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A 2 Pages Term Paper on Innocence and Guilt in “All the King’s Men”

     All the King's Men is the story of the rise and fall of a political titan in the Deep South during the 1930s. Willie Stark rises from hardscrabble poverty to become governor of his state and its most powerful political figure; he blackmails and bullies his enemies into submission, and institutes a radical series of liberal reforms designed to tax the rich and ease the burden of the state's poor farmers. He is beset with enemies--most notably Sam MacMurfee, a defeated former governor who constantly searches for ways to undermine Willie's power--and surrounded by a rough mix of political allies and hired thugs, from the bodyguard Sugar-Boy O’Sheean to the fat, obsequious Tiny Duffy.

     Published in 1946 and the winner of a Pulitzer, this novel is narrated by Jack Burden, a journalist and political lackey who serves Willie Stark -- a Louisiana political boss modeled on Huey Long. Jack looks back on his life, and considers the woman he loved, Anne Stanton, who has become one of Stark's mistresses, as he moves forward through a thicket of political intrigue, blackmail, betrayals, suicide and assassination. The story revolves around knowledge -- partial versus complete, subjective versus objective -- and what people do or fail to do based on their imperfect piece of the picture. Drawing on the life of Louisiana governor Huet Long, this darkly lush novel explores the disconcerting embrace of good and evil through the eyes of Jack Burden, sycophant to ruthless Southern demagogue Willie Stark. Warren makes readers think about whether it is nobler to make good out of evil materials than to do no good at all.

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     During a stay in Italy, Warren wrote a verse drama called Proud Flesh, which dealt with themes of political power and moral corruption. As a professor at Louisiana State University, Warren had observed the rise of Louisiana political boss Huey Long, who embodied, in many ways, the ideas Warren tried to work into Proud Flesh. Unsatisfied with the result, Warren began to rework his elaborate drama into a novel, set in the contemporary South, and based in part on the person of Huey Long. The result was All the King's Men, Warren's best and most acclaimed book. First published in 1946, All the King's Men is one of the best literary documents dealing with the American South during the Great Depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a movie that won an Academy Award in 1949.</ All the King's Men focuses on the lives of Willie Stark, an upstart farm boy who rises through sheer force of will to become Governor of an unnamed Southern state during the 1930s, and Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, a cynical scion of the state's political aristocracy who uses his abilities as a historical researcher to help Willie blackmail and control his enemies. The novel deals with the large question of the responsibility individuals bear for their actions within the turmoil of history, and it is perhaps appropriate that the impetus of the novel's story comes partly from real historical occurrences. Jack Burden is entirely a creation of Robert Penn Warren, but there are a number of important parallels between Willie Stark and Huey Long, who served Louisiana as both Governor and Senator from 1928 until his death in 1935.

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     Like Huey Long, Willie Stark is an uneducated farm boy who passed the state bar exam; like Huey Long, he rises to political power in his state by instituting liberal reform designed to help the state's poor farmers. And like Huey Long, Willie is assassinated at the peak of his power by a doctor--Dr. Adam Stanton in Willie's case, Dr. Carl A. Weiss in Long's. (Unlike Willie, however, Long was assassinated after becoming a Senator, and was in fact in the middle of challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.)

     All the King's Men is also the story of Jack Burden, the scion of one of the state's aristocratic dynasties, who turns his back on his genteel upbringing and becomes Willie Stark's right-hand man. Jack uses his considerable talents as a historical researcher to dig up the unpleasant secrets of Willie's enemies, which are then used for purposes of blackmail. Cynical and lacking in ambition, Jack has walked away from many of his past interests--he left his dissertation in American History unfinished, and never managed to marry his first love, Anne Stanton, the daughter of a former governor of the state.

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     When Willie asks Jack to look for skeletons in the closet of Judge Irwin, a father figure from Jack's childhood, Jack is forced to confront his ideas concerning consequence, responsibility, and motivation. He discovers that Judge Irwin accepted a bribe, and that Governor Stantor covered it up; the resulting blackmail attempt leads to Judge Irwin's suicide. It also leads to Adam Stanton’s decision to accept the position of director of the new hospital Willie is building, and leads Anne to begin an affair with Willie. When Adam learns of the affair, he murders Willie in a rage, and Jack leaves politics forever.

     Burden drifts away from Stark, and when he returns four years later for Stark's next campaign, Stark has dramatically changed. Now Stark's election coffers are overflowing, and Burden wonders what he promised to whom for the contributions. Stark vows to the voters that he'll give them new hospitals, schools, roads. And when he's elected, he makes good -- but at the cost of becoming as dirty as the gang he swept out. Where before he'd been a straight arrow, now he's a boozer and a womanizer, double- and triple-timing his wife and girlfriends. He covers up corruption and graft in his administration, and has Burden dig up dirt on his opponents. The people love him, but Stark is out of control.

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     Which goes to show that, despite what everyone says, the people don't really want an honest politician who'll give it to them straight (look what happened to Dukakis). They want someone who'll promise them the moon, no matter how unfeasible that is. And then the people want to be able to be shocked when the only way to supply the moon is through underhanded means. Or that the only person able to give the moon is the conniving type.

     Willie's death and the circumstances in which it occurs force Jack to rethink his desperate belief that no individual can ever be responsible for the consequences of any action within the chaos and tumult of history and time. Jack marries Anne Stanton and begins working on a book about Cass Mastern, the man whose papers he had once tried to use as the source for his failed dissertation in American History.

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Works Cited

All the King’s Men.  Dec. 6

All the King’s Men.  Dec.6, 2001

All the King’s Men. Dec.6, 2001

Johanson, M. (2001).  The Peasants Are Revolting.  ALL THE KING'S MEN  (Movie Review).  Dec. 6, 2001

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