Flinging Dirt in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
Robert at 101 Books (one of my favorite blogs) is currently reading All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren. Robert’s posts about the novel and his upcoming review of it have prompted me to remember my experiences with reading and writing about it. All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and I read it for an American literature class during my Master’s degree coursework. It was a class taught by one of my favorite professors, Dr. B., who taught me how to write, how to revise, and how to think critically. I also presented a paper on All the King’s Men at a humanities conference last year.
From All the King’s Men, I learned about the philosophy of Idealism, which is defined by E. D. Hirsch Jr., best known for his work on cultural literacy, as “an approach to philosophy that regards mind, spirit, or ideas as the most fundamental kinds of reality” (95). Many of us may make the mistake of thinking about idealism in terms of being somebody who sees things in a pristine way or in always looking for the best in a situation. However, that is not the correct definition for this philosophy of Idealism, which is a major part of the novel. It is living within one’s mind and believing that only ideas are real. This sort of thinking causes a lot of problems for the novel’s protagonist, Jack Burden (whose name is symbolic), and for the people with whom he comes in contact. Jack identifies with Idealism, saying: “It does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway” (45).
The book is a political novel, and Jack works for Willie Stark, a candidate for governor in the 1930s who has Jack running his errands doing his dirty work. Willie is a typical politician, who hopes to manipulate Judge Irwin into supporting him. During this coercive conversation, Willie makes the novel’s most profound comment on human nature. He says that dirt is a funny thing out of which the whole world is created. Willie muses that we are all made of dirt, including George Washington. However, “it all depends on what you do with the dirt” (69). From Willie’s perspective of “dirt’s” figurative value, the novel then shows us how things turn out depending on what the characters do with “dirt.” Those who use the “dirt” for personal gain or to hurt others find that it comes back to hurt them. Once the protagonist, Jack Burden, decides to leave the “dirt” alone, his life improves. In this, Warren gives us a recipe for living, that is by not using others’ mistakes to harm them for gain.
Jack illustrates his acceptance of this message when he contemplates telling Sugar Boy about Tiny Duffy’s hand in the deaths of Adam Stanton and Willie. If given the information, Jack knows that Sugar Boy will murder Duffy. During a few pages of intense thought, Jack seems to be about to use the “dirt.” However, the angel on his shoulder wins, and Jack finds himself saying, “I was kidding” (634). This moment of humanity is of monumental proportion, showing that Jack has decided not to use the “dirt” to hurt anybody, despite the fact that Duffy is most deserving of such a fate. Jack’s decision marks the end of his Idealism.
Earlier, Jack describes Idealism as a principle to which he owes success. But before Jack espoused this philosophy, he showed an ability to care about others. During his relationship with Anne Stanton when they were teenagers, he undresses her in his bedroom. He acknowledges that when such a thing happens, a “healthy young man” will take advantage of such a situation (445). However, Jack recognizes Anne’s worth and “knew that everything was wrong, completely wrong” (444). He cannot take advantage of her because she is a real person who has an identity (444). He does not consummate their love that summer. Instead, he sees that she is real, understands what such an act will do to her childhood, and respects her. After a few years, however, Jack learns about Idealism and begins to ignore his ability to see others. Jack becomes one who refuses to take responsibility for his actions.
It seems that Warren disdained Idealism and relates this through the way Jack changes, eventually realizing that his actions or words do affect others in tangible ways. Once Jack decides to keep quiet about Duffy’s sins, as Jack knows his own sins are many, Jack’s life improves. He doesn’t use the “dirt” to inflame Sugar Boy to kill Duffy. Jack regards what will happen to others—to Sugar Boy, to Duffy, to Sadie Burke—and makes his decisions accordingly.
We see his life improve following his decision not to tell Sugar Boy. He returns to his roots and makes peace with his family and his past. He does this by visiting Lucy Stark and finding that she is happily caring for her illegitimate grandson, whom she has named after Willie. She doesn’t berate her husband’s memory nor Tom’s follies, but instead leaves that “dirt” lying where it belongs and remembers their good qualities: “He was a great man,” she says. “I have to believe that” (643). Lucy’s ability to forgive, and her belief in Willie despite his mistakes, helps to affirm Jack’s own resolve, that it is time to give up Idealism and to embrace the world as real and deserving of respect in action and word.
Jack also visits his mother and faces the knowledge that because of an affair, Judge Irwin is his biological father. This is a shocking truth to accept, but Jack does so gracefully and with care. His mother dares to ask why Irwin has shot himself, and Jack knows that it had to do with his own part in Willie’s blackmailing him. However, Jack keeps that secret to protect his mother. He does not want to hurt her with the awful “dirt” he has uncovered. It is better left covered, and in keeping it quiet, Jack accepts that his mother is real and would be affected by the full story. He accepts that his words or actions could hurt her. When she asks about what really happened, Jack “looked into her face and studied it” (650). It is as if he is really seeing her for the first time. After lying to her about Irwin’s death, he kisses her goodbye. “I stood there with my arm around my mother’s shoulder and her cheek against mine (her cheek was wet, I discovered)” (651). After she has gone, Jack argues with himself about the lie he told, honestly concluding that is wasn’t for himself, but for her (652). All of these actions show his acknowledgment of his mother as a real person.
Previously, Jack could not understand those who lived the way he has finally found to be right. Jack’s inability to understand the story of Cass Mastern, which he studies while working on a dissertation, causes him to run away and turn to “dirt” flinging politics as a career. Mastern’s story occupies a good chunk of the book, meaning it is significant as part of the novel’s larger scheme, an assumption proved by Warren’s own admission that this section is central to the novel. Jack reads Mastern’s journal filled with secrets and “dirt,” yet Mastern remains one who uses that information to try to do good, despite his mistakes. Jack’s reaction to the story is a satisfying example of his Idealism. Because Mastern cares about others, Jack cannot relate to him. Of himself, Jack acknowledges that he “could not put down the facts about Cass Mastern’s world because he did not know Cass Mastern” (283).
Jack describes Mastern as one who “learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter” (283). Mastern’s view of the world is opposite of Jack’s staunch Idealism. He is cured of such belief after he learns that his actions affect other people. However, at this time, “he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him” (283).
In Mastern’s story, we see one who learns, through trial and error, to use “dirt” wisely. In his youth, he mistakenly carries on an affair with Annabelle Trice, his friend’s wife. This selfishness leads to Duncan Trice’s suicide. This begins Mastern’s realization that his actions affect others. He feels remorse for what he’s done and suffers the consequences through Annabelle’s change and her own grief.
My favorite passage of the book is what Mastern wrote:
“What the hardened man can bear to hear from the still small voice within, may yet be when spoken by any eternal tongue an accusation dire enough to drain his very cheeks of blood. . . . It was not merely the betrayal of my friend. It was not merely the death of my friend, at whose breast I had level the weapon. I could have managed somehow to live with those facts. But I suddenly felt that the world outside of me was shifting and the substance of things, and that the process had only begun of a general disintegration of which I was the center” (266).
This begins Mastern’s realization of a spider-web-like world and of his role in helping or harming others. Mastern changes his life, repenting and giving restitution where it is needed. He is not the Idealist that Jack is, and this accounts for Jack’s inability to understand Mastern or to even write about him. However, Jack is eventually able to understand Mastern. Jack does this fully when he refrains from using the “dirt” he has on Duffy. However, he must first make mistakes before realizing what his actions are doing to the people he loves.
Jack begins to accept reality and the way “dirt” can hurt others as all of the novel’s incidents culminate. He withholds information from Sugar Boy about Willie’s death in order to spare more carnage. He confronts Duffy and almost thanks him for the wakeup call he’s been given through the deaths of Willie and Adam. He tells Duffy, “I admire you for it. It opened my eyes. You see, Tiny, all those years I never thought you were real” (624). He is suddenly aware of others and of their ability to use “dirt.” It allows Jack a realization of his own effect on others. He realizes that the old Jack thought that “everything and everybody looked alike. I didn’t even feel sorry for anybody. I didn’t even feel sorry for myself” (655). His ability to feel, which now directs his use of “dirt” and his care for others, allows him to understand Mastern and the events that have affected his life and family. Jack admits “the change did not happen all at once. . . . There was, in fact, a time when he came to believe that nobody had any responsibility for anything” (656).
Jack becomes a better person, one who recognizes his effect on the world around him. He sees the “great spider web” of the world that can be moved by anybody on it and will ripple out to others. The resolution allows us to see Jack as one who knows how to handle the secrets he knows about others. He is more compassionate and happy. He marries Anne and takes in the “old man who was once married to my mother” (658). Jack also spends his time writing a book about Cass Mastern, “whom I once could not understand but whom, perhaps, I now may come to understand” (660). This represents Jack’s acceptance of reality and his ability to change. He has learned that the way he treats others matters. His ability to use “dirt” wisely has made him a more happy and successful man than he ever was working for Willie Stark. He has developed a new belief that humanity is more important than oneself.
His acceptance of reality and his decision to leave hurtful secrets buried completely changes his character. Jack’s transformation seems a type of redemption, one possible only through forsaking the things of the world and embracing a new sense of how to treat others. He is rewarded for his efforts by the happiness he feels and his ability to accept the one woman he has always loved. Once he moves past the corruptness he has embodied, he becomes a person of substance. Of this change, Jack says, “for only out of the past can you make the future” (656). He also learns that “the discovery of truth had one time robbed me of the past and had killed my father. But in the end, the truth gave the past back to me” (658). This happens because Jack uses the past in more careful ways, instead of flinging the “dirt” of those truths around without regard for others.
Others are not as fortunate as Jack. They do not realize quickly enough that their treatment of others and their use of “dirt” is harming them as much as it is their enemies. This is especially true for Willie Stark, who loses everything, including his life, after foolishly using his power and knowledge to step on others on the way to the top. The most frightening episode of this occurs when Willie, for his own political safety, tries to cover up his son Tom’s illegitimate baby. Willie knows that his opponent wants to use the information to bring him down. He handles the situation by offering the girl money. His wife, Lucy, who stands for morality, is disgusted by attempts to cover up Tom’s mistake. She urges Willie to make Tom marry the girl. However, this event is one in a long string of parenting mistakes that Willie makes. Instead, Willie covers up, or buries, the incident, as “dirt” should be.
However, this “dirt” comes back to haunt Willie because Tom has not learned to accept the consequences of his actions. A few weeks later, Tom is suspended from the football team after carousing with friends and girls again. Because Willie does not want the football team to suffer from Tom’s absence, he forces the coach to let Tom play. This ultimately leads to Tom’s accident, paralysis, and eventual death. The consequence for Willie’s hiding “dirt,” which should’ve been used to teach Tom a lesson, is the death of his son. The tragedy also affects Lucy, who has always tried to do what is right. Warren shows that covering up one’s own sins or the sins of one’s children is a dangerous game, especially when the happiness of others hangs in the balance.
Tiny Duffy also uses “dirt” carelessly, resulting in two deaths. The results of Duffy’s sneakiness are that Adam shoots Willie, who eventually dies, and Sugar Boy shoots Adam to protect Willie. Because Duffy is willing to use “dirt” to selfishly advance his own interests, two people end up dead. The tragedy of this scene is most poignant for Adam, who tends to be one who is most good. When persuaded to take the job as Willie’s hospital administrator, Jack tells Adam that he’s doing it because he wants to do good (356). Willie knows that goodness is what drives Adam, and therefore plays off of this in order to get him to take the job.
Willie and Adam later debate the origins of goodness, with Willie claiming that “you got to make it out of badness . . . because there isn’t anything else to make it out of” (386). Adam argues by saying that you can’t recognize good if you make it from the bad (386). Although there is no clear winner to this argument, Willie’s most scathing indictment of human nature and himself is that “society is just going to cook up a new notion of what is right” (387). This tends to sum up the actions of those who use others and their faults to accomplish things for themselves. For example, Duffy makes up his own rules about what is right in order to secure his position as governor. And, although Adam is essentially good and sees through Willie’s fumbled interpretation of goodness, he falls for society’s twisting of what is right. He finds himself in the middle of Duffy’s plan to use “dirt” for ill gains.
Yet it becomes too much for “good” Adam, and he uses the secret he has learned about Anne and Willie’s affair to murder. He cannot continue to keep himself in line when it comes to Willie’s twisted version of what is right. Adam, a man striving to do good, then becomes another victim to selfishness. He uses the information he has to kill Willie and to assault his own sister. He has lost self-control and uses the “dirt” on his sister to kill her lover. Although this death tends to be somewhat satisfying because of Willie’s carousing, corruptness, and “dirty” politics, it is still the wrong outcome. With Adam’s hysterics, Warren shows the irrational consequences of using “dirt” to one’s advantage or of using it at all. Adam cannot forgive Willie, and instead, becomes a murdering lunatic for the sake of acting out his anger. Adam loses his goodness and his self-control because of a secret he should have never heard.
Overall, the novel “is a variation of the Socratic question: ‘How should a good man live?’” (Pinsker 225). Warren answers that decisively with the way his characters prosper after giving up their use of “dirt” against other people. Jack finds that his Idealism gets him nothing. By finally acknowledging others around him and the way his actions affect them, he finds happiness. Other characters seemingly prosper despite their use of “dirt” for ill gains; however, Duffy’s position of governor does not necessarily mean he is happy, and Willie is not alive to experience the goodness life can offer. From these characters’ use of “dirt,” we can see that it is better to use it carefully.
Hirsch Jr., E.D., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil eds. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Willie Stark and the Long, Thinning Shadow of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.” Virginia Quarterly Review 80 (Fall 2004): 222‑232.
Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.