All The King's Men

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Themes and Colors
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Politics, Influence, and Power Theme Icon
Personal History, Memory, and Time Theme Icon
The South and Southern Culture Theme Icon
Loyalty, Friendship, and Betrayal Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All The King's Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Personal History, Memory, and Time Theme Icon

Because Burden has known Willie for so long, and because his life has become so intertwined with his Boss’s, the novel is also a poignant examination of the effects of time and memory on personal relationships. The novel is, in many ways, a fictional “memoir” of Burden’s own life and relationships. Burden wonders, frequently, what it means to remember, and comes back often to the memory of Anne, lying back in the water, watching a gull fly overhead. For Jack, this memory of Anne, apart from its romantic significance, is a marker of the young life he can never recapture.

Burden believes, or develops throughout the novel, a philosophy of “motion”—that events and people do not seem real in themselves, but only in relation to other events and people. Therefore one must continually talk to new people (and not become too close to others), and one must be “on the move,” in a car, on the road or in a train, working constantly. Jack lives his life by avoiding life—by never sitting still, and therefore not allowing time and memory to catch up with him. There are others in the novel, however, who have a markedly different relationship to memory and time. Stark, for his part, never forgets a slight, and those who have helped him in the past also receive a “bonus” in the future for their help to him. This is why Willie rewards Slade with a liquor license, for supporting Willie when Willie refused to drink alcohol long ago.

The Scholarly Attorney leaves Jack’s mother when he realizes Jack is not his biological son, and he spends much of his life hiding from reality, helping those on the street who need help, and otherwise refusing to acknowledge the passage of time or the presence of memory. Irwin, though he admits that he took a bribe long ago, does not initially remember the man whose position he took as a result of that bribe—Jack marvels that Irwin has so selectively chosen to manage his own “history” of his life, and Jack wonders, too, whether he has gone about selecting certain memories himself, and crafting a history based only on these memories. Anne and Adam, too, have selective memories of their youth, and want to believe, most strongly, that their father, the former Governor, was a good an honest man, as these are the memories they have of their father—indeed, these memories are the only “family” they have.

Burden ends the novel with a long meditation on the nature of time, that idea that time and memory are moving, always, that they are relative quantities rather than fixed absolutes, and that Burden’s efforts to “beat” time, to fix his memories in place, and to find happiness in those memories is impossible. Instead, Burden realizes he will have no life that is not in the past, not in the future, but in the present—that “period” of time which has been most difficult for him to handle, his entire life.

Personal History, Memory, and Time ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Personal History, Memory, and Time appears in each chapter of All The King's Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Personal History, Memory, and Time Quotes in All The King's Men

Below you will find the important quotes in All The King's Men related to the theme of Personal History, Memory, and Time.
Chapter 1 Quotes

We would come into Burden’s Landing by the new boulevard by the bay. The air would smell salty, with maybe a taint of the fishy, sad, sweet smell of the tidelands to it, but fresh nevertheless. It would be nearly midnight then, and the lights would be off in the three blocks of down-town . . . .

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Burden's Landing is a town of real importance to Jack - as the name suggests, it is the "seat," historically, of his own family, which for a long time has wielded real clout in Louisiana politics. When Burden and Willie go back to Burden's Landing, they are more or less going back in time, to a place where politics is based on personal relationships.

Burden's view of Burden's Landing is a fundamentally romantic one. He sees it in its natural beauty, as a place of childhood and innocence. He sees it, too, as a place where he fell in love for the first time - and it is forever linked both to that love, which will be developed later in the novel, and to the ultimate frustration of it, which will cause Jack many years of heartache after the fact. For the novel to begin with this nighttime drive to Burden's Landing is to signal, here, that the Landing is perhaps the most important, the most emotionally rich and complex, of the novel's many locales. 


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Chapter 3 Quotes

The sky was darker now, with a purplish, greenish cast. The color of a turning grape. But it still looked high, with worlds of air under it. A gull crossed, very high, directly above me. Against the sky it was whiter even than the sail had been. It passed clear across all the sky I could see. I wondered if Anne had seen the gull.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker)
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Burden's relationship to Burden's Landing is one of pure nostalgia. He associates that place with a freer, simpler time in his life - with a world where political influence and powerful families were one (even when that influence wasn't used for the good of the many). And, of course, he thinks of Anne when he thinks of his hometown - the "girl who got away," the woman with whom he thought he was going to spend his life.

Jack's connection to the southern, marine part of Louisiana is in contrast to Willie's connection to the northern, Arkansas-like portion of the state, which is far more rural, and less defined by families of long standing and great wealth. If Burden's Landing represents homecoming and power for Jack - power that he sometimes courts and sometimes dismisses - it represents for Willie a concentration of power that is to be fought with and superseded if he is to maintain his influence. 

If the government of this state for quite a long time back had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys? And would he be having to make so many short cuts to get something done to make up for the time lost all these years . . . ?

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark, Judge Irwin, Jack’s Mother, Mr. and Mrs. Patton
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack Burden defends Willie's actions as Governor to the Irwins and the Pattons, families that represent some of the oldest and most powerful interests in the state - the bulwarks of Burden's Landing and of southern Louisiana more broadly. Jack is caught between two worlds. On the one hand, he hints that he recognizes the crudeness of Willie's methods, his populism, and his attempts to woo voters by catering to their emotions rather than to their rational minds. But Jack also sees that Willie is invested in real change, and that he wants to make the state better. Those in power, like the Irwins and Pattons, who have been in power for a long time, do not necessarily want to change the status quo to help those less fortunate. Indeed, for them the status quo is what makes them powerful in the first place. And even as Jack dines with and socializes with these families, he sees how limited their worldview is. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

Jack Burden came into possession of the papers from the grandson of Gilbert Mastern. When the time came for him to select a subject for his dissertation for his Ph.D., his professor suggested that he edit the journal and letters of Cass Mastern, and write a biographical essay . . . .

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Cass Mastern
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

Before Jack was a reporter and a political operative for Willie Stark, he was a graduate student. His willingness to dig down into the muck of historical records and official documents is one of his great strengths as a political employee later in life - and this is why, or at least part of why, Jack brings up Cass Mastern. 

But Jack also seems to find something simply compelling about Cass as a human being. Through the veil of the past, Jack believes he shares some of Cass's star-crossed luck. Jack's ability to identify with those from the past - indeed, his desire to live in the past - is one of his notable characteristics, and is a clear contrast to Willie, for whom there is only forward motion, more planning, and future great accomplishment. Jack's involvement with the past is in no sense more pronounced, indeed, than when he speaks to Anne, with whom he is still in love, even though they are now friends. 

But now and then Duncan Trice had to be out of town on business, and on those occasions Cass would be admitted, late at night, to the house . . . so he actually lay in the very bed belonging to Duncan Trice.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Cass Mastern, Duncan Trice
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

Duncan Trice took Cass "under his wing," and showed him how to behave as a Southern gentleman should. Jack discovers this in the letters, and sees, too, that Cass falls in love with Duncan's wife, Annabelle. 

Here the patterning of the novel turns inward, as Jack realizes, although does not state explicitly, that Cass, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, falls in love with an "Anna" just as Jack falls in love with Anne. And it later is revealed that Anne has been having an affair with Willie Stark, meaning that Jack, like Cass, is the "other man."

Thus Penn Warren creates what is called a "mise en abyme," or a pattern of repeated narratives within the text. Jack looks into the past and finds, despite himself, his own predicament - although at the time of his research, he does not know that he will be working for Willie, nor that Anne will wind up having a romantic affair with him. 

. . . the day came when Jack Burden sat down at the pine table and realized that he did not know Cass Mastern. He did not have to know Cass Mastern to get the degree; he only had to know the facts about Cass Mastern’s world. But without knowing Cass Mastern, he could not put down the facts about Cass Mastern’s world.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Cass Mastern
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

As in his descriptions of Burden's Landing, Jack is a romantic - for good and for ill. His sensibility allows him to fall quickly and deeply in love with ideas, with stories, with people. He takes a great deal of enjoyment in his graduate work, and throughout this chapter, he demonstrates to the reader just how skilled he is as a researcher, how willing he was to devote a chunk of his life to reaching back into the archives and describing the past.

But, as this passage indicates, he was not simply interested in describing the past - he wanted to find out the "truth" of Cass Mastern's story. And because he could not discover that truth - though he did not exactly know what the truth might mean - he abandoned the project, never getting his doctorate. This is the flip side of Jack's romanticism - it causes him to take up projects passionately, but it causes him to abandon them just as absolutely when he no longer cares for them or gives them up as impossible. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Then it was another day, and I set out to dig up the dead cat, to excavate the maggot from the cheese, to locate the canker in the rose, to find the deceased fly among the raisins in the rice pudding.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Judge Irwin
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel has now looped back to its initial story - that of the meeting between Willie, Jack, and Judge Irwin, in the middle of the night in Burden's Landing. Willie needs Irwin to work with him, and Irwin is not inclined to do so; thus Willie asks Jack to find "dirt" on Irwin, as Jack describes in this passage, using an array of metaphors. This is, in part, Jack's theatrical and descriptive flourish - he was a doctoral student, after all, and has a literary turn of mind.

But it also shows the bind that Jack is in. On the one hand, he wants to help his boss - but on the other, he realizes he must subvert one of the deepest friendships he has, with a man who mentored him in his youth. Jack is being asked to choose, effectively, between his past and his present (and future) - and he sides with Willie. 

For the physical world, though it exists and its existence cannot be denied without blasphemy, is never the cause, it is only result, only symptom, it is the clay under the thumb of the potter . . . .

Related Characters: “The Scholarly Attorney” (speaker)
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack's father (or step-father), the "Scholarly Attorney," is now something of a religious mystic, a man who lives in a small, dirty apartment, who takes men in off the street in acts of charity, and who appears not to have much by way of steady employment. In a sense, Jack is torn between the world of the Scholarly Attorney and that of the high social polish of Burden's Landing, where the Scholarly Attorney's behavior is considered scandalous.

Jack's life as a graduate student approached that of his father's in Jack's renunciation of the comforts he might have been able to enjoy in the Landing. But Jack also looks at his father skeptically, now, as a man who has given up on life, and who has decided to reject everything he once knew, for an existence that is both radically generous and more or less removed from the lives of "normal" working people. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more . . . .

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Adam Stanton
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack and Adam, as Jack recounts, were good friends long ago - as close as brothers, especially considering the fact that Jack was in love with Anne Stanton, Adam's sister. Adam is a doctor who does not make much money, who thinks highly of his professional calling, and has vowed to do good for the region - and who believes that Jack's association with Willie is a tarnish on Jack's reputation.

Here, Jack argues that his friendship with Adam, though it is always present in their conversations, has vanished - that it is only the ghost of that friendship that is now apparent. Jack realizes that this feeling also characterizes his relationship with Anne, and that their previous intimacy is now only the faint outline of that intimacy. Jack wonders whether he and Adam can ever become close enough again to speak honestly with one another - if not as they did in the past, then at least in some approximation of it. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

I had had a puncture in the morning and so didn’t hit Long Beach till about evening. I drank a milk shake, bought a bottle of bourbon, and went up to my room. I hadn’t had a drop the whole trip. I hadn’t wanted a drop. I hadn’t wanted anything, except the hum of the motor and the lull of the car and I had had that.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol (“Likker”)
Page Number: 407
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack describes these periods of his life - which are shocks, panic attacks, and instances of major depression all wrapped into one - as Great Sleeps. Anne's affair with Stark prompts another such Big Sleep, and the only thing that can assuage him is a trip to Los Angeles, to the water -  a trip that, at the time Jack undertakes it, would require many days.

Jack feels he must see the entire sweep of the western United States to rid himself of the idea of Anne with another man. This, although he knows that Anne no longer loves him, and that their relationship will not work - that he and Anne exist together only in the past, not in the present or the future. Yet the idea of Anne with Willie is a betrayal - but of what, Jack is not quite sure. Nevertheless, it prompts him to seek solitude in a faraway place and solace in alcohol.

Don’t be silly . . . and don’t call me Jackie-Bird.
But you are Jackie-bird . . . .
Don’t you love me?
I love Jackie-Bird; poor Jackie-Bird.
God damn it, don’t you love me?
Yes . . . I do.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Anne Stanton (speaker)
Page Number: 436
Explanation and Analysis:

The revelation of Anne's affair with Willie prompts for Jack the memories of their relationship - of the times they shared primarily in Burden's Landing. Anne and Jack are in love with one another, yet their relationship carries within it a strain, perhaps the strain of expectations, since the two of them spent so much time together from a young age.

When Jack and Anne go to college, a separation begins that will wind up running through their relationship, and causing it to crumble. But Jack can point to no single event - other than the night in which they attempt to have sex, but do not have time before Anne's parents return - that signals their demise as a couple. Instead, they have grown apart just as they had grown up together. And it is this, the fact that their love did not last, that is harshest for Jack. It is this that prompts so much anxious revulsion at the idea of Anne and Willie together. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

I did fine until they started the burning. For taking out the chunks of brain they use an electric gadget which is nothing but a little metal rod . . . and there is some smoke and quite a lot of odor . . . .

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker)
Page Number: 479
Explanation and Analysis:

Burden, when he is back from his trip to California, meets with Adam and attempts to take up where he left off - serving Willie (Jack and Willie do not discuss Anne). Jack is shocked by Adam's use of a full lobotomy to help a schizophrenic man. Jack considers this procedure bizarre and inhumane, despite Adam's genuine desire to help the patient. And afterward, Jack tells Adam to "baptize" the man, as he is born again after the surgery.

Thus Jack conflates the human mind, and the way it changes over time, with a religious idea, that of baptism and spiritual rebirth. Of course, Jack has just returned from his own "rebirth," although it is not clear how his life has changed after the trip to Los Angeles - only that he can never see Anne and Willie the same way again, after finding out about their affair. 

What would it cost? Well, MacMurfee was thinking he might run for Senator . . . so that was it.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Harrison and MacMurfee
Page Number: 499
Explanation and Analysis:

The revelation of this quote causes Willie to activate his long-held plan of using his "dirt" on Judge Irwin. MacMurfee is in Irwin's pocket, and MacMurfee now thinks that, having learned that Willie's son has gotten a girl pregnant, he (MacMurfee) can use this as leverage to gain a senate seat in Louisiana, the same seat Willie has had his eye on for years.

Willie, of course, is not going to allow MacMurfee's plan to unfold, and he therefore relies on Jack to go to Burden's Landing and talk to Irwin. It is blackmail of a third party to defeat blackmail against himself, and Willie knows that it is entirely personal - that MacMurfee wants to use a detail from Willie's son's life to derail Willie's career. Thus Willie, who believes that all political battles are personal ones, has no problem sullying Irwin's reputation to keep MacMurfee from sullying his own. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

God damn it, so the bastard crawled out on me.
I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t tell you to scare him to death, I just told you to scare him.
He wasn’t scared.
What the hell did he do it for then?

Related Characters: Willie “The Boss” Stark (speaker), Jack Burden (speaker), Judge Irwin
Page Number: 535
Explanation and Analysis:

Irwin's suicide, which mirrors Littlepaugh's suicide years before in the American Electric case, is a double blow for Jack. First, it is an indicator of what can go wrong when one person tries to utterly ruin another - that second person always has the horrible option of ending his or her life, thus stopping the power dynamic of blackmail. And, even more importantly, Irwin's act causes Jack's mother to reveal that Jack is really Irwin's son - that Jack was the child, out of a wedlock, of a romantic union between his own mother and Judge Irwin.

This latter piece of news is almost too much for Jack to bear. For not only does he learn that his own father, the Scholarly Attorney, is not his biological father - he learns that he has caused his biological father to kill himself, all for political gain for Willie Stark, not even for Jack Burden. 

Sugar-boy was leaning above him, weeping and sputtering, trying to speak. He finally managed to get out the words:
“D-d-d-does it hur-hur-hur-hurt much, Boss--?”

Related Characters: Willie “The Boss” Stark (speaker), Sugar-Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 598
Explanation and Analysis:

Willie's lieutenants, those who have supported him his entire political life, who have believed in him since he was a young and unpolished man - they gather around him now, in the hospital he has built, hoping that he does not die of the gunshot wound he has suffered in the capital (the bullet fired by Adam). Willie's operatives (particularly Sugar-Boy) are loyal to him to the end, vowing that, if he does die, he will not die in vain, and that the state will long recognize Willie's achievements.

But Jack, seeing Willie suffer, has a more complex set of emotions. For Adam has killed Willie, in part, for sleeping with Anne - thus "ruining" Anne's reputation, as Adam sees it. Jack, of course, is devastated to know about Anne's relationship with Willie, and the fact that Anne and Willie seem to be genuinely in love. Knowledge of the affair caused Jack to drive away to Los Angeles, and perhaps, too, to give up on romantic possibility altogether. This same revelation happened to drive Adam to murderous frenzy. 

He died the next morning, just about day. There was a hell of a big funeral. The city was jam-packed with people, all kinds of people . . . people who had never been on pavement before.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark
Page Number: 603
Explanation and Analysis:

The people of Louisiana adore Willie. He was their champion all his life, a populist hero for the state, who made his career early on by defying large-scale political interests and the moneyed classes that ruled Louisiana. Willie dared to put the interests of the people first, and to use them to gain political power.

That, at least, is the public story. In private, however, and as the novel demonstrates, Willie was a populist as much for his own advancement as for the sake of the people's. He saw that he could do good by promising to be one of the people, not a special interest - yet he became so powerful that no one, he felt, could touch him. And Willie, by the end of his life, believed that any tactic was fair to pursue for political purposes - any kind of blackmail, any kind of illicit or behind-the-scenes leverage. It is this second part of his political life that the people on the sidewalks did not see, and Jack knows this. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

. . . and soon we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Anne Stanton
Page Number: 661
Explanation and Analysis:

For Jack, the events of the novel work on two planes. On one, they are the events of one man's political life, his rise and his fall, his idealism, his populism, and eventually a demise predicated on the kinds of hard-nosed techniques he himself used to attain and keep power. Jack sees Willie's life as a powerful example of how governing in America works, how "democracy" functions - how the power of a personality can make the power of a man.

But Jack also sees Willie's life as pointing to larger themes - the changes in Southern society that lead to new populist leaders, and that dismantle the old ways of doing things in the moneyed parts of the state. Willie is also connected to the idea that love can be wrapped up in power, and loyalty inherent in disloyalty - that perhaps there is no such thing as loyalty at all. Jack, ever the romantic and idealist, is deeply dismayed at what he has seen, and wonders what the remainder of his life will look like. Jack and Anne are now together, and as they take care of the Scholarly Attorney, they try to knit together a life that has, over time, become complex and sad, a part of the long, complex, and often sad history of that part of the United States.