Ask A literature professor about All The King's Men:
I asked Dr. Ted a series of questions about All The King's Men. His students were reading it this semester.
His initial response: Listen, motherfucker: I didn't get a Ph.D so some amatuer blogger could give me homework. If you want to know what I think about the novel, you can pay for the privilege of sitting in on my class like any other ignorant slob.
But, like all Ph.Ds, he eventually couldn't resist the urge to expound:
- What is your favorite line?
How about five paragraphs and two lines:
- That long paragraph on page 9 that ends with "There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know."
You saw the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought: It's coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid ahold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don't open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with envolope in your hand, you feel there's an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what's in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him. There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know
- The paragraph on page 45 that begins with "'Dirt's a funny thing'..."
"Dirt's a funny thing," the Boss said. " Come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?"
- The paragraph on 128: "There is nothing more alone than being in a car
at night in the rain..."
There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other peopole there wouldn't be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. THat is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren't you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn't really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.
- "The world was full of sluts on skates, even if some of them weren't on skates" (144).
- The paragraph on 281-82 about love, especially " So you create yourself
by creating another person who, however, has also created you, picked up the
you-chunk of clay out of the mass. So there are two you's, the one you
yourself create by loving and the one the beloved creates by loving you. The farther those two you's are apart the more the world grinds and grudges on its axis. But if you loved and were loved perfectly then there wouldn't be any difference between the two you's or any distance between them ...."
- " the world is a great snowball rolling downhill and it never rolls
uphill to unwind itself back to nothing at all and nonhappening " (301).
- paragraph on 383-84 that begins " That day, there was a gradual piling up
of events.. ."
- Who is your favorite character?
- You are teaching this book in a kind of American Studies type course, no?
What does the book say about America today? It seems like America is no longer about these bosses and the corruption of power. We have safeguards against this type of thing now, don't we?
A: The book is about taking responsibility for one's actions and about how the present is a direct result of the past. America, as is the case with any
empire, is in grave danger of forgetting both of these things.
- The book was written right after WWII. Does it reflect the attitudes of
that time? How?
I see it as more universal. I went to a paper that argued (based on the
centrality of the Cass Mastern chapter) that this is a civil war novel. I
agree to the extent that the civil war is an event in the past that still
reverberates and shapes our present.
- What is up with trying to change Willie Stark's name to Willie Talos?
Guess it depends on what image or allegory Warren most wanted with the character. His first drafts of the novel used Talos, but it was changed to
Stark--some feel because of pressure from the editor.
- Now that I think of this last question, the Boss kind of reminded me of Bill Clinton and Jesse Ventura at the same time. How bout you?
Sure. His character suggests to me a clear distinction between those who see the end as good whatever the means, and those who see the end as good only if the means are good. This is as good a way as any to evaluate those in power....
- How are your students responding to the book?
Pretty well. Some complain about "all the description."
- What was the most interesting thing a student said about the book?
Hmmm... Some have said that they would vote for Willie even knowing everything we do from the novel.
- I felt immensely sorry for Mr. Jack Burden. Other people reading the book
seem to hate him. What is up with that?
Jack is us. That must be self-hatred coming from those who don't like him.
- I haven't finished the book yet, but Burden seems to see something in the
Boss that was missing with the other father figure in his life, the Judge.
What is up with that, do you think?
Willie lets Jack forget about the means. Jack only comes to peace when he
embraces the lesson of Cass Mastern and the spiderweb (p 178 and 188).
- How come they always talk about how cold it is in Texas. What is up with
that? Everyone knows it is hot in Texas.
It's Louisiana. But southerners think anything below 65 is cold.
- Are there any totally hot co-eds reading this in your class? What do they
think of the book?
I only perceive the intellectual essence of my students, not their physical
- What do you think of this assessment of the book posted by a reader on Amazon.com:
This book was profane and pointless, as is w/ most books I'm
forced to read for English. I never knew being in AP ment I had to put up
with my beliefs being violated. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK!
A superb endorsement. I'd like to make up a class of everything this
person thought violated his/her beliefs.
- Or this one:
It's the type of book that pretentious bookworms like to tout as an
"American Classic" because of its difficulty.
The book is profoundly simple. To try to live by the lessons it teaches is
supremely difficult--an exercise for one's conscience equivalent to an ironman triathalon.