All the King's Men
by Robert Penn Warren
The Chorus of Old Men
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Did you notice that Jack can be pretty rough on the elderly? Think of Miss Lily Mae Littlepaugh. Not only does Jack approach her creepily (somewhat like his midnight visit to Judge Irwin with Willie), but also he "[shakes] her matchwood arm" when she tells him about Governor Stanton (5.520).
At least until near the end of the novel, Jack seems to hold the older generation in contempt and anger. One big reason for Jack's animosity is that the many members of this generation were deeply involved in the exploitation of African-Americans. In addition, many of them continue to foster racist attitudes, and so have lost respectability in Jack's eyes. Jack also believes they know dirty truths, but try to keep them hidden. He doesn't say any of this. But we have a hunch.
In addition, Jack finds this older generation to be extremely judgmental: they judge everything around them, but never turn their judgments on themselves. They want to freeze progress, to remain complacent, to stop the march of history. This aspect of the elderly in the novel manifests itself in a chorus of old men that we meet twice. Like a traditional Greek chorus, they also represent some predominant opinions held by the larger community.
The first time we meet them is in Chapter One when Jack and Willie are driving out to Burden's Landing. In this case the chorus is in Jack's mind. He images the old men talking to him, his father, and his mother. He tells us, "You come into the town at night, and you hear voices" (1.316).
This chorus of old men comes to life in Chapter Two, when Jack remembers the time he was investigating the school contract situation in Mason City. He tells us that, "Time and motion cease to be […] if you are sitting on a bench in the middle of the afternoon in late August with the old ones" (2.18).
Jack knows just how to get information on these guys. He waits. Then throws out the bait. Then waits again. The old men finally reveal that the school contract was denied to the low bidder on racist grounds – or at least that's what the old men have been told.
And this is 1922, almost 60 years after the end of the Civil War. Progress is slow.