From the back of my copy of All the King's Men I learned that Willie Stark is an important part of "our collective literary consciousness," and that he is as memorable as Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn. This statement is both interesting and suspect, because Willie Stark is neither the focus of the novel nor its most compelling character. Apparently, though, charismatic politicians are infinitely more engaging than well-spoken, introspective, and witty writers - at least to some of Robert Penn Warren's peers. Despite Jack Burden's position as the protagonist in the novel, any simple plot summary of All the King's Men will focus upon Willie Stark's career and demise. Willie resonates with readers: he is not so specific as to preclude our memories of real politicians (particularly Huey P. Long, upon whom he is based), yet not so vague as to blend into the communal lull of characters we've encountered. So while Burden may be our narrator and interpreter, the focus of his attention is Willie, forcing the politician to the foreground. We follow Jack's gaze - sometimes home to his mother, sometimes back in time to his adolescence, but always toward the capital and Willie - and can only view history through him. The novel is, then, almost a fictional memoir by Huey P. Long's assistant, as it contains information about his boss, his job, and his personal life. The most compelling moments of the novel emerge when these three intersect, and when Jack attempts to interpret their implications. History is made through such attempts, and even if Jack is a fictional character, his insights ring clear in our world as well as his.
English Language and Literature
Theisen '07, Lindsay A., "Stepping through the Thin, Crackly Crust of the Present: Historians, Biographers, Novelists and Jack Burden" (2007). Honors Projects. Paper 3.