All the King’s Men is, without reservation, one of the great American novels. It may rank behind the greatest of the Faulkner novels — The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and perhaps Light in August — and behind Melville’s magnificent epic of the sea, Moby-Dick, but it belongs among the ranks of other novels that have received more attention, novels such as The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and Invisible Man. Unfortunately, however, All the King’s Men simply has not received the attention it richly deserves.
One of the reasons for this unjustified neglect seems to be a misconception about the subject matter of this novel. The cover of at least one edition, for example, proclaims that it is a novel about “the rise and fall of an American dictator!” Even granting that this is an exaggeration typical of the people who write blurbs for the covers of books, this blurb does a disservice to the novel.
This novel does trace the rise of a political boss, his reign in office, and his death, but it also does much more than that. It shows the political background and the political climate that produced such a person. It evaluates his actions from several perspectives. All the King’s Men would be a good novel if it were only about the rise and fall of Willie Stark (who is a political boss, not a dictator), but it is also a novel about Jack Burden, a man who has lost his past and must find it. Jack Burden’s story introduces an examination of the role of history in individual lives and in the life of a social group. It also introduces into the novel an explanation of the ways in which one person’s actions affect other people and ripple outward from the center, touching both the present and the future. Jack Burden has lived most of his life as though he were wrapped in a cocoon, and his story shows the process by which he is forced to emerge from this cocoon into a new life.
All the King’s Men, therefore, is not just the story of Willie Stark, with Jack Burden only one of the supporting cast. Nor is this novel just the story of Jack Burden, with Willie Stark only one of the sup-porting cast. The lives of these two men are so intertwined that the story of one is, must be, the story of the other. Their stories reinforce one another, but they also clash and set up reverberations that echo throughout the novel, thus enhancing the thematic richness and depth of the novel.
All the King’s Men is also structurally complex. That is, the description of events moves back and forth in time in order to show the relationships between the past and the present, to show how people and events come to be as they are. For example, the events in Chapter One take place in 1936 and show Willie Stark to be a man who gets along with the common people, but they also show that he is a man who can be ruthless in dealing with his enemies. The next two chapters cover events that happen between 1922 and 1936; they show how Willie Stark became a political figure after starting out as an ineffective idealist and how he developed into the tough politician that Warren describes in Chapter One. These two chapters also show how Jack Burden came to be involved with Willie Stark. Chapter Four then moves the reader even further back, to sometime between 1918 and 1921, when Jack Burden was a graduate student in history. This excursion into the past gives us a further idea of Jack Burden’s character and of why he is as he is — a man who will dig out damaging information about a man who was his friend and who had been almost like a father to him. Chapter Five then picks up where Chapter One ended.
Throughout the novel, there are other excursions into the past, though they are not as extended as these mentioned here are. By showing how and why the characters developed as they did and the events were shaped as they were, Warren gives us a greater depth of understanding, a means by which we can measure the characters and the events they shape. Nothing in life is ever neat and simple, and Warren’s structural complexity of the novel helps to demonstrate that idea, and, at the same time, it adds depth to the characters and to the themes.
All the King’s Men is a novel that bears rereading; indeed, several readings are necessary before even the best readers begin to see and put together all of the various facets of the novel. Fortunately, All the King’s Men is also a novel that remains readable after several readings; it offers readers something new each time they pick it up. All the King’s Men is, clearly, one of the finest novels yet produced in America.