Robert Penn Warren
was one of the twentieth century's outstanding men of letters. He found great
success as a novelist, a poet, a critic, and a scholar, and enjoyed a career
showered with acclaim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, was Poet Laureate of the
United States, and was presented with a Congressional Medal of Fr edom. He
founded the Southern Review and was an important contributor to the New
Criticism of 1930s and '40s.
Born in 1905,
Warren showed his exceptional intelligence from an early age; he attended
college at Vanderbilt University, where he befriended some of the most
important contemporary figures in Southern literature, including Allan Tate and
John Crowe Ransom, and where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford
University in England. During a stay in Italy, Warren wrote a verse drama
called Proud Flesh,which dealt with themes of political power and moral
corruption. As a professor at Louisiana State University, Warren had observed
the rise of Louisiana political boss Huey Long, who embodied, in many ways, the
ideas Warren tried to work into Proud Flesh. Unsatisfied with the result,
Warren began to rework his elaborate drama into a novel, set in the
contemporary South, and based in part on the person of Huey Long.
The result was All
the King'sMen, Warren's best and most acclaimed book. First published in 1946,
Allthe King's Men is one of the best literary documents dealing with the
American South during the Great Depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize,
and was adapted into a movie that won an Academy Award in 1949.
All the King's Men
focuses on the lives of Willie Stark, an upstart farm boy who rises through
sheer force of will to become Governor of an unnamed Southern state during the
1930s, and Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, a cynical scion of the state's
political aristocracy who uses his abilities as a historical researcher to help
Willie blackmail and control his enemies.
The novel deals
with the large question of the responsibility individuals bear for their
actions within the turmoil of history, and it is perhaps appropriate that the
impetus of the novel's story comes partly from real historical occurrences.
Jack Burden is
entirely a creation of Robert Penn Warren, but there are a number of important
parallels between Willie Stark and Huey Long, who served Louisiana as both
Governor and Senator from 1928 until his death in 1935.
Like Huey Long,
Willie Stark is an uneducated farm boy who passed the state bar exam; like Huey
Long, he rises to political power in his state by instituting liberal reform
designed to help the state's poor farmers. And like Huey Long, Willie is
assassinated at the peak of his power by a doctor Dr. Adam Stanton in Willie's
case, Dr. Carl A. Weiss in Long's. (Unlike Willie, however, Long was
assassinated after becoming a Senator, and was in fact in the middle of
challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidential nomination of the
Jack Burden --
Willie Stark's political right-hand man, the narrator of the novel and in many
ways its protagonist. Jack comes from a prominent family (the town he grew up
in, Burden's Landing, was named for his ancestors), and knows many of the most
important people in the state.
Despite his aristocratic background, Jack
allies himself with the liberal, amoral Governor Stark, to the displeasure of
his family and friends. He uses his considerable skills as a researcher to
uncover the secrets of Willie's political enemies. Jack was once married to
Lois Seager, but has left her by the time of the novel. Jack's main
characteristics are his intelligence and his curious lack of ambition; he seems
to have no agency of his own, and for the most part he is content to take his
direction from Willie. Jack is also continually troubled by the question of
motive and responsibility in history: he quit working on his PhD thesis in
history when he decided he could not comprehend Cass Mastern's motives. He
develops the Great Twitch theory to convince himself that no one can be held
responsible for anything that happens. During the course of the novel, however,
Jack rejects the Great Twitch theory and accepts the idea of responsibility.
Willie Stark --
Jack Burden's boss, who rises from poverty to become the governor of his state
and its most powerful political figure. Willie takes control of the state
through a combination of political reform (he institutes sweeping liberal
measures designed to tax the rich and ease the burden on the state's many poor
farmers) and underhanded guile (he blackmails and bullies his enemies into submission).
While Jack is intelligent and inactive, Willie is essentially all motive power
and direction. The extent of his moral philosophy is his belief that everyone
and everything is bad, and that moral action involves making goodness out of
Willie is married
to Lucy Stark, with whom he has a son, Tom. But his voracious sexual appetite
leads him into a number of afiairs, including one with Sadie Burke and one with
Anne Stanton. Willie is murdered by Adam Stanton toward the end of the novel.
Anne Stanton --
Jack Burden's first love, Adam Stanton's sister, and, for a time, Willie
Stark's mistress. The daughter of Governor Stanton, Anne is raised to believe
in a strict moral code, a belief which is threatened and nearly shattered when
Jack shows her proof of her father's wrongdoing.
Adam Stanton -- A
brilliant surgeon and Jack Burden's closest childhood friend. Anne Stanton's
brother. Jack persuades Adam to put aside his moral reservations about Willie
and become director of the new hospital Willie is building, and Adam later
cares for Tom Stark after his injury. But two revelations combine to shatter
Adam's worldview: he learns that his father illegally protected Judge Irwin
after he took a bribe, and he learns that his sister has become Willie Stark's
lover. Driven mad with the knowledge, Adam assassinates Willie in the lobby of
the Capitol towards the end of the novel.
Irwin -- A prominent citizen of Burden's Landing and a former state Attorney
General; also a friend to the Scholarly Attorney and a father figure to Jack.
When Judge Irwin supports one of Willie's political enemies in a Senate
election, Willie orders Jack to dig up some information on the judge. Jack
discovers that his old friend accepted a bribe from the American Electric Power
Company in 1913 to save his plantation. (In return for the money, the judge
dismissed a case against the Southern Belle Fuel Company, a sister corporation
to American Electric.) When he confronts the judge with this information, the
judge commits suicide; when Jack learns of the suicide from his mother, he also
learns that Judge Irwin was his real father.
Sadie Burke --
Willie Stark's secretary, and also his mistress. Sadie has been with Willie
from the beginning, and believes that she made him what he is. Despite the fact
that he is a married man, she becomes extremely jealous of his relationships
with other women, and they often have long, passionate fights. Sadie is tough,
cynical, and extremely vulnerable; when Willie announces that he is leaving her
to go back to Lucy, she tells Tiny Dufiy in a fit of rage that Willie is
sleeping with Anne Stanton. Tiny tells Adam Stanton, who assassinates Willie.
Believing herself to be responsible for Willie's death, Sadie checks into a
Tiny Dufiy --
Lieutenant-Governor of the state when Willie is assassinated. Fat, obsequious,
and untrustworthy, Tiny swallows Willie's abuse and con- tempt for years, but
finally tells Adam Stanton that Willie is sleeping with Anne. When Adam murders
Willie, Tiny becomes Governor. Sugar-Boy O'Sheean -- Willie Stark's driver, and
also his bodyguard--
Sugar-Boy is a
crack shot with a .38 special and a brilliant driver. A stuttering Irishman,
Sugar-Boy follows Willie blindly.
Lucy Stark --
Willie's long-sufiering wife, who is constantly disappointed by her husband's
failure to live up to her moral standards. Lucy eventually leaves Willie to
live at her sister's poultry farm. They are in the process of reconciling when
Willie is murdered.
Tom Stark --
Willie's arrogant, hedonistic son, a football star for the state university.
Tom lives a life of drunkenness and promiscuity before he breaks his neck in a
football accident. Permanently paralyzed, he dies of pneumonia shortly
thereafter. Tom is accused of impregnating Sibyl Frey, whose child is adopted
by Lucy at the end of the novel.
Jack's mother -- A
beautiful, "famished-cheeked" woman from Arkansas, Jack's mother is
brought back to Burden's Landing by the Scholarly Attorney, but falls in love
with Judge Irwin and begins an afiair with him; Jack is a product of that
afiair. After the Scholarly Attorney leaves her, she marries a succession of
men (the Tycoon, the Count, the Young Executive). Jack's realization that she
is capable of love--and that she really loved Judge Irwin-- helps him put aside
his cynicism at the end of the novel.
Sam MacMurfee --
Willie's main political enemy within the state's Democratic Party, and governor
before Willie. After Willie crushes him in the gubernatorial election,
MacMurfee continues to control the Fourth District, from which he plots ways to
claw his way back into power.
Ellis Burden -- The
man whom Jack believes to be his father for most of the book, before learning
his real father is Judge Irwin. After discovering his wife's afiair with the
judge, the "Scholarly Attorney" (as Jack characterizes him) leaves
her. He moves to the state capital where he attempts to conduct a Christian
ministry for the poor and the unfortunate.
Theodore Murrell --
The "Young Executive," as Jack characterizes him; Jack's mother's
husband for most of the novel.
Stanton -- Adam and Anne's father, governor of the state when Judge Irwin was
Attorney General. Protects the judge after he takes the bribe to save his
Hugh Miller --
Willie Stark's Attorney General, an honorable man who resigns following the
Byram White scandal.
Joe Harrison --
Governor of the state who sets Willie up as a dummy candidate to split the
MacMurfee vote, and thereby enables Willie's entrance onto the political stage.
When Willie learns how Harrison has treated him, he withdraws from the race and
campaigns for MacMurfee, who wins the election. By the time Willie crushes
MacMurfee in the next election, Harrison's days of political clout are over.
Littlepaugh -- The man who preceded Judge Irwin as counsel for the American
Electric Power Company in the early 1900s. When Judge Irwin took Littlepaugh's
job as part of the bribe, Littlepaugh confronted Governor Stanton about the
judge's illegal activity. When the governor protected the judge, Littlepaugh
Miss Lily Mae
Littlepaugh -- Mortimer Littlepaugh's sister, an old spiritual medium who sells
her brother's suicide note to Jack, giving him the proof he needs about Judge
Irwin and the bribe.
Gummy Larson --
MacMurfee's most powerful supporter, a wealthy businessman. Willie is forced to
give Larson the building contract to the hospital so that Larson will call
MacMurfee off about the Sibyl Frey controversy, and thereby preserve Willie's
chance to go to the Senate.
Lois Seager --
Jack's sexy first wife, whom he leaves when he begins to perceive her as a
person rather than simply as a machine for gratifying his desires.
Byram B. White --
The State Auditor during Willie's first term as governor. His acceptance of
graft money propels a scandal that eventually leads to an impeachment attempt
against Willie. Willie protects White and blackmails his enemies into
submission, a decision which leads to his estrangement from Lucy and the
resignation of Hugh Miller.
Hubert Coffee -- A
slimy MacMurfee employee who tries to bribe Adam Stanton into giving the
hospital contract to Gummy Larson.
Sibyl Frey -- A
young girl who accuses Tom Stark of having gotten her pregnant; Tom alleges
that Sibyl has slept with so many men, she could not possibly know he was the
father of her child. Marvin Frey -- Sibyl Frey's father, who threatens Willie
with a paternity suit. (He is being used by MacMurfee.)
Cass Mastern -- The
brother of Jack's grandmother. During the middle of the nineteenth century,
Cass had an afiair with Annabelle Trice, the wife of his friend Duncan. After
Duncan's suicide, Annabelle sold a slave, Phebe; Cass tried to track down
Phebe, but failed. He became an abolitionist, but fought in the Confederate
Army during the Civil War, during which he was killed. Jack tries to use his
papers as the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation, but walked away from the project
when he was unable to understand Cass Mastern's motivations.
Annabelle Trice --
Cass Mastern's lover, the wife of Duncan Trice. When the slave Phebe brings her
Duncan's wedding ring following his suicide, Annabelle says that she cannot
bear the way Phebe looked at her, and sells her.
Duncan Trice --
Cass Mastern's hedonistic friend in Lexington, Annabelle Trice's husband. When
he learns that Cass has had an afiair with Annabelle, Duncan takes off his
wedding ring and shoots himself.
Phebe -- The slave
who brings Annabelle Trice her husband's wedding ring following his suicide. As
a result, Annabelle sells her.
All the King's Men
is the story of the rise and fall of a political titan in the Deep South during
the 1930s. Willie Stark rises from hardscrabble poverty to become governor of
his state and its most powerful political figure; he blackmails and bullies his
enemies into submission, and institutes a radical series of liberal reforms
designed to tax the rich and ease the burden of the state's poor farmers. He is
beset with enemies--most notably Sam MacMurfee, a defeated former governor who
constantly searches for ways to undermine Willie's power--and surrounded by a
rough mix of political allies and hired thugs, from the bodyguard Sugar-Boy
O'Sheean to the fat, obsequious Tiny Dufiy.
All the King's Men
is also the story of Jack Burden, the scion of one of the state's aristocratic
dynasties, who turns his back on his genteel upbringing and becomes Willie
Stark's right-hand man. Jack uses his considerable talents as a historical
researcher to dig up the unpleasant secrets of Willie's enemies, which are then
used for purposes of blackmail. Cynical and lacking in ambition, Jack has
walked away from many of his past interests--he left his dissertation in
American History unfinished, and never managed to marry his first love, Anne
Stanton, the daughter of a former governor of the state.
When Willie asks
Jack to look for skeletons in the closet of Judge Irwin, a father figure from
Jack's childhood, Jack is forced to confront his ideas concerning consequence,
responsibility, and motivation. He discovers that Judge Irwin accepted a bribe,
and that Governor Stanton covered it up; the resulting blackmail attempt leads
to Judge Irwin's suicide. It also leads to Adam Stanton's decision to accept
the position of director of the new hospital Willie is building, and leads Anne
to begin an afiair with Willie.
When Adam learns of
the afiair, he murders Willie in a rage, and Jack leaves politics forever.
Willie's death and the circumstances in which it occurs force Jack to rethink
his desperate belief that no individual can ever be responsible for the
consequences of any action within the chaos and tumult of history and time.
Jack marries Anne Stanton and begins working on a book about Cass Mastern, the
man whose papers he had once tried to use as the source for his failed
dissertation in American History.
describes driving down Highway 58 with his boss, Governor Willie Stark, in the
Boss's big black Cadillac--Sugar-Boy is driving, and in the car with them were
the Boss's wife Lucy, son Tommy, and the Lieutenant Governor, Tiny Dufiy.
Sugar-Boy drives them into Mason City, where Willie is going to pose for a
press photo with his father, who lives on a nearby farm. The Cadillac is
followed by a car full of press men and photographers, overseen by Willie's
secretary, Sadie Burke. It is summer, 1936, and scorching hot outside.
In Mason City,
Willie immediately attracts an adoring throng of people. The group goes inside
the drugstore, where Doc pours them glasses of Coke. The crowd pressures Willie
for a speech, but he declines, saying he's just come to see his
"pappy". He then delivers an efiective impromptu speech on the theme
of not delivering a speech, saying he doesn't have to stump for votes on his
day off. The crowd applauds, and the group drives out to the Stark farm.
On the way, Jack
remembers his first meeting with Willie, in 1922, when Jack was a reporter for
the Chronicle and Willie was only the County Treasurer of Mason County. Jack
had gone to the back room of Slade's pool hall to get some information from
deputy-sherifi Alex Michel and Tiny Dufiy (then the Tax Assessor, and an ally
of then-Governor Harrison). While he was there, Dufiy tried to bully Willie
into drinking a beer, which Willie claimed not to want, instead ordering an
orange soda. Dufiy ordered Slade to bring Willie a beer, and Slade said that he
only served alcohol to men who wanted to drink it. He brought Willie the orange
soda. When Prohibition was repealed after Willie's rise to power, Slade was one
of the first men to get a liquor license; he got a lease at an exceptional
location, and was now a rich man.
At the farm, Willie
and Lucy pose for a picture with spindly Old Man Stark and his dog. Then the
photographers have Willie pose for a picture in his old bedroom, which still
contains all his schoolbooks. Toward sunset, Sugar-Boy is out shooting cans
with his .38 special, and Jack goes outside for a drink from his ask and a look
at the sunset. As he leans against the fence, Willie approaches him and asks
for a drink. Then Sadie Burke runs up to them with a piece of news, which she
reveals only after Willie stops teasing her: Judge Irwin has just endorsed
Callahan, a Senate candidate running against Willie's man, Masters.
After dinner at the
Stark farm, Willie announces that he, Jack, and Sugar-Boy will be going for a
drive. He orders Sugar-Boy to drive the Cadillac to Burden's Landing, more than
a hundred miles away. Jack grew up in Burden's Landing, which was named for his
ancestors, and he complains about the long drive this late at night. As they
approach Jack's old house, he thinks about his mother lying inside with
Theodore Murrell--not Jack's first stepfather. And he thinks about Anne and
Adam Stanton, who lived nearby and used to play with him as a child. He also
thinks about Judge Irwin, who lives near the Stanton and Burden places, and who
was a father figure to Jack after his own father left. Jack tells Willie that
Judge Irwin won't scare easily, and inwardly hopes that what he says is true.
The three men
arrive at Judge Irwin's, where Willie speaks insouciantly and insolently to the
gentlemanly old judge. Judge Irwin insults Jack for being employed by such a
man, and tells Willie that he endorsed Callahan because of some damning
information he had been given about Masters. Willie says that it would be
possible to find dirt on anyone, and advises the judge to retract his
endorsement, lest some dirt should turn up on him. He heavily implies that
Judge Irwin would lose his position as a judge. Judge Irwin angrily throws the
men out of his house, and on the drive back to Mason City, Willie orders Jack
to find some dirt on the judge, and to "make it stick."
Writing in 1939,
three years after that scene, Jack re ects that Masters--who did get elected to
the Senate--is now dead, and Adam Stanton is dead, and Judge Irwin is dead, and
Willie himself is dead: Willie, who told Jack to find some dirt on Judge Irwin
and make it stick. And Jack remembers: "Little Jackie made it stick, all
Chapter 2 Summary
remembers the years during which Willie Stark rose to power. While Willie was
Mason County Treasurer, he became embroiled in a controversy over the building
contract for the new school. The head of the city council awarded the contract
to the business partner of one of his relatives, no doubt receiving a healthy
kickback for doing so. The political machine attempted to run this contract
over Willie, but Willie insisted that the contract be awarded to the lowest
bidder. The local big-shots responded by spreading the story that the lowest
bidder would import black labor to construct the building, and, Mason County
being redneck country, the people sided against Willie, who was trounced in the
next election. Jack Burden covered all this in the Chronicle, which sided with
After he was beaten
out of offce, Willie worked on his father's farm, hit the law books at night,
and eventually passed the state bar exam. He set up his own law practice. Then
one day during a fire drill at the new school, a fire escape collapsed due to
faulty construction and three students died. At the funeral, one of the
bereaved fathers stood by Willie and cried aloud that he had been punished for
voting against an honest man. After that, Willie was a local hero. During the
next gubernatorial election, in which Harrison ran against MacMurfee, the vote
was pretty evenly divided between city-dwellers, who supported Harrison, and
country folk, who supported MacMurfee. The Harrison camp decided to split the
MacMurfee vote by secretly setting up another candidate who could draw some of
MacMurfee's support in the country. They settled on Willie. One day Harrison's
man, Tiny Dufiy, visited Willie in Mason City and convinced him that he was
God's choice to run for governor.
Willie wanted the
offce desperately, and so he believed him.Willie stumped the state, and Jack
Burden covered his campaign for the Chronicle. Willie was a terrible candidate.
His speeches were full of facts and figures; he never stirred the emotions of
the crowd. Eventually Sadie Burke, who was with the Harrison camp and followed
Willie's campaign, revealed to Willie that he had been set up. Enraged, Willie
gulped down a whole bottle of whiskey and passed out in Jack Burden's room. The
next day, he struggled to make it to his campaign barbecue in the city of
Upton. To help Willie overcome his hangover, Jack had to fill him full of
whiskey again. At the barbecue, the furious, drunken Willie gave the crowd a
fire-and-brimstone speech in which he declared that he had been set up, that he
was just a hick like everyone else in the crowd, and that he was withdrawing
from the race to support MacMurfee. But if MacMurfee didn't deliver for the
little people, Willie admonished the hearers to nail him to the door. Willie
said that if they passed him the hammer he'd nail him to the door himself. Tiny
Dufiy tried to stop the speech, but fell off the stage.
Willie stumped for
MacMurfee, who won the election. Afterwards, Willie returned to his law
practice, at which he made a great deal of money and won some high- proffle
cases. Jack didn't see Willie again until the next election, when the political
battlefield had changed: Willie now owned the Democratic Party. Jack quit his
job at the Chronicle because the paper was forcing him to support MacMurfee in
his column, and slumped into a depression. He spent all his time sleeping and
piddling around--he called the period "the Great Sleep," and said it
had happened twice before, once just before he walked away from his doctoral
dissertation in American History, and once after Lois divorced him. During the
Great Sleep Jack occasionally visited Adam Stanton, took Anne Stanton to dinner
a few times, and visited his father, who now spent all his time handing out
religious iers. At some point during this time Willie was elected governor.
One morning Jack
received a phone call from Sadie Burke, saying that the Boss wanted to see him
the next morning at ten. Jack asked who the Boss was, and she replied,
"Willie Stark, Governor Stark, or don't you read the papers?" Jack
went to see Willie, who offered him a job for $3,600 a year. Jack asked Willie
who he would be working for--Willie or the state.
Willie said he
would be working for him, not the state. Jack wondered how Willie could afiord
to pay him $3,600 a year when the governorship only paid $5,000. But then he
remembered the money Willie had made as a lawyer. He accepted the job, and the
next night he went to have dinner at the Governor's mansion.
Chapter 3 Summary
Jack Burden tells
about going home to Burden's Landing to visit his mother, some time in 1933.
His mother disapproves of his working for Willie, and Theodore Murrell (his
mother's husband, whom Jack thinks of as "the Young Executive")
irritates him with his questions about politics. Jack remembers being happy in
the family's mansion until he was six years old, when his father ("the
Scholarly Attorney") left home to distribute religious pamphlets, and Jack's
mother told him he had gone because he didn't love her anymore. She then
married a succession of men: the Tycoon, the Count, and finally the Young
Executive. Jack remembers picnicking with Adam and Anne Stanton, and swimming
with Anne. He remembers arguing with his mother in 1915 over his decision to go
to the State University instead of to Harvard.
That night in 1933,
Jack, his mother, and the Young Executive go to Judge Irwin's for a dinner
party; the assembled aristocrats talk politics, and are staunchly opposed to
Willie Stark's liberal reforms. Jack is forced to entertain the pretty young
Miss Dumonde, who irritates him. When he drives back to Willie's hotel, he
kisses Sadie Burke on the forehead, simply because she isn't named Dumonde. On
the drive back, Jack thinks about his parents in their youth, when his father
brought his mother to Burden's Landing from her home in Arkansas. In Willie's
room, hell is breaking loose: MacMurfee's men in the Legislature are mounting
an impeachment attempt on Byram B. White, the state auditor, who has been
involved in a graft scandal. Willie humiliates and insults White, but decides
to protect him. This decision causes Hugh Miller, Willie's Attorney General, to
resign from offce, and nearly provokes Lucy into leaving Willie. Willie orders
Jack to dig up dirt on MacMurfee's men in the Legislature, and he begins
frenetically stumping the state, giving speeches during the day and
intimidating and blackmailing MacMurfee's men at night. Stunned by his
aggressive activity, MacMurfee's men attempt to seize the offensive by
impeaching Willie himself. But the blackmailing efiorts work, and the
impeachment is called off before the vote can be taken. Still, the day of the
impeachment, a huge crowd descends on the capital in support of Willie. Willie
tells Jack that after the impeachment he is going to build a massive,
state-of-the-art hospital; Willie wins his next election by a landslide.
During all this
time, Jack re ects on Willie's sexual conquests--he has begun a long-term
afiair with Sadie Burke, who is fiercely jealous of his other mistresses, but
Lucy seems to know nothing about it. Lucy does eventually leave Willie,
spending time in St. Augustine and then at her sister's poultry farm, but they
keep up the appearance of marriage. Jack speculates that Lucy does not sever
all her ties with Willie for Tommy's sake, though teen-aged Tommy has become an
arrogant football star with a string of sexual exploits of his own.
Chapter 4 Summary
Returning to the
night in 1936 when he, Willie, and Sugar-Boy drove away from Judge Irwin's
house, Jack re ects that his inquiry into Judge Irwin's past was really his
second major historical study. He recalls his first, as a graduate student at
the State University, studying for his Ph.D. in American History. Jack lived in
a slovenly apartment with a pair of slovenly roommates, and blew all the money
his mother sent him on drinking binges. He was writing his dissertation on the
papers of Cass Mastern, his father's uncle.
As a student at
Translyvania College in the 1850s, Cass Mastern had had an afiair with
Annabelle Trice, the wife of his friend Duncan Trice. When Duncan discovered
the afiair, he took off his wedding ring and shot himself, a suicide that was
chalked up to accident. But Phebe, one of the Trices' slaves, had found the
ring, and taken it to Annabelle Trice. Annabelle had been unable to bear the
knowledge that Phebe knew about her sin, and so she sold her. Appalled to learn
that Annabelle had sold Phebe instead of setting her free--and appalled to
learn that she had separated the slave from her husband--Cass set out to find
and free Phebe; but he failed, wounded in a fight with a man who insinuated
that he had sexual designs on Phebe.
After that, he set
to farming a plantation he had obtained with the help of his wealthy brother
Gilbert. But he freed his slaves and became a devout abolitionist. Even so,
when the war started, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army.
Complicating matters further, though a Confederate soldier he vowed not to kill
a single enemy soldier, since he believed himself already responsible for the
death of his friend. He was killed in a battle outside Atlanta in 1864. After
leaving to find Phebe, he had never set eyes on Annabelle Trice again.
One day Jack simply
gave up working on his dissertation. He could not understand why Cass Mastern
acted the way he did, and he walked away from the apartment without even boxing
up the papers. A landlady sent them to him, but they remained unopened as he
endured a long stretch of the Great Sleep. The papers remained in their
unopened box throughout the time he spent with his beautiful wife Lois; after
he left her, they remained unopened. The brown paper parcel yellowed, and the
name "Jack Burden,"written on top, slowly faded.
Chapter 5 Summary
In 1936, Jack mulls
over the problem of finding dirt on Judge Irwin. He thinks the judge would have
been motivated by ambition, love, fear, or money, and settles on money as the
most likely reason he might have been driven over the line. He goes to visit
his father, but the Scholarly Attorney is preoccupied taking care of an
"unfortunate" named George, and refuses to answer his
"foul" questions. He visits Anne and Adam Stanton at their father's
musty old mansion, and learns from Adam that the judge was once broke, back in
1913. But Anne tells him that the judge got out of his financial problems by
marrying a rich woman.
At some time during
this period, Jack goes to one of Tommy's football games with Willie. Tommy wins
the game, and Willie says that he will be an All- American. Tommy receives the
adulation of Willie and all his cohorts, and lives an arrogant life full of
women and alcohol. Also during this time, Jack learns from Tiny Dufiy that
Willie is spending six million dollars on the new hospital. Soon after, Anne
tells Jack that she herself had lunch with Willie, in a successful attempt to
get state funding for one of her charities.
Jack decides to
investigate the judge's financial past further. Delving into court documents
and old newspapers, he discovers that the judge had not married into money, but
had taken out a mortgage on his plantation, which he was nearly unable to pay.
A sudden windfall enabled him to stop foreclosure proceedings toward the end of
his term as Attorney General under Governor Stanton. Also, after his term he
had been given a lucrative job at American Electric Power Company. After some
further digging, Jack extracts a letter from a strange old spiritual medium
named Lily Mae Littlepaugh, from her brother George Littlepaugh, whom Judge
Irwin replaced at the power company. The letter, a suicide note, reveals that
the judge received a great deal of stock and the lucrative position at the
power company as a bribe for dismissing a court case brought against the
Southern Belle Fuel Company, which had the same parent company as American
that he visited Governor Stanton to try to convince him to bring the matter to
light, but Stanton chose to protect his friend the judge; when Miss Littlepaugh
visited the governor after her brother's suicide, he again protected the judge,
and threatened Miss Littlepaugh with prosecution for insurance fraud. After
seven months of digging, Jack has his proof.
Chapter 6 Summary
During the time
Jack is investigating Judge Irwin's background, Tommy Stark, drunk, wraps his
car around a tree, severely injuring the young girl riding with him. Her
father, a trucker, raises a tremendous noise about the accident, but he is
quieted when he is reminded that truckers drive on state highways and many
truckers have state contracts. Lucy is livid about Tommy's crash, even though
Tommy is unhurt; she insists that Willie make him stop playing football and
living his rambunctious life, but Willie says that he won't see his son turn into
a sissy, and that he wants Tommy to have fun.
Willie is, during
this time, completely committed to his six-million-dollar hospital project, and
he insists, to Jack's bemusement, that it will be completed without any illicit
wheeling and dealing. Willie is furious when Tiny Dufiy tries to convince him
to give the contract to Gummy Larson, a Mac-Murfee supporter who would throw
his support to Willie if he received the building contract. (He would also
throw a substantial sum of money to Tiny himself.) But Willie insists that the
project will be completely clean, and seems to think of it as his legacy--he
even says that he does not care whether it wins him any votes. He insists as
well that Jack convince Adam Stanton to run it.
Jack knows that
Adam hates the entire Stark administration, but he visits his friend's
apartment to make the offer nevertheless. Adam is outraged, but he seems
tempted when Jack points out how much good he would be able to do as director
of the hospital. Eventually, after Anne becomes involved, Adam agrees to take
the job. He has a conversation with Willie during which Willie espouses his
moral theory--that the only thing for a man to do is create goodness out of
badness, because everything is bad, and the only reason something becomes good
is because a person thinks it makes things better. Adam is wary of Willie, but
he still takes the job--after he receives Willie's promise not to interfere in
the running of the hospital.
During this time
Jack learns that Anne has found out that Adam received the offer to run the
hospital. She visits Jack, and says that she desperately wants Adam to take it.
In a moment of bitterness, Jack tells her about how her father illegally
protected Judge Irwin after he took the bribe. Anne is crushed; but she visits
Adam with the information, and that is what prompts Adam to compromise his
ideals and take the directorship. Anne, Adam, and Jack attend a speech Willie
gives, during which he announces his intention to give the citizens of the
state free medical care and free educations. Anne asks urgently if Willie
really means it, and Jack replies, "How the hell should I know?"
But something nags
the back of Jack's mind: he is unable to figure out how Anne learned that Adam
had been offered the directorship of the hospital. Adam didn't tell her, and
Willie says that he didn't tell her, and Jack didn't tell her. He finds out
that Sadie Burke told her, in a jealous rage—for Sadie says that Anne is
Willie's new slut, that she has become his mistress. Jack is shocked, but when
he visits Anne, she gives him a wordless nod that confirms Sadie's accusation.
Chapter 7 Summary
about Anne's afiair with Willie Stark, Jack ees westward. He spends several
days driving to California, then, after he arrives, three days in Long Beach.
On the way, he remembers his past with Anne Stanton, and tries to understand
what happened that led her to Willie. When they were children, Jack spent most
of his time with Adam Stanton, and Anne simply tagged along. But the summer
after his junior year at the State University, when he was twenty-one and Anne
was seventeen, Jack fell in love with Anne, and spent the summer with her. They
played tennis together, and swam together at night, and pursued an increasingly
intense physical relationship-- Jack remembers that Anne was not prudish, that
she seemed to regard her body as something they both possessed, and that they
had to explore together. Two nights before Anne was scheduled to leave for her
boarding school, they found themselves alone in Jack's house during a
thunderstorm, and nearly made love for the first time--but Jack hesitated, and
then his mother came home early, ending their chance. The next day Jack tried
to convince Anne to marry him, but she demurred, saying that she loved him, but
seemed to feel that something in his unambitious character was an impediment to
her giving in to her love. After Anne left for school, they continued to write
every day, but their feelings dwindled, and the next few times they saw each
other, things were difierent between them. Over Christmas, Anne wouldn't let
Jack make love to her, and they had a fight about it. Eventually the letters
stopped, and Jack got thrown out of law school, and began to study history, and
then eventually he was married to Lois, a beautiful sexpot whose friends he
despised and who did not interest him as a person. Toward the end of their
marriage, he entered into a phase of the Great Sleep, and then left her
After two years at
a very refined women's college in Virginia, Anne returned to Burden's Landing
to care for her ailing father. She was engaged several times but never married,
and after her father died, she became an old maid, though she kept her looks
and her charm. She devoted herself to her work at the orphanage and her other
charities. Jack feels as though she could never marry him because of some
essential confidence he lacked, and that she was drawn to Willie Stark because
he possessed that confidence. Jack also feels that because he revealed to Anne
the truth of her father's duplicity in protecting Judge Irwin after he accepted
the bribe, he is responsible for Anne's afiair with Willie. But he tries to
convince himself that the only human motivation is a certain kind of biological
compulsion, a kind of itch in the blood, and that therefore, he is not
responsible for Anne's behavior.
He says this
attitude was a "dream" that made his trip west deliver on its promise
of "innocence and a new start"--if he was able to believe the dream.
Chapter 8 Summary
eastward back to his life. He stops at a filling station in New Mexico, where
he picks up an old man heading back to Arkansas. (The old man was driven to
leave for California by the Dust Bowl, but discovered that California was no
better than his home.) The old man has a facial twitch, of which he seems
entirely unaware. Jack, thinking about the twitch, decides that it is a
metaphor for the randomness and causelessness of life--the very ideas he had
been soothing himself with in California, ideas which excused him from
responsibility for Willie and Anne's afiair--and begins to refer to the process
of life as the "Great Twitch."
from the rest of the world because of his new "secret knowledge," as
he calls the idea of the Great Twitch, Jack visits Willie and resumes his
normal life. He sees Adam a few times and goes to watch him perform a
prefrontal lobotomy on a schizophrenic patient, which seems to him another
manifestation of the Great Twitch. One night, Anne calls Jack, and he meets her
at an all-night drugstore; she tells him that a man named Hubert Coffee tried
to offer Adam a bribe to throw the building contract for the new hospital to
Gummy Larson. In a rage, Adam hit the man, threw himout, and wrote a letter
resigning from his post as director of the hospital.
Anne asks Jack to
convince Adam to change his mind; Jack says that he will try, but that Adam is
acting irrationally, and therefore may not listen to reason. He says he will
tell Willie to bring charges against Hubert Coffee for the attempted bribe,
which will convince Adam that Willie is not corrupt, at least when it comes to
the hospital. Anne offers to testify, but Jack dissuades her--if she did
testify, he says, her afiair with Willie would become agrantly and unpleasantly
public. Jack asks Anne why she has given herself to Willie, and Anne replies
that she loves Willie, and that she will marry him after he is elected to the
Senate next year.
Willie agrees to
bring the charges against Coffee, and Jack is able to persuade Adam to remain
director of the hospital. That crisis is averted,but a more serious crisis
arises when a man named Marvin Frey--a man, not coincidentally, from
MacMurfee's district--accuses Tom Stark of having impregnated his daughter
Sibyl. Then one of MacMurfee's men visits Willie and says that Marvin Frey
wants Tom to marry his daughter--but that Frey will see reason if, say, Willie
were to let MacMurfee win the Senate seat next year. Willie delays his answer,
hoping to come up with a better solution.
In the meantime,
Jack goes to visit Lucy Stark at her sister's poultry farm, where he explains
to her what has happened with Tom. Lucy is crestfallen, and says that Sibyl
Frey's child is innocent of evil and innocent of politics, and deserves to be
Willie comes up
with a shrewd solution for dealing with MacMurfee and Frey. Remembering that
MacMurfee owes most of his current political clout, such as it is, to the fact
that Judge Irwin supports him, Willie asks Jack if he was able to discover
anything sordid in Judge Irwin's past. Jack says that he was, but he refuses to
tell Willie what it is until he gives Judge Irwin the opportunity to look at
the evidence and answer for himself.
Jack travels to
Burden's Landing, where he goes for a swim and watches a young couple playing
tennis, feeling a lump in his throat at his memories of Anne. He then goes to visit
the judge, who is happy to see Jack, and who apologizes for being so angry the
last time they spoke. Jack tells the judge what MacMurfee is trying to do and
asks him to call MacMurfee off. The judge says that he refuses to become mixed
up in the matter, and Jack is forced to ask him about the bribe and Mortimer
Littlepaugh's suicide. The judge admits that he did take the bribe, and accepts
responsibility for his actions, saying that he also did some good in his life.
He refuses to give in to the blackmail attempt.
Jack goes back to
his mother's house, where he hears a scream from upstairs. Running upstairs, he
finds his mother sobbing insensibly, the phone receiver off the hook and on the
oor. When she sees Jack she cries out that Jack has killed Judge Irwin--whom
she refers to as Jack's father. Jack learns that Judge Irwin has committed
suicide, by shooting himself in the heart, at the same moment he learns that
Judge Irwin, and not the Scholarly Attorney, was his real father. Jack realizes
that the Scholarly Attorney must have left Jack's mother when he learned of her
afiair with the judge. In a way, Jack is glad to be unburdened of his father's
weakness, which he felt as a curse, and is even glad to have traded a weak
father for a strong one. But he remembers his father giving him a chocolate
when he was a child, and says that he was not sure how he felt.
Jack goes back to
the capital, where he learns the next day that he was Judge Irwin's sole heir.
He has inherited the very estate that the judge took the bribe in order to
save. The situation seems so crazily logical--Judge Irwin takes the bribe in
order to save the estate, then fathers Jack, who tries to blackmail his father
with information about the bribe, which causes Judge Irwin to commit suicide,
which causes Jack to inherit the estate; had Judge Irwin not taken the bribe,
Jack would have had nothing to inherit, and had Jack not tried to blackmail
Judge Irwin, the judge would not have killed himself, and Jack would not have
inherited the estate when he did--so crazily logical that Jack bursts out
laughing. But before long he is sobbing and saying "the poor old
bugger" over and over again. Jack says this is like the ice breaking up
after a long, cold winter.
Chapter 9 Summary
Jack goes to visit
Willie, who asks him about Judge Irwin's death. Jack tells the Boss that he
will no longer have anything to do with blackmail, even on MacMurfee, and he is
set to work on a tax bill. Over the next few weeks, Tom continues to shine at
his football games, but the Sibyl Frey incident has left Willie irritable and
dour as he tries to concoct a plan for dealing with MacMurfee. In the end,
Willie is forced to give the hospital contract to Gummy Larson, who can control
MacMurfee, who can call off Marvin Frey. Jack goes to the Governor's Mansion
the night the deal is made, and finds Willie a drunken wreck; Willie insults
and threatens Gummy Larson, and throws a drink in Tiny Dufiy's face. Tom
continues to spiral out of control. He gets in a fight with some yokels at a bar,
and is suspended for the game against Georgia, which the team loses. Two games
later, Tom is injured in the game against Tech, and is carried off the field
unconscious. Willie watches the rest of the game, which State wins easily, then
goes to the hospital to check on Tom. Jack goes back to the offce, where he
finds Sadie Burke sitting alone in the dark, apparently very upset. Sadie
leaves when Jack tells her about Tom's injury, then calls from the hospital to
tell Jack to come over right away.
Jack goes to the
hospital, where the Boss sends him to pick up Lucy. Jack does so, and upon
their arrival they learn that the specialist Adam Stanton called in to look at
Tom has been held up by fog in Baltimore. Willie is frantic, but eventually the
specialist arrives. His diagnosis matches Adam's: Tom has fractured two
vertebrae, and the two doctors recommend a risky surgery to see if the damage
can be repaired. They undertake the surgery, and Willie, Jack, and Lucy wait.
Willie tells Lucy that he plans to name the hospital after Tom, but Lucy says
that things like that don't matter. At six o'clock in the morning, Adam
returns, and tells the group that Tom will live, but that his spinal cord is
crushed, and he will be paralyzed for the rest of his life. Lucy takes Willie
home, and Jack calls Anne with the news. The operation was accomplished just
before dawn on Sunday. On Monday, Jack sees the piles of telegrams that have
come into the offce from political allies and well-wishers, and talks to the
obsequious Tiny. When Willie comes in, he declares to Tiny that he is canceling
Gummy Larson's contract. He implies that he plans to change the way things are
done at the capital. Jack is taking some tax-bill figures to the Senate when he
learns that Sadie has just stormed out of the offce, and receives word that
Anne has just called with an urgent message.
Jack goes to see
Anne, who says that Adam has learned about her relationship with Willie, and
believes the afiair to be the reason he was given the directorship of the
hospital. She tells Jack that Willie has broken off the afiair because he plans
to go back to his wife. She asks Jack to find Adam and tell him that that isn't
the way things happened. Jack spends the day trying to track down Adam, but he
fails to find him. That night, Jack is paged to go to the Capitol, where the
vote on the tax bill is taking place. Here, Jack greets Sugar-Boy and watches
the Boss talk to his political hangers-on. The Boss tells Jack that he wants to
tell him something. As they walk across the lobby, they see a
rain-and-mud-soaked Adam Stanton leaning against the pedestal of a statue.
Willie reaches out his hand to shake Adam's; in a blur, Adam draws a gun and
shoots Willie, then is shot himself by Sugar-Boy and a highway patrolman. Jack runs
to Adam, who is already dead.
Willie survives for
a few days, and at first the prognosis from the hospital is that he will
recover. But then he catches an infection, and Jack realizes that he is going
to die. Just before the end, he summons Jack to his hospital bed, where he says
over and over again that everything could have been difierent.
After he dies, he
is given a massive funeral. Jack says that the other funeral he went to that
week was quite difierent: it was Adam Stanton's funeral at Burden's Landing.
Chapter 10 Summary
funeral and Willie's funeral, Jack spends some time in Burden's Landing,
spending his days quietly with Anne. They never discuss Willie's death or
Adam's death; instead they sit wordlessly together, or Jack reads aloud from a
book. Then one day Jack begins to wonder how Adam learned about Anne and
Willie's afiair. He asks her, but she says she does not know-- a man called and
told him, but she does not know who it was. Jack goes to visit Sadie Burke in
the sanitarium where she has gone to recover her nerves. She tells Jack that
Tiny Dufiy (now the governor of the state) was the man who called Adam; and she
confesses that Tiny learned about the afiair from her. She was so angry about
Willie leaving her to go back to Lucy that she told Tiny out of revenge,
knowing that, by doing so, she was all but guaranteeing Willie's death. Jack
blames Tiny rather than Sadie, and Sadie agrees to make a statement which Jack
can use to bring about Tiny's downfall.
A week later, Dufiy
summons Jack to see him. He offers Jack his job back, with a substantial raise
over Jack's already substantial income. Jack refuses, and tells Tiny he knows
about his role in Willie's death. Tiny is stunned, and frightened, and when
Jack leaves he feels heroic. But his feeling of moral heroism quickly dissolves
into an acidic bitterness, because he realizes he is trying to make Tiny the
sole villain as a way of denying his own share of responsibility. Jack
withdraws into numbness, not even opening a letter from Anne when he receives
it. He receives a letter from Sadie with her statement, saying that she is
moving away and that she hopes Jack will let matters drop--Tiny has no chance
to win the next gubernatorial election anyway, and if Jack pursues the matter
Anne's name will be dragged through the mud. But Jack had already decided not
to pursue it.
At the library Jack
sees Sugar-Boy, and asks him what he would do if he learned that there was a
man besides Adam who was responsible for Willie's death. Sugar-Boy says he
would kill him, and Jack nearly tells him about Tiny's role. But he decides not
to at the last second, and instead tells Sugar-Boy that it was a joke. Jack
also goes to see Lucy, who has adopted Sibyl Frey's child, which she believes
is Tom's. She tells Jack that Tom died of pneumonia shortly after the accident,
and that the baby is the only thing that enabled her to live. She also tells
him that she believes--and has to believe--that Willie was a great man. Jack
says that he also believes it.
Jack goes to visit
his mother at Burden's Landing, where he learns that she is leaving Theodore
Murrell, the Young Executive. He is surprised to learn that she is doing so
because she loved Judge Irwin all along. This knowledge changes Jack's
long-held impression of his mother as a woman without a heart, and helps to
shatter his belief in the Great Twitch. At the train station, he lies to his
mother, and tells her that Judge Irwin killed himself not because of anything
that Jack did, but because of his failing health. He thinks of this lie as his
last gift to her.
After his mother
leaves, he goes to visit Anne, and tells her the truth about his parentage.
Eventually, he and Anne are married, and in the early part of 1939, when Jack
is writing his story, they are living in Judge Irwin's house in Burden's
Landing. The Scholarly Attorney, now frail and dying, lives with them. Jack is
working on a book about Cass Mastern, whom he believes he can finally
understand. After the old man dies and the book is finished, Jack says, he and
Anne will leave Burden's Landing--stepping "out of history into history
and the awful responsibility of Time."
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