is a..."

Another apology for a late response. I must learn to check back on posts. Thanks for reading and commenting. About time for another cup of coffee at B&N??


message 11: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike s.penkevich wrote: "Powerful review!"

Sorry, for the late response! See above, etc., etc. *grin* OH! I'm also volunteering at our local Friends of the Library Store. It's Paradise!


message 12: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha Wonderful review, Mike!


message 13: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Aloha wrote: "Wonderful review, Mike!"

Good morning, Aloha. Thank you for reading and commenting. You will find this on my list of favorites. I doubt anything could knock it off that shelf.


message 14: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha The best reviews are from people who are passionate about a book. Thank you, Mike.


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