Upon its publication in 1946, All the King’s Men generated a multitude of reviews and critiques. Despite their number, the early commentators were almost entirely consistent in reading this tale of a Southern demagogue not as fiction but as either a polemical condemnation or a celebration of dictatorship and fascism, and hence praising or denouncing it on these grounds.1 Dismayed by the early reactions, Robert Penn Warren argued in 1953 that it “was not meant to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out.”2 Subsequently, the majority of literary critics have taken his word for it and have in general played down the importance of the overtly political plot of the novel and emphasised the “deeper” issues, such as the search for self-knowledge, the acceptance of responsibility, the importance of history, and the tension between pragmatism and idealism. In 1958, for example, Thomas H. Carter wrote that “Mr. Warren’s real interest, even in All the King’s Men, has never been merely in politics,”3 and 23 years later James H. Justus affirmed that “integration of the self, not the merits of the political strongman, is the chief concern.”4 The idea that the main concern of the novel is not Willie Stark’s political trajectory but Jack Burden’s search for selfhood is iterated by the majority of critics.5
Given the hysterical nature of the early reviews, Warren’s desire to downplay the politics of the novel is understandable. However, neither the suggestion that a novel concerned with the political machinations and inner workings of a state governor’s office could be “not…about politics,” nor the idea that issues such as pragmatism, idealism and identity are separate from politics, is credible.6 I would argue that the many “deeper concerns” of All the King’s Men are inextricable from its engagement with politics: with the changing delineations of the arenas of the state and the individual, with the responsibilities of government to its citizens and of citizens to their society, with the future of democracy in America, and specifically with the New Deal and its implications for racial dynamics in the South.
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All the King’s Men is clearly set in New Deal America,7 specifically the South, where economic conditions were the worst. It depicts a time of Depression and ensuing political change, the birth of the welfare state, and its reception, both positive and negative. Most of the events take place in the 1930s, and the action ends in 1939. The novel begins in medias res with Governor Willie Stark and his aide Jack Burden roaring down a road towards Mason City in a convoy in 1936. The road “is a good highway and new…straight for miles, coming at you,”8 a larger than life symbol of the reforms and improvements Willie has forced upon the state.
We are told that Willie campaigned on the idea of a new tax programme, with the aim of raising taxes on companies profiting from the state’s natural resources and using the money to build infrastructure desperately needed by the poor, mostly rural citizens. New Deal legislation made the federal government responsible for many things that were formerly the province of the individual or of local communities. This is clearly a preoccupation in the novel: “government is committed these days to give services we never heard of when we were growing up” (124). Once in office, Willie raises taxes (136), builds “numerous new speedways” (229) and invests in public healthcare (136), culminating in his building “the God-damnedest, biggest, chromium-platedest, formaldehyde-stinkingest free hospital and health center the All-Father ever let live” (139). The point of the hospital is that “any poor bugger in this state can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime” (231), and this is “not as charity. But as a right” (261).
The opponents of Willie’s reform programme frame their opposition in the same way opponents of the New Deal framed theirs. At a dinner party, Jack is told “there’s a constitution in this state, or was before [Willie] blew it to hell” (124). The conservatives, with “lots of money and a manly candor,” from Jack’s upper-class birthplace, Burden’s Landing, are vehemently against “free this and free that and free other. Every wool hat jackass thinking the world is free” (124). They complain about Willie raising taxes, arguing that this will “throttle business and enterprise in the state” (392), and accuse him of demolishing the checks and balances within the democratic system and packing the Supreme Court to get his bills through.
In the only published discussion of the novel in the context of the New Deal to date, Michael Szalay argues that it constitutes a conservative critique of the project of liberal reform.9 I believe it is a much more complex consideration of the reforms of the New Deal and their implications for American democracy than Szalay contends. Willie himself clearly represents the sort of charismatic demagogue feared by conservatives in the 1930s, and many critics have pointed out the parallels between Willie and Huey Long or Mussolini, making it possible to argue that the novel demonstrates a conservative’s nightmare vision of a liberal demagogue trampling over the structures of democracy. However, the issue is never clear, because the reforms Willie achieves are demonstrated to be desperately needed, as the reforms of the New Deal arguably were, and because the novel is equally critical, if not more so, of the preceding conservative governments.
It is made clear that Willie’s rise to power was allowed or even necessitated by the lethargy and indifference of previous governments. As Jack says in an argument with a conservative family friend, “if the government of this state for quite a long time back had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys?” (125). The opponents of Willie’s reforms are portrayed in a highly unsympathetic light, concerned not with the poor people of the state or with preserving democracy, but that their own finances may be affected by increased taxation: “the pocketbook is where it hurts” (393). In short, Willie may have contempt for the democratic process but so did the genteel regimes that came before him, and, as Joseph H. Lane Jr. has pointed out, the latter were “clearly less interested in the public good.”10
The argument over the constitutionality of liberal reform was dramatised in the careers of both Huey Long and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a clash between the legislature and the judiciary. This is a major concern of the novel, reflected in the fatal collision between Adam Stanton, “the man of idea,” and Willie Stark, “the man of fact,” which Jack calls “the terrible division of their age” (436). Adam represents the sort of rigid, old-fashioned idealism that characterised the Supreme Court in the New Deal era. As such, he isolates himself, choosing non-participation and keeping his “little mitts clean” (259) over immersion in an imperfect world. By contrast, Willie’s philosophy translates as a sort of radical relativism, an extreme form of the pragmatism represented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).11 Over the course of the novel, he quickly comes to embrace the Machiavellian belief that the ends justify the means.12
Crucially, the division between Adam and Willie is to a great extent a class division. We are told that Adam is an idealist “because he is Adam Stanton, the son of Governor Stanton and the grandson of Judge Peyton Stanton and the great-grandson of General Morgan Stanton” (247). In contrast, Willie is “not a gentleman” (44) but “a hick” (93), and his expedient reforms mainly benefit the neglected poorer people of the state. Despite FDR’s attempts to establish national unity, class was also at the heart of many of the bitter debates surrounding the New Deal.13 In All the King’s Men, though Willie’s amoral expedience comes in for strict censure, because he does act, and often in a way that creates positive change, condemnation of him is, in Jack’s words, “half right and half wrong” (403). By contrast, Adam’s conservative idealism is shown to be irrational and crippling, stunting his ability to act or participate in the world at all until he murders Willie. The murder is no more democratic than Willie’s political machinations, and it is much more lethal.
Thus, although the picture is ambivalent, the novel is not a conservative excoriation of liberal reform. In All the King’s Men, political change has potentially positive outcomes, and inaction is arguably the most dangerous option. Furthermore, at a deeper level, the novel also seems to endorse some of the key tenets of the New Deal – that people are inter-related and should thus care about one another beyond the bounds of traditional familial relationships,14 and that this inter-relation goes hand in hand with responsibility, both personal and political.15 Many have noted that Jack’s search for self-knowledge requires him to both recognise his inter-relation with other people and take responsibility for his actions, but have failed to see the political resonances of this. Critics such as Szalay, Carl Freedman, and Richard H. King have gone so far as to propose that Jack is only able to achieve self-knowledge by retreating from politics into the private realm and that by telling the story through Jack, Warren reduces the political to the personal and so, in the words of King, “the wider symbolic resonance is simply not there.”16
However, All the King’s Men actually shows that for Jack, the personal is inescapably political. All the key figures in Jack’s personal life are involved in politics. He grows up surrounded by judges and attorneys, becomes a political journalist, and later goes to work for the governor. This is a novel in which important political decisions are made in smoky private offices and hotel bedrooms, and in which numerous love triangles and affairs occur in workspaces and across the personal–political boundary, as Jack’s family members, lovers, colleagues and political paymasters overlap and collide. As against the argument that the novel reduces the political to the personal, I contend that it shows instead how what is personal is fundamentally politicised. Whether this is positive or negative is ambiguous, but either way it would be impossible for Jack to retreat to a private realm untouched by politics because the novel quite clearly demonstrates that there is no such place, and does so in specifically New Deal terms. Rather than involving a withdrawal to the private realm, Jack’s search for self-knowledge eventually requires him to accept responsibility for his role as a citizen in a democracy and to acknowledge the political effects of his actions. Moreover, the very terms of Jack’s search are delineated by deeply political concerns. He is searching for selfhood at a time when the borders of self and state, personal and political, were being redrawn.
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I have touched on a number of ways in which All the King’s Men can be considered a meditation on the New Deal. I want now to focus in on one of the most interesting and fraught aspects of both the New Deal and the novel – the role of race. Although as C. Vann Woodward has argued, “the New Deal moved circumspectly in dealing with racial injustice and civil rights,”17 and for most of the 1930s FDR attempted to sidestep the issue of race and appease southern Senators in order to get his economic legislation passed, New Deal policy drastically altered the relationship between black and white people in the South, and, as Richard Godden has argued, inadvertently exposed the injustice of the former relationship.18 Furthermore, conservatives realised the potential impact of New Deal social legislation on white supremacy even before FDR dared to touch civil rights, and over time increasingly opposed it, with the South becoming increasingly Republican during this period. Thus, I want to preface my discussion of race in All the King’s Men by proposing that, as a result of the perceived threat New Deal legislation posed to white supremacy, to talk about the New Deal in the segregated South from the mid-1930s onwards was to talk about race, even when this was not made explicit. Although in reality New Deal reform did not improve the lives of most African Americans, in the minds of white southerners it quickly became synonymous with the spectre of racial equality. During this period, race became a signifier for opposition to labour rights and government intervention, and vice versa.
In All the King’s Men, when Freedman and Szalay argue that the political is reduced to the personal, they see Warren’s desire to evade the issue of race as the reason for this.19 This is strange, because race is literally at the heart of this novel, in the form of chapter 4 – the Cass Mastern story. Like Warren’s other novels, one of the central concerns of All the King’s Men is the importance of History, here with a capital H.20 Jack the history student attempts and fails to flee the past that is embodied in his doctoral dissertation – a tale of Civil War, racial guilt, and personal responsibility – which he abandons but which follows him wherever he goes.
Forrest G. Robinson has provided a compelling account of Cass’s narrative in which he argues that Cass’s “deepest, most tormented moral anguish arises from his involvement in race-slavery and from what he takes to be its direct tragic legacy – the Civil War.”21 However, he goes on to propose that Cass’s “penetration into the reality of race-slavery…makes no impression on Jack’s consciousness”22 – that Jack evades the issue of race throughout the novel, and that therefore by extension Warren does.23 I want to argue, firstly, that although I agree with Robinson that Jack tries to evade the meaning of Cass’s narrative, the novel shows this to be impossible. Moreover, I must disagree with the idea that Warren, who wrote both Cass’s story and the story of Jack trying and failing to elude its direct application to his own life, is actively evading race in this novel. On the contrary I believe that at this point in time avoiding the issue was as impossible for Warren as it is for Jack, and that what we partly see in the way the book brings together the southern past of slavery and racial guilt with a complex and multifaceted consideration of the pros and cons of liberal reform is Warren’s attempt – conscious or unconscious – to think through what this means for himself and for his politics.
Jack, who is fascinated by the story and by his connection to Mastern, abandons his PhD because he cannot understand it or perhaps “because he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him” (189). The central message of Cass’s story that Jack recoils from has been understood by most critics in somewhat vague terms as the need to take responsibility for your actions and their consequences, intended and unintended. However, it seems abundantly clear that the ominous thing he is meant to take responsibility for involves the southern past of racial injustice and its implications for him in the present. It cannot be incidental that the word “burden” is used repeatedly to describe Cass’s guilt, that this is the surname given to Jack, and that Cass’s story is a literal burden to Jack. As Anthony Szczesiul has noted, “even though Jack has literally tried to leave the Cass Mastern story behind him through his successive moves, the package containing Cass’s journal, letters, photograph, and ring keeps following him. The legacy of the past – particularly, in this case, the historical legacy of slavery – cannot be left behind.”24
Jack’s lack of self-knowledge – the purported central concern of the novel – is closely related to his attempts to avoid any sense of responsibility and his tendency to flee. Among the things he flees, Cass’s story and the “reproach” it contains is key. Although he tries to abandon his thesis, Jack tells us gloomily that he knows the past and present are “forever tied together” (310). The narrative affirms this structurally through multiple layered flashbacks, and both the personal and collective past constantly infest the present. Although, as the narrator, Jack tries to contain – or, one might say, segregate – the Cass Mastern story in one section and thus separate it from the main narrative, its implications bleed into every aspect of his search for self-knowledge.
Besides his PhD, race also seems to be implicated in his other evasions. Early in the novel, Jack calls himself a “brass-bound Idealist” (106), which, as Charles Bohner has pointed out, he cites as an excuse for withdrawal and non-participation.25 Jack spends the majority of the narrative desperately trying not to participate. He repeatedly states that he has nothing to do with Willie’s policies or actions, despite being Willie’s right-hand man and his constant presence in the places power is being wielded. On the rare occasions that he expresses a political opinion, he quickly follows it by saying he is just offering “a proposition for the sake of argument” (125).
As I have mentioned, class is vital to the high-minded, non-participatory idealism portrayed in All the King’s Men. Although he works for Willie, Jack comes from the aristocratic, rich part of the state, from a place that is actually named for his family. His aversion to participation stems from the moment he and his childhood sweetheart Anne Stanton are about to consummate their relationship when Jack is overcome with the sense that it “wouldn’t be right” (295). Although he believes he “acted out of nobility” (297) in not having sex with Anne, he later comes to realise that almost all of the negative events of the story can be traced back to his inability to act on that occasion: “I couldn’t help but reflect that if I hadn’t been so noble – if it was nobility – everything would have been different” (297). Interestingly, the word “noble” is repeatedly used to describe this lethal inaction to which everything negative can be ascribed, including the death of Willie Stark, the populist.
It is worth noting at this point that the event that first involves Willie in politics has a racial dimension. The politicians of his hometown give a government grant for a new school to a corrupt contractor, Moore, known to have financial connections to the County Commissioner’s brother-in-law. Willie protests that they should have taken the lowest bid for the building work rather than awarding the contract to Moore. The lowest bid, that of Jeffers, involved the use of black labour, and so this is used to discredit Willie and cover up the nepotism: “Pillsbury started howling that Jeffers would bring in a lot of Negroes…and worse, some of the Negroes would be getting better pay, being skilled laborers, than the men he would pick up around Mason City” (60). Thus, despite race being absent from Willie’s political rhetoric,26 in the eyes of his opponents he is a “nigger-lover” (57) from the start, indicating – as I have suggested – that liberal reform was synonymous with racial equality in the minds of many white southerners. Notably, Jack, who is followed around by symbolic racial guilt, is driven to work for Willie for reasons he does not understand. After he interviews the racists in Mason City’s courthouse, he walks away incredulously thinking “They ain’t real…nary one” (57), but then reflects “Oh, they are real, all right, and it may be the reason they don’t seem real to you is that you aren’t real yourself” (58). Thus, he links his lack of self-knowledge and feeling that the world does not make sense to racism.
Jack’s aristocratic upbringing is the thing he runs away from first and most consistently. He eschews his mother’s money, refuses to attend an Ivy League university, insists on living in squalor at the State University, and later refuses to take a job through a family connection, instead going to work for Willie, who appals his mother and their mostly conservative family friends, who are incensed by the idea of untrammelled reform and increased taxation. Jack identifies mostly clearly with Willie’s policies when he is at a dinner party in Burden’s Landing and becomes aware that “they all assumed that even though I did work for Willie my heart was with them…my heart was in Burden’s Landing” (125).
Although it is not set out in these terms, there is no question that the money sloshing around in Burden’s Landing that Jack is so keen to avoid is inherited wealth from slave plantations.27 Willie describes Judge Irwin’s power in terms of racial inequality: “you been sitting back here in this room and nigger boys been single-footing in here bringing you toddies…when you wanted anything you just reached out and took it” (46). Crucially, at the heart of Irwin’s crime is his “plantation where the cotton grows white as whipped cream and the happy darkies sing all day, like Al Jolson” (216), which Jack will later inherit. Jack is Irwin’s sole heir “except for a few minor bequests to servants” (354) – thus, the inheritors of white supremacy and black exploitation are African Americans and Jack. It is worth pausing again here on the word “noble,” which is so fatal in the novel. As I have discussed, noble is the word used as a justification for not acting and for shirking responsibility, which Jack says has “almost as dire a consequence as Cass Mastern’s sin…Which may tell something about the two worlds” (297). Post-colonial theorists such as Laura Doyle have demonstrated that the words ‘noble’ and ‘race’ have been yoked together repeatedly throughout history, particularly to justify racial superiority.28 In Jack’s investigation he discovers that the apparently unimpeachable Judge Irwin committed a crime to save his property, and that Anne and Adam’s father, a former governor of the state, helped to cover it up. Thus, the noble aristocrats are actually criminals, and the fact that the crime involves not Irwin’s house but his plantation seems to signal a deeper sense of guilt. Notably, those who are the clearest beneficiaries of racial inequality in the present time are also those trying to halt liberal reform.
There are few black characters in the novel outside of Cass’s narrative. Those who do exist are minor characters, “some nigger boy” in the background (47), usually serving someone drinks in Burden’s Landing. Notably, the black people who have created the wealth that built Jack’s bright white hometown are not depicted. Given the high proportion of people in the South who were black at this time, it is interesting to consider the ways in which Jack’s narrative serves his attempts not to see what he surely sees, and not to know what he must know.
The words black and white come up repeatedly in the novel, with the blackness of Jack’s noirish present life being contrasted with the bright white simplicity of his childhood memories of Burden’s Landing, where “we were safe inside a white house” (103).29 When Jack discovers that Judge Irwin is not in fact unimpeachable, which he calls “a blackness of truth” (343), it seems to catalyse a reconsideration of his idealised memories of Burden’s Landing that allows him to better understand why he fled the life that was expected of him. This process is nodded to on the first page of the novel, which begins with Willie and Jack driving to Burden’s Landing to see Irwin. As the car speeds along the road that Willie has built, Jack sees “black” and “white” frantically “flash” outside of the windows of the car:
You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to at just the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder of the slab and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb. And maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke…and he’ll say, ‘Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!’ And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, ‘Lawd God,’ and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph (1).
Significantly, as Jack imagines that the confrontation with the past might kill him, the potential witnesses are black labourers. Robinson notes that it is also significant that the African Americans here are indifferent to the possibility of Jack’s death – they laugh, perhaps “testimony to their secret contempt for white people.”30 Szalay has argued that this scene enacts Jack’s “willed amnesia,”31 but we could also see it as evoking the return of the repressed, particularly because it comes as he is driving towards Burden’s Landing at the start of the investigation that will entail a re-evaluation of his past, and beside him is Willie, the New Deal reformer.
Knowledge is powerful and dangerous in the novel, which is saturated by a sense of original sin. Willie asserts that “there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe” (45), and his political philosophy is underwritten by this concept. Thus, “you don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient” (337). Jack finds this to be true when he investigates Judge Irwin, and in a sense his uncovering of the sins of the past constitutes a sin of his own. As a result of this sin, which leads to the reframing of Jack’s childhood, Jack is described as having metaphorically fallen, and this goes hand in hand with the repeated mention of darkness and the feeling of eyes upon him, recalling Cass’s narrative. In a particularly Faulknerian moment, when Irwin kills himself and Jack’s mother is in her bedroom paralysed with grief screaming that he has killed his father, there are “a couple of black faces at the door…those all-seeing, all-knowing eyes” (349).
The idealised image of Burden’s Landing is lost and cannot be regained. The inability of the real world to correspond to his idealised memories is shattering for Jack, and specifically connects back to his thesis, because “a student of history does not care what he digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past” (157). Throughout the narrative, as he flees his PhD, his family, his home – he is always fleeing symbolically the southern history of racial inequality and violence and its manifestations in the present. The idea that the past should be the arbiter of the present is usually a profoundly conservative one. However, in All the King’s Men, the obsession with history is more complex and freighted with anxiety. The urgent need to learn from the past is complicated by apprehension over whether the right lessons are being learned.
As I have discussed, Jack and Anne’s failed sex scene is a crucial moment that is supposedly responsible for all sorts of terrible things that happen afterwards. It also seems to be the catalyst for Jack fleeing Burden’s Landing and its attendant privileges. Fascinatingly, race is also implicated here. Anne, whose hair is wet from the rain, is described as putting her hair – notably, with the help of Jack – in braids like a “pickaninny” (292). When Jack looks at Anne in her “pickaninny hair ribbons” lying on the “white counterpane” he is arrested by an idealised image of her when they were younger floating in the water with a “white gull flashing high over” and immediately he is overcome with the sense that “everything was wrong, completely wrong” (295). In his discussion of Faulkner, Godden has suggested that the erotic can be a mask worn by the economic.32 Here, it is as though race might taint Jack’s idealised childhood memories – as if he is backing away from acknowledging that their perfect summers were underwritten by wealth that came from black exploitation. As Jack later fretfully asks Anne in reference to their childhood, “why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful?” (207). Jack finds he cannot have sex with Anne because she has become a sort of conduit for racial injustice, and in particular for Jack’s inheritance as a wealthy landowning southern man. Notably, Jack experiences the first stirrings of moral responsibility in this scene as he tells Anne “‘it wouldn’t be right.’ So I used the word right, which came to my lips to surprise me, for I…hadn’t ever thought about right or wrong very much in connection with anything but had simply done the things people do and not done the things people don’t do” (295–6). Anne is from another important local family and marrying her would be the expected thing for Jack – to be married and “rich in a nice, genteel, Southern way…and lead a nice, clean, blameless life” (359) – it would perpetuate the status quo in Burden’s Landing. Instead, Jack runs from his home and goes to work for Willie, the reformer who is going to break the hold of Jack’s class on society and who represents a threat to white supremacy.
It is well-established that the myth of the pure southern white woman was a screen for racial injustice – her purity was idealised at the same time that white men were routinely having sex with their enslaved black women.33 Anne is “noble and high-toned” (416) and repeatedly described as “white” (247). In Mason City, when Jack is accused of being a “nigger-lover” like Willie, he wisecracks “No sale…I like mine vanilla” (57). When Jack first looks at Anne in her “pickaninny” braids and realizes they have the house to themselves, he “felt the new blood coursing through me” (293). However, the collision of this moment of racially tinged sexual desire with his idealised memory of her means that his desire quickly turns to moral horror. Notably, in Cass’s story, Phebe the slave has light skin, which Robinson has noted signifies the moral corruption of slave-owners.34 Racism and the racial anxiety it leads to can take multiple forms – not only economic but sexual. For Jack, the very thought of inter-racial sex is paralysing, indicating what is repressed under the idealised memories of Burden’s Landing.
The failed sexual encounter signifies the beginning of Jack’s various attempts to flee the past. In these attempts, what we perhaps see is his unconscious recognition that because his family history rests on racial injustice, an injustice that has been wilfully concealed, he has no useable past. He does not want to damage his idealised memories and so he flees into non-participation, but in the end he must construct a useable past and not just a fragile illusion. Interestingly, it is Willie, the New Deal politician, who eventually breaks Jack’s idealised image of Anne and begins the process by which Jack is able to re-examine the past, take responsibility, and eventually have meaningful relationships.
Jack is not the only one who flees Burden’s Landing. Ellis Burden left long ago, ostensibly because of his wife’s affair, although in his own account he only mentions the words “sin” and “filth” without any specificity. Having thrown off his wealth, he lives where “nigger children played naked in the next block among starving cats, and nigger women sat on the steps” (194). Anne has also mostly left her privileged background behind, leaving her father’s house locked up. Instead of marrying and following the path that would be expected of someone from her station, in Jack’s words she “was always fooling around with orphans and half-wits and blind niggers, and not even getting paid for it” (103). And, of course, she has an affair with Willie Stark. It seems noteworthy that not only Jack but both Ellis Burden and Anne also leave their privileged lives in Burden’s Landing, and both do so to live among and try to give aid to black people, among others. It is possible that these characters also feel a sense of racial guilt and are trying to make amends, notably in ways that evoke the New Deal, which was preoccupied with civic responsibility and specifically with forms of adoption, something that both Ellis and Anne are involved with.35
To varying degrees, all of the main characters from Burden’s Landing are failures in the traditional sense. Anne, Adam, and Jack are all impotent, with no children or healthy relationships. At the end of the novel, the houses that they grew up in have been given away, and we are told that Jack will allow the bank to take Judge Irwin’s house too (significantly he will not sell it and gain any money). Although Jack makes peace with Irwin at the end, he says that “Anne and I shall never live here again, not in the house or at the Landing (she doesn’t want to live here any more than I do)” (438). The houses in Burden’s Landing are depicted as more like museums than homes, crowded with over-priced imported antiques or shrouded in dust covers. Although Jack knows now that “only out of the past can you make the future” (435), the aristocratic planter class is finished and Jack and Anne must leave Burden’s Landing to try to salvage a life together.
For Jack, taking responsibility will eventually entail not only personal but also both political and civic responsibility. Despite pretending throughout that he is indifferent to Willie’s policies, it is clear that he is implicated in them and not only by his job. At various points in the novel, we see Jack defend Willie and argue the liberal case to conservatives. He left journalism and went to work for Willie, is moved by Willie’s rhetoric and at the end affirms that “Willie was a great man…I must believe that…believing that Willie Stark was a great man, I could think better of all other people, and of myself. At the same time that I could more surely condemn myself” (426–7). Although the novel’s moral stance on Willie is left purposefully ambiguous, Jack is unable to achieve self-knowledge until he acknowledges his complicity with and capacity within the structures of government. Importantly, the reader is left, as Jack is, with Willie’s death-bed assertion that “it might have all been different…it might – have been different – even yet” (400).
In John Whalen-Bridge’s account, as well as Freedman’s, it is crucial that the novel ends with Jack’s withdrawal from politics, which the former has called “an antidote to political activism”36 and the latter “an ideologically determinate failure of imagination.”37 However, at the end, Jack tells us that he is actually about to re-enter politics to work for Hugh Miller: “it looks as though Hugh will get back into politics, and when he does I’ll be along to hold his coat. I’ve had some valuable experience in that line” (436). Although this is highly tentative and still somewhat self-effacing, it is clear that Jack intends to reject a life of leisure in Burden’s Landing and go back to work in politics. It also suggests that the once cynical Jack must have a small amount of hope that it might be “different – even yet.” Although he is described initially as an Idealist, Miller – who tells Jack that “History is blind, but man is not” (436) – represents a balance between idealism and expedience, or as Malcolm O. Sillars has argued “respect for law and at the same time socio-economic progress.”38 Ending the novel with Jack intending to return to politics with Hugh Miller offers a glimmer of hope that there is a middle way between stagnant constitutional conservatism and amoral expedience.
Importantly, at the end, Jack is intending not only to return to politics, but also to complete his PhD about “the life of Cass Mastern whom once I could not understand but whom, perhaps, I now may come to understand” (438). Although Cass is not his relation, Jack is no less connected to his story and in fact now understands it better.39 In a broader sense, familial and national responsibility are conflated in the novel, as are personal and political responsibility. When Cass Mastern experiences the realisation that his actions affect others, he abandons his lover in favour of trying to save Phebe because he knows he is at least partly responsible for her fate, clearly illustrating that the inter-relation of people that the novel insists on includes black people.
The traditional family is reinvented at the end; while Jack and Anne have no children, they take in Ellis Burden even though he is not a relation, which could be seen as a rejection of the biological for the civic, the traditional family for the national family. Of Ellis, Jack asks, “Does he think I am his son?” and goes on to answer it with, “I cannot be sure. Nor can I feel that it matters, for each of us is the son of a million fathers” (436). While I want to avoid an overly simplistic conclusion as to what this tells us about Warren’s opinion on the New Deal or racial inequality and the uses of legislation to address it, it is worth noting that Jack goes from having a meaningless life to one that is full of meaning. Specifically, the sort of state-sponsored civic responsibility of the New Deal fills the characters’ lives with meaning. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that neither Jack nor Warren seems able to address the race question directly in this novel. It ends with hope, but with much still to be done.
Also by Clare Byrne (see all)
- A New Deal for All the King’s Men - October 27, 2021