Published in 1946, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. While many descriptions of the novel focus on Huey Long, the inspiration for Willie Stark, the novel’s central character, I think that such a focus really does a disservice to the novel. Told from the perspective of Jack Burden, who becomes a key player in Stark’s administration, I see it as a much more general story of twentieth century, Freud-inflected American masculinity. Nested narratives telling the stories of Jack Burden, his distant nineteenth century ancestor Cass Mastern, and Willie Stark’s own rise himself and loss of his son, the novel explores the evolution and interdependence of character necessary for these American men.
Highly informed by oedipal conflicts, the men in these stories—Burden, Willie and Tom Stark, Adam Stanton, Cass Mastern, Judge Irwin, Sugar Boy, and the Burden’s various father and stepfather figures primarily identified by their occupations (the “Scholarly Attorney,” for example)—demonstrate in varying degrees the competition, struggle, and interdependence between fathers and sons in their struggle for identity. Jack Burden’s sexualized relationship with his mother seems to be part Oedipal and part Hamlet, as he’s both put off by her hypersexuality as well as paralyzed by her when she turns her charms on him. Willie and Tom Stark provide another tragic father-son dyad, as Tom’s drive to live up to his father’s expectations lead to an out of wedlock child and his own ultimate death from a football injury. Finally, Burden’s own contribution to the death of his own father overtly plays out the Freudian interpretation of the Oedipus story.
Burden’s background as an academic historian provides a useful framework for allowing him to analyze and speculate on the nature of the stories he’s telling. It allows the nested narrative of Cass Mastern, his ancestor who inadvertently contributed to the death of his beloved’s husband, echoing Burden’s own involvement in the death of Judge Irwin, whom he discovers is his biological father, as well as the murder of Willie Stark, certainly a central father figure in the novel. Neither Jack Burden, Cass Mastern, or Tiny Duffy actually pull triggers in these deaths, but in Burden’s analysis are as responsible for these actions as those who held the guns. Ultimately, Burden’s story is of his search for meaning—or, more specifically, for first causes and responsibility.
That his very name is “Burden” underscores the difficulty which he finds his own very existence to pose. Burden’s first explanation is the theory of the “Great Twitch,” which he develops on a spontaneous trip west he takes after discovering that Anne Stanton, the love of his life, has slept with Stark. The "Great Twitch" is a particular brand of nihilism that Burden embraces during this journey westward: "all the words we speak meant nothing and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog's leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through."On his way back from California, Jack gives a ride to an old man who has an involuntary facial twitch. This image becomes for him the encapsulating metaphor for the idea that "all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve." In other words, life is without meaning; everything is motivated by some inborn reflex action and nobody is responsible for their choices or even their own destiny. The emotional distance permitted by this revelation releases Jack from his own frustration stemming from the relationship between Anne Stanton and his boss, and allows him to return to circumstances which were previously unbearable.
Subsequent events (including the tragic deaths of Governor Stark, his lifelong friend Adam Stanton, and Judge Irwin, Jack's father) convince Jack that the revelation of the "Great Twitch" is an insufficient paradigm to explain what he has seen of history. "[H]e saw that though doomed [his friends] had nothing to do with any doom under the godhead of the Great Twitch. They were doomed, but they lived in the agony of will." Ultimately, he grows to accept some responsibility for his part in the destruction of his friends' lives. His reward for this acceptance of responsibility is marriage to Anne Stanton, with whom he has retained an alternately problematic and apathetic attachment to throughout the novel. Especially when he is enmeshed in his family romance role with his sexualized mother, his behavior with Anne is seen to evolve without his conscious participation: they assume they will marry, though make no overt plans. Physical consummation of their relationship is interrupted when an emotional connection is made. As long as Burden does not see other people as people, but as roles, titles, or actors, he is fine; it is when their common humanity is acknowledged, he is paralyzed.
It took me a while to warm up to this book: I have an aversion to narrators such as Burden, who read to me as mid-century, Freud-influenced, white men whining about their unhappiness. Women in this book are two-dimensional and hypersexualized, a common characteristic of this type of book which bothers me. However, I admit that the nested narratives and the ways in which they commented on each other did eventually win me over. Warren’s command of language is at times hilarious and at times beautiful. And the novel’s grasp on such a large scope of its interwoven stories is ultimately successful.