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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 1 | Summary



The novel begins with an epigraph in Italian: Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde. The verse, which comes from Canto III of Dante's Purgatorio, means "So long as hope retaineth aught of green."

Two cars barrel down Highway 58, cutting through a rural area in a southern state; the time period is the early 1930s The first car, a Cadillac driven by Sugar-Boy, has as passengers Willie, the governor; his wife, Lucy, and their son, Tom; Willie's employee Jack Burden; and the lieutenant governor Tiny Duffy. In the car behind them are Willie's secretary, Sadie Burke; a photographer; and some hired hands.

The cars enter Mason City, Willie's hometown, and park in front of a drugstore. The passengers pile out of the cars and enter the drugstore, where a huge picture of Willie hangs above the counter. A few people stare with astonishment at Willie; some dare to nervously shake his hand. A man named Malaciah tells Willie that his son had some bad luck; he stabbed a man. Willie expresses his sympathy. Willie orders cokes, which come free of charge. A crowd has begun to form outside the store; some people ask Willie to give a speech. Willie, followed by his entourage, heads outside and walks through the crowd, which parts before him. He stands on the steps of the courthouse and tells the crowd he's not going to give a speech and he's not going to ask for their votes. He's just come to visit his father.

As the group drives out of town, Jack remembers when he first met Willie. Jack was in a pool room with Tiny Duffy, a huge man who worked as a tax assessor. Alex Michel, a young man with political aspirations, brought in Willie and ordered beers for the four of them, but Willie insisted on having a soda. Alex made fun of Willie for being so strait-laced, but Willie remained resolute. At the time Willie was working as the county treasurer.

Back in the present day Willie tells Jack to hire the right kind of lawyer to help Malaciah's son beat the stabbing charge. Jack marks this order down in his black book, one of many filled with Willie's orders. The two cars arrive at the farmhouse of Willie's father, where the photographer takes a picture of Willie with an ancient dog and with his father. Jack goes into the backyard and has a slug of whiskey from his flask. After a while Willie joins him and also drinks from the flask. Soon Sadie hurries up, out of breath, and tells Willie that Judge Irwin is backing Callahan. Willie gets upset, calling Judge Irwin a bastard.

Sugar-Boy next drives Willie and Jack to Burden's Landing, Jack's hometown and where Judge Irwin lives. Jack tells Willie that it's beneath him as governor of the state to intimidate the judge; besides, the judge doesn't scare easily. Willie, however, doesn't care. Jack remembers spending his boyhood in this town with his friends Adam and Anne Stanton and becoming infatuated with Anne. However, they never married, and Anne remains single, still living in Burden's Landing. Jack also recalls how his father, Ellis Burden, left his family. Jack's mother remarried, but Jack hated his stepfather, Theodore Murrell. The judge was the only person who treated Jack like his son.

At an impressive house the judge greets Jack as an old friend, but when he sees Willie the judge goes cold. Willie invites himself into the house. The judge confirms he withdrew his support of Willie's man, Masters, for a Senate nomination and instead is supporting Callahan, whom he finds more reliable. Willie claims he'll dig up dirt on Callahan, but the judge doesn't budge on his decision. Then Willie threatens to find and publicize a scandal about the judge, who orders Willie from the house. As they leave, the judge insults Jack for being Willie's boy. In the Cadillac Willie tells Jack to find dirt about the judge and make sure it sticks. Jack says he might not be able find anything, to which Willie replies, "There is always something."


The epigraph is part of a verse from The Divine Comedy that reads, "By curse of theirs man is not so lost that eternal love may not return, so long as hope retaineth aught of green." The epigraph sets the tone for a novel in which all will seem cursed and dark until the moment of redemption at the end.

For Jack, therefore, history is an active and sometimes annoying part of the present. As Jack Burden accompanies Willie to his hometown and to Burden's Landing, Jack remembers aspects of his past, which are interwoven with the current narrative. For example, when Jack drives out of Mason City, he recalls how he first met Willie. Later when Jack heads through his hometown, Burden's Landing, he thinks about his childhood with Adam and Anne Stanton. Jack doesn't want to think about his relationship with Anne because it still has a painful effect on him. In addition Warren shows the effect of time through the changes that happen to people and places. Willie, for instance, seems to be a very different person now than he was years ago when Jack first met him. Places have changed dramatically, such as the area where Willie grew up. Jack says, "pine forests here a long time ago ... are gone. The bastards ... set up ... mills."

As a result he can't help thinking about why changes happen, even though he doesn't want to. For example, because he and Anne did not marry, Jack knows she has remained single and is becoming an old maid. He says, "I didn't want to remember. If the human race didn't remember ... it would be ... happy." The changes of time, therefore, compel responsibility for action, despite resistance. Indeed the author gives Jack the last name of Burden because he constantly struggles with the responsibility of history. Jack's history is especially focused on his hometown, which appropriately is called Burden's Landing.

The theme of the burden of history is closely linked with another major theme: personal responsibility. In Chapter 1 Warren touches on this theme with Jack. At one point Jack plays a game with himself when he hears but does not see a person approach in Willie's father's backyard. He pretends that if he doesn't know who this person is then the person coming into the yard would not exist: "What you don't know don't hurt you, for it ain't real." In other words Jack is trying to insulate himself from taking any responsibility for his life. Later in the novel Warren more fully develops this theme as Jack continues to struggle with taking responsibility for his own personal history.

The novel begins by showing Willie and his entourage recklessly driving down a highway, not caring about causing a serious accident. This scene introduces the theme of ambition and corruption. The reckless drive represents the unbridled ambition of Willie, who is relentless in his pursuit of power. Willie sits in the front seat with his son and stares at the speedometer, seemingly enraptured by the speed and unruliness of the drive. In a symbolic way Willie seems to be caught up in his ambitious rush for power. The methods Willie uses to achieve his ambitions are riddled with corruption. Willie shows this when he tells Jack to arrange for Malaciah's son to get off for a crime, even though the young man is guilty. Jack writes down Willie's order in a black book. He has many other black books filled with orders from Willie, which are hidden in a safe. These books, he says, are "worth their weight in gold to some parties to get their hands on." The books, therefore, must be filled with orders from Willie that break the law.

Willie justifies his corruption through the rationalization that everyone is corrupt. He sees corruption as a natural part of life and trying to get things done. Willie refers to the scandals resulting from corruption as "dirt." Willie says, "There ain't a thing but dirt on this ... globe. It's dirt makes the grass grow." For Willie, therefore, a person must break the rules and be corrupt to achieve anything of worth. The reason for Willie's cynical attitude has not yet been revealed. For Jack, Willie has an aura of mystery about him, which Willie promotes. For instance, Willie doesn't even explain to Jack the reasons why he winked at him when they first met. Willie wants to keep his reasons vague.

Willie has duplicity about him. He appears to be one type of person but in reality is someone quite different. Jack noticed this when he first met Willie. For example, Jack at first thought Willie looked pudgy, but he later realized he had a firmness underneath his soft exterior. In the drugstore Willie gives the appearance of being an honest man of the people. Although he values his rural roots, Willie is anything but honest. But he hides his corruption behind an affable exterior. When Willie talks with Judge Irwin, the author contrasts two types of exterior personas. Willie appears like the rural good-old-boy; the judge appears like the virtuous, cultured, southern gentleman. However, the judge might be as duplicitous or hypocritical as Willie. At the end of the chapter Jack implies that he did find some dirt on the judge that stuck.

In addition, in Chapter 1 Warren introduces another major theme: fathers and sons. Willie uses his father for publicity but doesn't seem to have any real affection for him. In fact when Willie's father asks his son to stay at his house for the night, Willie abruptly refuses. On the other hand Jack has an affection for Judge Irwin, who treats Jack as his son. Because of this, the judge's scorn toward Jack as Willie's muckraker cuts him deeply. Also Jack seems reluctant to dig up dirt on the judge because he respects him. Jack has already suffered disillusionment from his biological father, who abandoned his mother and him.

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