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.
The South and Southern Culture Theme Icon

All the King’s Men is a great American novel, but it is also a novel set in a very particular place and time: the American South of the Great Depression, in Louisiana. As such, the novel has a great deal to say about the nature of life in that region in that time, and, more generally, on the nature of “Southernness,” or the Southern experience.

One fact of Southern life is, and was, the inescapable quandary of race. Burden, in his research on his own family, uncovers a long and tawdry story framed in the lead-up to the Civil War, and involved the selling of an innocent slave "downriver". In Jack’s own time, the only black characters mentioned in the novel are servants or poor denizens of the cities in which he travels. Jack himself is not a racist—or, more specifically, his form of racism is not distinguished from the general racism of his time (he is not notably more racist than others). But Jack, and even the most virtuous of the other characters in the novel, show attitudes toward black residents that are, at best, indifferent, and at worst imbued with a disregard for those residents’ humanity. Other parts of Southern culture are represented in the novel, too. For one, football is an important component of the story-line, and an important part of life in the South—Tom, Stark’s only son, is critically injured in a football game. This event indirectly prompts another series of events leading to Stark’s assassination. Sexual mores in the region are another aspect of the story—although chastity before marriage was important in many parts of the country at this time, Jack’s courtship of Anne, for example, is imbued with a special sexual rigidity. The difficulty of obtaining a divorce in Louisiana causes Lucy to stay with Stark, despite his repeated infidelities.

But Southernness is not just window-dressing in the novel—a way of “fleshing out” a character (and Willie himself is based on a real Louisiana politician, Huey Long). Southernness is part and parcel of Willie. The Boss rose up from nothing—he was a boy working on his father’s small farm—to a position of great power, whizzing around the state in his black Cadillac. The nothingness from which he rose existed only in the South at that time—one of the poorest regions in the country—and so the heights he attained were noticeably greater in relation to this. Similarly, only in the South, by Penn Warren’s rendering, could this kind of dictatorial leadership style, this brand of politicking, be not only possible but encouraged on all levels. Louisiana has long been infamous for the nature of its political graft, and Stark was one of the finest practitioners of what was, essentially, the local political style.

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The South and Southern Culture ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The South and Southern Culture 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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The South and Southern Culture 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 The South and Southern Culture.
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 2 Quotes

About two years after [the schoolhouse] was built, it happened. There was a fire drill, and all the kids on the top floors started to use the fire escapes. . . . Because the little kids held up the traffic, the fire escape and the iron platform at the top got packet with kids. Well, some of the brickwork gave and the bolts and bars holding the contraption to the wall pulled loose and the whole thing fell away, spraying kids in all directions.

Related Characters: Jack Burden (speaker), Willie “The Boss” Stark
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack attempts to describe how, exactly, Willie came to power. Willie did so in part by pushing for a county bond to establish a new, higher quality schoolhouse. The corrupt county politicians agree to build the school, but bid cheaply, and the school eventually falls apart, killing many children inside. What's most striking about this moment, apart from its tragedy, is the means by which Willie uses that tragedy to further his own ends. He makes it plain that he has always opposed these cheap bricks, that he was on the side of the people even though the people didn't know he was on their side - that, in other words, he was, and always has been, a populist champion. This will become Willie's political identity, and he will develop it throughout the novel, even as he ascends to the role of governor in the state. Jack, for his part, recognizes both the sincerity of Willie's desire to help the people, and the way this desire also helps Willie professionally. 

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 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 9 Quotes

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.