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.
The South and Southern Culture ThemeTracker
The South and Southern Culture Quotes in All The King's Men
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 . . . .
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.
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.
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 . . . ?
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 . . . .
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.
. . . 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.
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.
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.
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.