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All the King's Men has a complex structure, and the relationships among events can be difficult to grasp at the first reading. To clarify the structure, the following discussion divides most chapters into sections. The title of each section refers to the main topic of the section.
SECTION ONE: MASON CITY
Jack Burden begins his story by taking you on a trip from the capital in the southern part of an unnamed state to Mason City, the home of Governor Willie Stark, in the northern part. It's a dazzling, hot day. You pass through the flat country where blacks are working the cotton fields. In the distance you see clumps of live oaks, among which the big houses of the landowners are safely hidden. On the sides of the new blacktop highway are rows of whitewashed shacks, with black children sitting on doorsteps sucking their thumbs.
Then, you pass through the land of red clay hills, on which pine forests once stood. Now the trees are gone. The mills are gone. And the millowners have left, with their pockets full and with diamond rings on their fingers. On the land remain only the poor, unemployed "hicks." You are entering Mason City.
NOTE: THE LANDSCAPE
The landscape of All the King's Men is the most subtle "character" in the novel. It is poor in resources and economically stripped-a portrait of the Depression-era South, ravaged by industry and personal greed. To call the landscape a character may seem odd, but to narrator Jack Burden it is a living thing that forms the characters of men and women. And, in turn, the landscape is formed by men and women. This reciprocal process also occurs within the political structure of the state: Kingmakers form kings and kingmakers are formed by kings. Thus, the intertwining of the landscape's character and the human political character is a significant aspect of the story that Jack tells.
Key words to note in the descriptive opening passages are "black" and "dazzle." Amid the black conditions of the times ("black dirt," "black smoke," "blackstrap molasses," "black skull and crossbones"), Jack Burden is dazzled by the changes that are taking place. Also, notice the narrator's use of "you" in his attempt to make you, the reader, a part of his experience.
At this point Jack tells you he is remembering an event that happened three years ago in 1936. The Boss, Governor Willie Stark, has assembled an entourage to accompany him to his father's farmhouse in Mason City for family photographs. Driving the Boss's Cadillac is Sugar-Boy, a young, short, balding Irishman who eats sugar cubes, stutters, and carries a handgun. Also in the Cadillac are the Boss's son and wife, political lackey Tiny Duffy, and Jack. In the other car are the Boss's secretary, a photographer, and some reporters.
The party arrives in Mason City on a Saturday afternoon. An unusual feature of the town is the clock on the courthouse tower. It is not a real clock; its painted hands always point to five o'clock. Could the interpretation be that time stands still in Mason City? How might time be said to stand still in this part of the rural South?
NOTE: TIME AND MEMORY
Throughout All the King's Men the concept of time is enormously important. Jack Burden is trying to understand his present situation by looking into his own past and into the past of the major figures in his life. He is struggling to accept his past, so that he can go on with his life.
In order to portray the struggle within Jack's consciousness, Robert Penn Warren uses the narrator's memory of events to organize this tale. Thus, Warren does not employ a strict chronological sequence of events. Memory is spurred by associating one idea with another. One technique to simulate the way that memory works is the flashback. This novel has many flashbacks. Some are elaborate-that is, they tell a minor yet relevant story within the major story-and some are brief remembrances associated with the immediate story.
Willie walks into the drugstore. Suddenly, the crowd of people come alive, because Willie has been recognized. He grabs the hand of an old man, Malaciah, and asks how he's been doing. Malaciah tells him about his son, who has had some "bad luck" and is now in prison for stabbing someone. Meanwhile, the drugstore owner sets up the house with free colas. And all the people beg Willie to make a speech. With his head slightly bowed, Willie walks outside and climbs to the top of the courthouse steps. Jack observes the Boss closely. He sees the bulge and glitter of Willie's eyes, which suggest the coming of something important. For Jack, the suspenseful moment before Willie speaks is as cold and clammy as the moment before opening a telegram. Why does Jack experience suspense in this moment? What is he waiting for?
Here, Jack reveals that he is something of a philosopher-that is, a person who seeks to understand the nature of human beings and their place in the universe. He shares a bit of his wisdom with the reader when he says: "The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't do. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him." Jack wants to acquire a certain kind of knowledge-self-knowledge. And part of what he wants to know about himself is why he is attracted to Willie. Is it possible that by understanding Willie Jack will understand himself? Why?
Willie tells the crowd of home folk that he is not going to make a speech. But make a speech he does-a speech about not making a speech, about not doing any "politickin'" today. He says that he has come home to visit his pappy and to eat smokehouse sausage. What the Boss has to say doesn't matter to the crowd. They take pleasure simply in basking in his glow.
As the Cadillac leaves the town square, heading for the Stark homestead, it passes the schoolhouse. This building reminds Jack of the first time he met Willie. It was in 1922, during Prohibition times, in a speakeasy. Willie, in his capacity as Mason County Treasurer, was in the capital on business about a bond issue for a new schoolhouse.