All the King’s Men is, on one level, a novel about a political strong-man in the South during the 1930s.This aspect of the novel focuses on the political situation into which this man thrusts himself, the conditions from which he arises and tries to change, his rise to power, and the resulting changes that occur in him. If this were all that the novel did, it would be an interesting study of politics and of a political figure.
All the King’s Men, however, is more than simply a political novel, for it is also the story of another man, a former newspaper reporter who works for the politician. As he tells us the story of the politician, the reporter also tells us about himself, about finding himself. Because the reporter was once a student of history, he also explores the effects of the past on the present; indeed, his discovery of the truth about his own past leads him to a new understanding of himself and of the political figure. The result of this second strong character in the novel makes All the King’s Men into a rich and powerful, moving book, one that does not suffer in comparison with any other novel written in America.
The first chapter introduces several important elements. One of the most important of these elements is the setting, the place of the action and the situation out of which that action grows. One thing to note about this
novel is that it does not name the state in which it takes place, nor does it name the capital of that state. Many who have read this novel have assumed that it takes place in Louisiana (with Baton Rouge its capital), but it is obvious that Robert Penn Warren wished to avoid this kind of narrow identification; instead, he would have us view the events of the novel as events that could occur in any state in which the same conditions prevailed. Another reason for avoiding a narrow identification of the state involves a narrow identification of the main character, Willie Stark. If the state is Louisiana, then Willie Stark must be considered a fictionalized portrait of Huey Long. While there is evidence that Warren had Huey Long in mind when he created Willie Stark, there is also evidence that he drew from other sources in creating the fictional character. By avoiding having his novel set in a definite state, Warren forces the reader to think of Willie Stark as a man who is formed by the conditions in which he was raised and by the situation which he feels he must fight against. Willie Stark is more than just one political figure in one particular place; he is a person who could exist wherever human beings live.
The novel opens with a two-and-a-half page description of the highway from the capital city to Mason City. This description is important because it does more than simply tell us about a highway; it tells us a good deal about a particular part of the state, the part of the state in which Willie Stark grew up. The dominating impression is of the heat, the heat that shimmers up from the roadway and obscures whatever is further down the road. It is a heat that dazzles people and makes them forget what they are doing. (This shimmering mirage-like quality of the roadway in the heat is also characteristic of the way that Jack Burden views life and experience.) A second quality of this highway is that it is new; it is a road on which cars can whiz along at high speed, unlike the bumpy, rutted dirt road that Jack later describes when he tells of his first trip to Mason City fourteen years earlier.
Along the highway, during this trip in 1936, are the cotton fields worked by blacks, and these fields are in the southern part of the state. The further north one travels, the red hills emerge, and the stands of pine, many of them burned-over, are reminders of the days when the pine trees were milled until there were no more pine logs to take to the mills. It is poor country. This is the country in which Mason City is located, and it is the country in which Willie Stark grew up.
Of course, the main purpose of this chapter is to introduce Willie Stark, Governor of the state. The chapter does this by showing Willie in two different situations, one in which he is among “home folks,” the other in which he is involved in a piece of political in-fighting; he appears to be quite a different man in each situation.
Standing in front of the people of Mason City, people whom he has known all his life and who elected him to office in the first place, Willie Stark is a “good ol’ boy.” He enters the drugstore quietly, without a fuss. He waits until he is recognized instead of loudly demanding service. He chats with the people, calling them by name. And when he is called upon to make a speech, he does so very subtly. He talks about how a man has to come home at times and about how he himself is not “politickin'” now, although he will be back another time to ask them for their votes. Now, it is true that Willie did come back to see his father, but it is also true that he brought a carload of reporters and a photographer with him. In short, Willie is a shrewd politician, using this occasion to make a visit to the farm and to his home county but also to remind the voters of the state where his roots are and how devoted he is to his family.
While Willie Stark may seem to be simple and easy-going when he comes into town that day, he becomes hard and decisive after he learns that Judge Montague Irwin has endorsed a MacMurfee candidate for the Senate. He gets rid of the reporters and the photographer as quickly as possible. Then after eating the evening meal with his family, he leaves immediately with Jack Burden and Sugar-Boy for Burden’s Landing to have a talk with the Judge. His conversation with the Judge is quiet and drawling, but there is no mistaking the threat behind what he says. He means to have his way, and he means to make the Judge regret opposing him. He makes this very clear when he and Jack and Sugar-Boy are in the car again: he tells Jack to find something which will be politically damaging about Judge Irwin, no matter what it is and no matter how long it takes. Willie Stark is the political power in the state, and he intends to remain at the top, no matter what it takes to do so.
Although the main focus of this first chapter is on Willie Stark, Jack Burden is also introduced to the reader. Jack is of sufficient value to Willie to ride in the car with him and his family, rather than in the other car. He is also close enough to be kept at the farm when the others are sent back to town. He is the person to whom the assignment of finding incriminating information about Judge Irwin is given. At the same time, however, Jack Burden comes from the old aristocracy of the state; Burden’s Landing was named for his ancestors, and he is close to Judge Irwin, close enough for the Judge to prod him about his political associations. Thus, although Jack Burden might seem like just another political henchman at first, by the end of the first chapter, enough information has been provided about him to suggest that he is a much more complex character than that.
Finally, this chapter introduces the motivation for the subsequent action: Jack’s search for information about Judge Irwin’s past is one key idea; the results of the use of that information is another; and Willie Stark’s political activities form yet another. There is, however, a fourth idea that winds itself throughout the novel, an idea that seems to have little to do with the subsequent action. This concept involves an exploration of the past, partly in search of Judge Irwin’s secret dealings, but it also introduces an exploration of the past that Jack Burden must achieve if he is to see his past in relation to his present and thereby find himself and give some meaning to his life. This concept is introduced in this chapter, as Jack recalls his growing up in Burden’s Landing when they arrive in town that night, as well as Jack’s remembering his first meeting with Willie Stark at Slade’s pool hall in 1922.