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 nd, 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 ay 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 is 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 he exists in it. The ties to the past in Jack’s value system are unknown at first even to him and as the truths about many of these images are revealed, he must not only acknowledge the effect which they had upon his world view – but must also update his view accordingly to match the truth.
When Burden discovers the affair between Stark and Anne, it shatters his vision of Anne’s purity (only “one of a number of such pictures which form his attitudes towards the world. 8) represented by his image of her “floating in the water_ with her eyes closed and the violent sky above and the white gull flashing high over. “9 This sudden renovation of Jack’s past is such that it forces him ! to slip away from reality and re-evaluate his life; emerging finally with his theory of the Great Twitch, which leads to another of Burden’s uses of the past: ignorance of esponsibility. By using his varying views on history and his interpretations of them, Jack is able to create “his own isolated, sheltered, womb-state world.
In this world, removed as he is by his philosophy, he remains guiltless of the consequences of his actions; and indeed fails to even take note of the cause-and- effect relationship between his actions and the events in his life. By hiding behind the idea of the Great Twitch “Jack refuses to acknowledge his common humanity; that is, he acknowledges the presence of ugliness and evil in the universe but insists on his wn separateness and aloofness from them. “11 Beyond just their actual applications of history, Stark and Burden can be compared and contrasted on a ‘history’ level in may other ways.
For instance, both men treat the difference between what is historical ‘fact’ and what is historical ‘truth’ very differently. Stark, in his “know-all, use-all style” of application of history, conveniently fails to distinguish between what is truth and what is fact. In effect, he treats the facts as the absolute truth since this is the easiest interpretation to allow him to justify is use of history as a manipulating object: “‘_there ain’t a thing but dirt on this God’s green globe_ It all depends on what you do with the dirt. ”
Burden, on the other hand, separates fact and truth into two distinctly different categories, and while the truth will always give you the facts, the converse is not always true: “I tried to discover the truth and not the facts. Then, when the truth was not to be discovered, or discovered could not be understood ! by me, I could not bear to live with the cold- eyed reproach of the facts. “13