Places: All the King’s Men

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1946

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late 1920’s and early 1930’s

Places DiscussedSouthern state

Southern All the King’s Menstate. Unnamed state in the Deep South that appears to be modeled on Louisiana, whose governor Huey P. Long had a political career during the 1930’s closely resembling that of Warren’s fictional governor, Willie Stark. Warren always denied that Willie Stark, the corrupted politician at the center of the novel, was a fictional version of Huey P. Long. However, there are many parallels between his fictional state and Louisiana, and there can be little doubt that Louisiana’s famous populist governor was the inspiration for the fictional Stark.

Mason City

Mason City. Stark’s hometown, where he begins his climb to political power, is the seat of Mason County. Lying northeast of the unnamed capital of the fictional state, on Highway 58, Mason City represents Stark’s “hick” background, his original innocence and his lack of sophistication at the beginning of his career. It is aptly named because it is also the place where Stark begins his efforts to build a better world by campaigning against the shoddy masonry in a local school building.

Upton

Upton. Town in the western part of the state that is a center of the state’s rural vote. Immediately north of Upton are coal mines, whose workers constitute an important source of votes for political candidates appealing to socially disadvantaged voters. Upton is a pivotal location, because it is there that Stark turns from the purity of intent of Mason City to the cynical, rabble-rousing appeals to the resentments of the common people that will put him in power in the capital city. The name “Upton” symbolizes the upward political movement that Stark begins in the town by compromising his original purity.

Burden’s Landing

Burden’s Landing. Town lying 130 miles southwest of Mason City that is the ancestral home of the novel’s narrator, Jack Burden. Burden’s Landing complicates Warren’s story of a political fall from grace, represented by Stark’s movement from Mason City to the capital. The name of the narrator’s home appears to be symbolic; the site is where the burden of earthly imperfection is found. If Mason City represents the desire to build, Burden’s Landing suggests original sin and inherited guilt. All those from Burden’s Landing turn out to be tainted. After the apparently upright local judge Irwin declares his political opposition to Stark, for example, Burden uncovers evidence that Irwin once took a bribe and drove a man to suicide. This revelation drives Irwin himself to suicide. Afterward, Burden learns that the Judge was actually his biological father. Burden’s Landing, then, is the place where the narrator uncovers the inherited corruption that infects the striving for achievement.

State capital

State capital. Unnamed city in which much of the novel’s action is set–particularly in the state capitol building and in the governor’s mansion. Dr. Adam Stanton shoots Stark in the halls of the capitol, as, in reality Dr. Carl Weiss apparently shot Louisiana governor Huey Long in the halls of Louisiana’s capitol in 1936. The real capital of Louisiana is Baton Rouge, but Warren’s fictional capital city more closely resembles nearby New Orleans.

While the capital city is a place of power and of corruption, it is also a place where Stark makes efforts at virtuous action, once again through the act of building. However, in his attempt to return to the purity of Mason City by building a hospital untainted by graft and without using inferior building materials, Stark alienates his former cronies, and his noble efforts lead to his assassination.

Suggested ReadingsBohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A good general introduction to Warren’s writings. Views the novel as the story of Jack Burden’s philosophical growth. By examining the past, Jack comes to recognize the paradoxical nature of human isolation and simultaneous kinship through the oppressions of sin that bind all humankind.Casper, Leonard. Robert Penn Warren: The Dark and Bloody Ground. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960.Chambers, Robert H., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “All the King’s Men.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. The best collection of criticism on the novel. Discusses such topics as point of view, character studies, significance of the title, the centrality of the Cass Mastern episode, and the search of Jack Burden for a father.Feldman, Robert. “Responsibility in Crisis: Jack Burden’s Struggle in All the King’s Men.” In “To Love So Well the World”: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Penn Warren, compiled by Dennis L. Weeks. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.Guttenberg, Barnett. Web of Being: The Novels of Robert Penn Warren. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1975. An existentialist reading of Warren’s novels. Asserts that the greatness of All the King’s Men results from Warren’s decision to make Jack Burden the narrator of and a chief participant in Willie Stark’s story.Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. Examines the entire body of Warren’s work and in that context views All the King’s Men as both a moral fiction and a political novel.Mizener, Arthur. “Robert Penn Warren: All the King’s Men.” The Southern Review 3, no. 4 (Autumn, 1967): 874-894.Watkins, Floyd C., and John T. Hiers, eds. Robert Penn Warren Talking: Interviews 1950-1978. New York: Random House, 1980. Contains brief but valuable comments by Warren on the relationship of All the King’s Men to the dramatic versions, the significance of the epigraph, and various other aspects of the novel.
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