All the King’s Men (1946): It’s as if Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) wrote this classic American tale principally for college and university students. With a solid foundation in the liberal arts, they will recognize the philosophical and psychological theories that a central character, Jack Burden, has in mind when he transforms them into excuses for his morally questionable behavior—in fact, as rationalistic covers for his flights from personal responsibility. Through this novel, not only will readers gain a sense of what to avoid; they will also receive insights into what to affirm: personal agency and individual responsibility, hallmarks of conservative thought and practice.
After Jack Burden has gone to work as an assistant to the Boss, Governor Willie Stark, he finds that his new job draws on the skills he acquired as a graduate student: that is, as a Ph.D. candidate “in American history, in the State University of his native state.” If readers feel an urge to pin down this vague reference with more precise, historical details implied but never stated, then they might picture Jack as an intelligent but immature young man who had intended to complete his dissertation at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, where Robert Penn Warren once taught the daughter of Senator Huey Long, the model for Governor Stark.
When chapter one begins, in 1936, Jack has been away from his doctoral thesis for more than a decade. In the intervening period, he worked as a newspaperman before becoming an aide to Governor Stark. Jack had an excellent topic for his dissertation, and he had made commendable progress toward completing it. But he faced an obstacle that amounted to more than typical writer’s block: he could not let the significance of what he had found in his research touch his inner core. So he kept trying to run away from what his dissertation implied, even as his research and writing stayed with him, physically.
The large package containing the hard copy of his thesis was wrapped in brown paper that was gradually turning yellow. The cords that tied the wrapping paper together were loosening, and the letters Mr. Jack Burden printed on the outside were slowly fading, just as the author of this manuscript was slowly fading out as a human being, becoming more and more alienated, unwilling to accept his past and commit himself to the future. As the story’s narrator speculates about Jack’s situation: “Or perhaps he laid aside [his dissertation] not because he could not understand [the words and the life of the man he was writing about], but because he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him.”
Governor Stark is a left-wing populist: his ends are good—building much-needed hospitals, roads, and schools to assist the poor and the working classes, whom previous administrations had neglected—but his means are foul: bribery, blackmail, coercion. He is a powerful but demagogic speaker. Jack’s main task is to hunt for buried political treasure: to employ the research tools he learned and the instincts he developed at university and as a reporter to uncover scandals involving the Boss’s opponents: state legislators, candidates for office, and their powerful backers.
If there was one useful bit of knowledge that the child Willie Stark picked up at his Presbyterian Sunday school, it was the doctrine of original sin, which, as his career progressed, he continued to believe in: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption”—Governor Stark tells Jack, assuring his underling that diligent investigation would find its reward—“and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
Jack does the Boss’s bidding—but at a cost to his own integrity. To avoid acknowledging the price he’s paying, he employs intellectualization, a defense mechanism that removes the annoying burr under his conscience by converting his anxiety into a philosophical issue. A prime example occurs in chapter one, when the governor and his entourage are conducting a photo op at Willie’s boyhood home, Old Man Stark’s place out in the country. As Jack leans on a fence, he can feel the pint of whiskey he’s carrying in his hip pocket. He takes a pull on the bottle and hears someone open and shut the gate to the barn lot, but he doesn’t turn around to look at the person.
Jack believes that if he does not see whoever it was that used the gate, he could keep the action out of his mind; and if he could do that, then the event would not be real. “If I didn’t look around it would not be true that somebody had opened the gate with the creaky hinges.” He refers to this philosophical insight as “a wonderful principle” and recalls that he had read about it in “a book when I was in college, and I had hung on to it for grim death.”
Jack attributes his success in life to this principle: “It had put me where I was.” The essence of this philosophical position was that “what you don’t know don’t hurt you, for it ain’t real.” In his assigned undergraduate textbook, probably for Philosophy 101, the author, Jack says, refers to this mode of thought as Idealism. Finding this stance helpful, Jack becomes an Idealist: “I was a brass-bound Idealist in those days.” For Jack Burden, the utility of this philosophical perspective for someone seeking to escape moral accountability lies in this handy notion: “If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway.”
From his academic study, Jack has learned just enough about philosophical idealism to be irresponsible. Made famous by such exponents as the Anglican bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), this metaphysical theory holds that no reality exists outside of the mind. There are no material objects, only minds and ideas in minds. All things exist only as ideas in the mind. James Boswell reports that Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) offered his own critique of Berkeley’s philosophy by kicking a large stone and declaring, “I refute him thus!”
Another defense that Jack seizes in order to ward off a lacerating sense of his own culpability is one that he embraces later in the novel, when he discovers that the girlfriend of his youth, Anne Stanton, has been having an affair with Governor Stark. Seeking to avoid the pain of admitting to himself that his immaturity as well as his recent opposition research (partly implicating Anne’s father, a revered governor of the state) were factors in propelling Anne into the arms of strong and charismatic, if flawed, leader, he heads out west.
Jack cannot face his failures with Anne or recognize their causes in the deficiencies of his own character. Some of the reasons for these deficits in his personal capital are not hard to trace. His mother married a string of men who were woefully inadequate as fathers to Jack: the Scholarly Attorney, the Tycoon, the Count, the Young Executive. Each had a nickname; none had what Jack needed in a father—a pattern of manly responsibility. Hence Jack’s relationship to the Boss as a father surrogate. This family background helps explain, too, Jack’s early marriage—before the main events in this books—to a beautiful woman who was better at making the physical adjustments suggested by the word “love” than she was at loving or conversing or building any kind of life together.
In the West, Jack spends some time lying on a bed in Long Beach, California. Then he heads home, and along the way he acquires some useful knowledge at a gas station in Don Jon, New Mexico. This wisdom arrives by way of an encounter with an older fellow who was unremarkable save for one distinctive feature. In the midst of his stiff, leathery face, “as devitalized as the hide on a mummy’s jaw,” you could observe a striking feature: “a twitch in the left cheek, up toward the pale-blue eye.” What was significant about this spasm was that it was an independent action, “unrelated to the face or to what was behind the face or to anything in the whole tissue of phenomena which is the world we are lost in.” This twitch lived “a little life all its own.”
Why was seeing a man with a facial tic helpful to Jack? Because from this experience he gains a secret, saving knowledge, “a mystic vision,” encompassed in what he calls the Great Twitch theory. Jack has latched on to a description of human decision-making and conduct that has taken him beyond true freedom and dignity and into the world of stimulus-response conditioning. This theory is not named, but any Psychology 101 student will recognize it as behaviorism, associated most prominently with the psychologists John B. Watson (1878-1958) and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). Our behavior is a response to prior conditioning.
Jack himself refers to the reactions of the muscle in a frog’s leg when the stimulus of an electric current is applied: human responses are just that simple, and just that far removed from the wrestling of conscience and the assertion of free will. Grasping this “mystic vision” of “the Great Twitch” makes Jack feel “clean and free.”
Finally, in this novel’s concluding sentence, Jack does accept “the awful responsibility of Time,” the fact of his personal agency for good or ill. How does he reach this point of moral maturity? The main precipitating factor is an encounter with his own responsibility in a tragic set of circumstances. It’s impossible for him to avoid acknowledging his direct involvement in this chain of events.
For our purposes here, however, the interesting matter is not the development of this larger plot but rather the reconciliation that occurs between Jack and the subject of his doctoral thesis. On this novel’s next-to-last page, Jack affirms his intention to “write the book I began years ago, the life of Cass Mastern [the subject of his dissertation], whom once I could not understand but whom, perhaps, I now may come to understand.”
The Cass Mastern story takes up all of the fourth of this novel’s ten chapters. William Faulkner asserted that it was the best part of All the King’s Men. Powerfully dramatic, this section is sometimes sold separately as a stand-alone narrative. Born in north Georgia, Cass Mastern joined the Confederate Army, served as a private in the Mississippi Rifles, and came to wear the gray jacket with pride, although he opposed slavery and had vowed never to take the life of another man. His service and his vow were grounded in an effort of expiation, for he believed that he had already taken one life, the life of his friend Duncan Trice, of Lexington, Kentucky, with whose wife, Annabelle, Cass had had an affair several years before the war. Duncan had shot himself through the heart, leaving his wedding ring under the pillow on his wife’s side of the bed.
The ring was found not by his wife, however, but by—in Annabelle’s phrase—the “yellow wench” Phebe, a house servant, who stared at Mrs. Duncan Trice a long time as she extended her arm toward her mistress and slowly opened her fist to reveal the gold ring, “lying,” Annabelle noticed, “in a gold hand.” The knowledge revealed in Phebe’s steady gaze ensured that she would be sold down the river to Paducah, deeper into the slave territory and away from her husband, a slave on a nearby plantation—“and she won’t look at me anymore like that,” Annabelle assured Cass. Guessing what use a buyer would make of Phebe, Cass tells her bitterly: “You got a good price, even for a yellow girl as sprightly as Phebe.”
Decades later, Jack Burden reads in Cass’s journal of “a general disintegration of which I was the center.” Cass writes that the discrete facts were weighty—the betrayal of a friend, his responsibility for Duncan’s death, the sale of a slave woman away from the house where she had been kindly treated and away from her husband and into debauchery, the terrible change and cold rage in the woman he had loved. But what it really signified was a deeper truth: “all had come from my single act of sin and perfidy, as the boughs from the bole and the leaves from the bough.”
What Jack Burden cannot take in until the very end of this novel is a way of understanding different from the various theories he had employed in his gestures of self-protection. The Cass Mastern ethical framework derived from his having learned, in the narrator’s words, “that the world is all of one piece . . . 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.” For Jack to accept this point of view, however, would mean acknowledging his own responsibility, so “how could Jack Burden, being what he was, understand that?”
When at last he does embrace the Spider Web theory, he perceives, as well, an approach to moral reflection and ethical conduct which has been shaped by experience and secured by clear thinking. He sees that “the man of idea” (not a metaphysical but a moral and political idealist) and “the man of fact” (an amoral realist) were “doomed to destroy each other”; each on his own is a danger to both self and society. A prudent method in the political sphere or within any other ethical arena balances principles and actual conditions.
Jack comes to accept the fact that human beings live “in the agony of will”: they cannot renounce their moral agency but must choose and act as best they can. At the close of this story, during a discussion of “the theory of the moral neutrality of history,” Hugh Miller, an honest politician, wisely tells Jack: “History is blind, but man is not.”
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The text cited is Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946; reprint, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1996).
 p. 236.
 p. 284.
 p. 75.
 p. 45.
 p. 45.
 p. 472.
 p. 473.
 p. 473.
 p. 661.
 p. 660.
 p. 263.
 p. 264.
 p. 267.
 p. 283.
 p. 657.
 p. 657.
 p. 658.
The featured image is “Stump Speaking” (1853) by George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.