All the King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren
About the book:
About the author:
Noel Polk is a professor of American Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi and he lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Click here to download a pdf of the reading guide for All the King’s Men.
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
“It’s a measure of the enduring worth of All the King’s Men that Willie Stark has entered our collective literary consciousness, in the company of Captain Ahab, Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Rabbit Angstrom, and very few others.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books
“Over the course of more than two centuries of vivid political history, there is perhaps only one full-blooded American novel of politics that plunges deep into the hearts of its characters and therefore into the hearts of its readers, thus rising to the top ranks of American fiction. That is Robert Penn Warren’s lush All the King’s Men.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
This guide is meant for use by instructors employing Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men in their teaching. A classic work of fiction based on the life and career of Louisiana’s legendary, larger-than-life Huey Long (1893–1935), Warren’s novel has much to say to anyone familiar with politics and power struggles—ideas and ideals, history and hierarchy, corruption and change—in modern America. The guide’s first section, Reading and Understanding the Narrative, will help students keep up with the novel’s events, characters, and ideas—its plotlines, personalities, and themes. The second section, Further Questions for Class Discussion, will help students explore the book in broader and more reflective ways.
READING AND UNDERSTANDING THE NARRATIVE
1. Just as the book begins, Willie Stark pulls into town and makes a speech at a local drugstore. It is basically an “I’m not gonna stand here and make a speech” speech. What makes Willie effective as a speechmaker? Why is he so good at it?
2. Our narrator begins one paragraph: “Well, anyway, when Repeal came . . .” What does he mean by “Repeal”? Define the world this novel takes place in: its setting, historical time, and geographic location.
3. Who is Jack Burden? What does he do for a living? What did he used to do for a living? What kind of a person is he? Where does his loyalty—his final allegiance—reside? How reliable a narrator does he seem to you?
4. Explain the foreshadowing that occurs at the end of Chapter 1. What is, and is not, being revealed here?
1. At one point, Jack says an official at the courthouse wears “a white shirt with a ready-tied black bow tie and jean pants held up with web galluses. Town from the waist up, country from the waist down. Get both votes.” How are voters portrayed in this novel? How are they regarded, by Jack and by everyone else?
2. More than once in this chapter, the notion of “luck” is brought up in relation to Willie. Does Jack think Willie is an especially lucky person? Do you, at this stage of the narrative? Does Jack even believe in luck?
3. Describe how Willie becomes “symbolically the spokesman for the tongue-tied population of honest men.” Highlight any actions in Willie’s own background relevant to this transformation, as well as other, external, events.
4. Who is Sadie Burke? What does she mean to Jack? To Willie? And how, if at all, do her relationships with these two men change throughout the novel? What role does Sadie play in Stark’s day-to-night transition from “Cousin Willie from the country” to “the Boss”?
1.Jack, we come to find, has a lot of names and faces—associations, both positive and negative—attached to Burden’s Landing: his mother, Anne, Adam, the Judge, the Scholarly Attorney, the Young Executive, the Pattons. How does Jack feel about coming home, and why? Why has he come home at this time?
2. Paraphrase the political argument that takes place at the dinner party in this chapter. Why is nearly everyone criticizing the Stark administration? How does Jack defend it? What are Jack’s own politics, or do we know?
3. Who are Byram White and Hugh Miller? Explain how each of these men figures into Willie’s political team, and whether or how Willie is able to control them. What does Willie mean when he tells Miller, “The law is always too short and too tight for growing mankind”? Does Miller agree with him? Do you? Explain.
4. With his impeachment troubles on the rise, Willie makes a crucial and pivotal appearance before a crowd gathered outside the Capitol. Watching this happen, Jack says, “I felt like God.” What does he mean by this?
1. Looking back on how Willie sent him to uncover dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack says, “I tried to discover the truth and not the facts.” What is he referring to? What is the difference between truth and facts, in Jack’s view? Or is there a difference?
2. Who is, or was, Cass Mastern? Recount the story within a story that unfolds in his journal, and explain how the events related there foretell what Jack will later experience in regard to his own mother and father.
3. What do Cass and Annabelle mean by calling Phebe “a yellow girl”? Also, compare and contrast how “the help” in the South is both treated and talked to in the respective time periods of Cass and Jack.
4. From a clinical or even psychological standpoint, how would you characterize the “Great Sleep” phase that Jack describes slipping into at the end of this chapter? Why is Jack behaving this way? Why does he refer to himself in the third person at this point?
1. In a conversation with Jack at the outset of this chapter, Willie says, “There aren’t any explanations. Not of anything. All you can do is point at the nature of things. If you are smart enough to see ’em.” Do you think Willie has always seen the world in this way? Explain why or why not. Does Jack also see it this way?
2. In yet another of his rhapsodies centered on the grace and beauty of his beloved Anne Stanton, Jack writes of her laughter: “A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life . . . That laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals.” Explain what Jack is saying here, and explain his historical references.
3. Why is Tiny Duffy so interested in Willie’s efforts to “put six million bucks in a hospital”?
4. Who is Mortimer Littlepaugh? Why is Jack searching for him? What does he finally learn from this man, and how does he arrive at such knowledge? What makes the knowledge so valuable to begin with?
1. In a tone as harsh as it is accusatory, Lucy Stark says to Willie, regarding their son, Tom, “You will ruin him.” Why does she say this? What does she think that Willie is doing, or will do, to Tom? Is she right?
2. What is “the fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem”? (And how would you set this notion alongside the “politics of personal destruction,” the phrase that was first put forth during Bill Clinton’s presidency?)
3. “For whatever you adult cartoons live is Life,” Jacks says introspectively, and more than once, in this chapter. Saying so, he’s as much comforting himself as he is imparting wisdom. Explain what he means. Consider All the King’s Men as a meditation on how to live, an extended pondering of how we should exist in the world.
4. After Jack has persuaded Adam—at Willie’s command—to take the big hospital job, Willie says to Jack, “You must be Svengali.” Who is Svengali? What is he known for?
1. As this chapter begins, Jack is on the run, so to speak. What is he running from? Where is he headed, and what set him off? And what does he find there—does he obtain what he’s after?
2. In this chapter, perhaps especially, we encounter Jack’s many musings on the memory of Anne, the mystery of Anne, the ideal of Anne, the person of Anne, and eventually the love—his love—of Anne. Yet in other chapters Jack often seems distant, dispassionate, disconnected—not just cold, but nihilistic. How do you, as a reader, explain this paradox? Can it be adequately explained?
3. Why didn’t Jack’s marriage to Lois work out, in your view? Why did he eventually leave her, and why did he marry her in the first place? Can we say? Explain the typically sharp, if wounded, irony implicit in Jack’s remark on the subject: “Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.”
4. What is “the dream” or “the dream of our age” that Jack is fixed upon at the close of this chapter? And how does it pertain to the idea of “the West” that he’s also focused on?
1. Driving back home, Jack thinks about something that he terms “the Great Twitch.” Explain this idea, especially how it fits in with—or stands alone as a metaphor for—Jack’s view of the world.
2. What is a “lobectomy”? How does watching Adam perform a lobectomy affect Jack’s ideas of people, of society, and of life itself? Or is he affected at all? Also, regarding Jack’s reference on this score, what “happened to Saul on the road to Damascus”? (Consult the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible if you are unsure.)
3. Near the middle of this chapter, Anne says to Jack, regarding Willie, “You’ve known him all these years and you don’t know him at all.” Does this seem fair, or accurate? Explain why you do or don’t think so.
4. Near the end of the chapter, Jacks awakens from a nap to find his mother is screaming—in “a bright, beautiful, silvery soprano”—that Jack has just killed his father. Explain how this has come to be.
5. As a short vocabulary review, define the following terms as used in Chapter 8: “crib,” “stereoscope,” “leghorns,” and “pressure” (in the context of Jack’s last chat with Judge Irwin).
1. Define Jack’s “morning sinker and Java.” And why does he say, regarding Burden’s Landing, that “nobody down here ever wants to be rich-rich”? What’s wrong with that?
2. What happens to Tom Stark in the last football game he plays for State? What becomes of him—what is his fate, and what does Willie have to do with it? When he hears that Tom will most likely eventually die of pneumonia, why does Jack think of Lucy Stark and say “the sooner the better”?
3. Just before the book’s climax in the lobby of the Capitol, Jack reads a newspaper editorial and then thinks to himself, “The pocketbook is where it hurts. A man may forget the death of the father, but never the loss of the patrimony, the cold-faced Florentine, who is the founding father of our modern world.” Who is Jack thinking of here? And why is such thinking especially appropriate for a “spin doctor” such as himself?
4. Who is responsible for Willie’s murder, in the end? Adam? Sadie? Duffy? Jack? All of them? Explain.
1. On the trail of Tiny Duffy, while working to piece together Duffy’s involvement in Willie’s assassination, Jack keeps mentioning “a yellow, acid taste” in his mouth. What is the reason for this? Why does he keep noticing it? What does this bad taste eventually tell him about himself?
2. Revisit the scene where Jack runs into Sugar-Boy at the public library. Why is it so telling, and even touching, that what Sugar-Boy seems to have most admired about the Boss was how he talked “so good”?
3. “This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too,” writes our narrator, Jack Burden, late in his account. Do we, in fact, learn more about Jack than about anyone else in this book, including Willie Stark? Explain. Also, how would you explain the title of this novel?
4. In the book’s final pages, the man who was the Scholarly Attorney dictates several sentences to Jack. Reread this passage, then explain how these words are not just a rejection of the “Great Twitch,” but also a paraphrase of the very novel itself.
FURTHER QUESTIONS FOR CLASS DISCUSSION
1. Books by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee—can you place All the King’s Men within the American Southern canon? Discuss this book as a novel of the South in particular—as a work that could not have been located anywhere else.
2. Discuss “Time”—with a capital T (as it appears in many instances throughout the book, including at the end of the book’s final sentence)—as a major theme of the novel. And be sure to include in your discussion of Time Jack’s idea of how the past and the future “are forever tied together” (another concept that is put forth on more than one occasion in this book).
3. This tale takes place in the world before television. But since it is a book about politics, it is also a book about image, about poses and postures. As a class, explore this point while looking back on one or two of the scenes in which Willie deals with newspaper photographers. To what extent is Stark just another politician trying to keep up appearances, or just another big-smiling scam artist who is all talk? And to what extent is he a true visionary, a man on a mission to better the welfare of his fellow citizens?”
4. In Chapter 6, Willie gets excited about how superior his all-new hospital is going to be to any other such facility that exists anywhere. He says, “I don’t care how big they are, mine’s gonna be bigger, and any poor bugger in this state can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime.” Later in the same chapter, he says to an adoring crowd, “Any man or woman or child who is sick or in pain can go in those doors and know that all will be done that man can do. To heal sickness. To ease pain. Free. Not as charity. But as a right. Do you hear? It is your right!” Comment on how timely All the King’s Men is, or isn’t, today, in terms of issues such as health care, hospital politics, doctors’ supremacy, and medicine.
5. Discuss the prose style of this book. Jack, our storyteller—and, in the end, our hero, perhaps—is a true newspaperman: a clear-thinking, straight-talking sort who listens well and doesn’t waste words. But, as a narrator, he’s also given to several keenly poetic descriptions over the course of the book, as when he cites Dante or Blake, or, in his own words, notices a “moon-soaked, sea-glittering night while off yonder in the myrtle hedge a mocking bird hysterically commented on the total beauty and justice of the universe.” He often employs colorful, old-time expressions along the lines of “deader than mackerel” and “hotter than hell’s hinges.” Identify and share some of your own favorite examples of Jack Burden, the wordsmith.
6. What view does this novel take of marriage? Describe the marriages that we’re privy to in these pages. How does matrimony come off, all in all? Who is the most happily married couple in the story? The least?
7. This novel often depicts the sort of legwork and thought processing more commonly associated with a detective novel than with a political one. Our detective, of course, is Jack, who considers himself a researcher or “student of history”—but who sometimes talks and acts a lot like a “hard-boiled” detective of the Raymond Chandler tradition. What are the mysteries Jack sets out to solve? What all is he trying to investigate? And what are the clues—and the red herrings—that he uncovers along the way?
8. A few of the key characters in All the King’s Men are mothers. But there are also perhaps mothers in these pages who are conspicuous because of their absence. What do we most need from our mothers? What can they give us that no one else can? What, ultimately, is a mother’s job? Write a short essay in which you explore motherhood as an important, if secondary, theme of Robert Penn Warren’s book.
9. This is a book of big ideas, and not just big political ideas. There are, additionally, a number of ethical, social, theological, and philosophical debates to be encountered in it. Look back at a few of these, and in each instance describe both sides of the conflict at hand and whether or how it gets resolved. Consider, for example, the quarrel Jack has with the former Scholarly Attorney when he visits the old man at his home near the Mexican restaurant. Or revisit the scene where Adam accepts Willie’s offer to run his hospital, and the two of them begin their conversation by arguing about the nature of morality, the purpose of “the Good” in life, and the difference between man’s law and natural law.
10. As a class, go back to the scene in which Jack visits Willie after he has been shot. Willie—speaking about Adam, who had pulled the trigger—asks Jack, “Why did he do it to me?” Jack answers, “I don’t know.” Then Willie says, “I never did anything to him,” to which Jack replies, “No, you never did.” A final question for your class to address: Does Jack really concur with Willie here, or is he merely being agreeable? Does he truly think that Willie “never did anything” to Adam, or is he just trying to placate the now-dying Stark?
Discussion questions written by Scott Pitcock