All the King's Men: History's Importance


Throughout All the King's Men, history plays an important role in
the motivations and lives of all the characters. History's
importance is most noticeable, not surprisingly, in the story main
characters - Willie Stark and Jack Burden - whose lives focus on and,
in some cases, depend upon history and how they relate themselves to
it. While Willie Stark views history as a tool with which to
manipulate people for his own ends, an attitude resulting in his
own destruction, Jack Burden's view of history changes over time
and eventually allows him to accept his relationship to the past
and, therefore, present. Since each man has such a differing view
it is no wonder that history becomes important to each in different
ways. Willie Stark must support his entire empire in a world of
enemies and corruption, to do this he relies on the past to
provide him with the foundation.

"Dirt's a funny thing," the Boss said. "Come to think of it, there
ain't a thing but dirt on this God's green 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. 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."1 In this case, Stark is referring to the past as dirt - something
to be used in many ways. The way he chooses to use it of course is
as blackmail; "Then he would lean suddenly forward, at the man, and
say, not slow and easy now, `God damn you, do you know what I can do
to you?' And he could too. For he had the goods."2 Thus history is
important to Stark as the device by which he maintains power.

Both Stark and Burden use history differently according to the way
it figures into their lives. To Stark, ultimate power being paramount,
history is a thing to be used in the manipulation of others to
achieve his own ends. For example, when Judge Irwin decides to
endorse Murphy's candidate for the senate, rather than Stark's,
Stark views it as the perfect occasion for the manipulation of the
judge through blackmail, both directly and indirectly. When he
discovers the reason for Irwin's change in endorsements he plays
along saying, "`Suit yourself, Judge. But you know, there's another
way to play it. Maybe somebody might give Callahan a little
shovelful on somebody else_'"4 When this angle doesn't work, the
next thing Stark tries is direct manipulation of the Judge
himself:The Boss said, "Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job
cut out for you."And I said, "Callahan?"And he said, "Nope, Irwin."
And I said, "I don't reckon you will find anything on Irwin."
And he said, "You find it."5


Stark also manipulates others through their pasts for his own
gain, although this time on a much grander scale, when he quiets the
Legislature which threatens to impeach him. For days Stark speaks
around the state to gain public support; and for nights he speaks
around an envelope of incriminating evidence to gain political
support, or rather, subservience. When finally Stark has achieved
his goal he sends Burden to see Lowdan, the leader of the pack, and
"tell him to call to call his dogs off. Not that it matters whether
he does or not, for they've changed their minds."6 Thus we see how
Stark, using the past as a tool, bends people to his will for his
own plans and desires.

Burden, being a more complicated man split between two focuses in
his motivations - his life, and that of Willie Stark - differs his
use of history accordingly. Since Burden is both a friend and
employee of Stark, he too uses the past as a manipulator for the
cause of Stark.

Jack's research produces facts about Judge Irwin's acceptance of a
bribe and about Governor Stanton's complicity in protecting his
guilty friend and political sidekick. Jack first uses these facts
to persuade Adam to take Willie's hospital position. Without meaning
to he has also helped persuade Anne to become Willie's mistress.7
Contrary to when Jack later tries to apply this blackmail to the
Judge directly, in the case of Adam (and indirectly, Anne) Burden
is acting under his own will, rather than orders from Stark. More
importantly, however, Burden uses the past as a basis for his relation
to the world and the values by which