You might have noticed that All the King's Men is not a linear narrative. Instead of moving in a straight line from 1810 to 1939, it dips and curves back and forth in time, according to the landscape of Jack's memory. Luckily, Jack gives us all the dates, so we know precisely where we are in time at a given moment – if we take the time to weave together all the loose threads. To help get a handle on the movement through time of the story, we'll break our discussion of setting down into four aspects, starting with geography.
In Robert Penn Warren's Paris Review interview the author talks about being intensely impressed, at a young age, with a book that argues that geography is the answer to everything. For a long time he believed that he could boil any problem down to geography. He later realized there was no one right answer to the world's problems (source).
Nonetheless, geography plays a huge role in All the King's Men. While Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, and California are all mentioned, the state in which the bulk of the novel is set is never named. Still, by process of elimination, it has to be Louisiana. We also need a southern state which fronts on the Gulf of Mexico (since we know Burden's Landing fronts the Gulf). That means either Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas. It can't be Texas or Mississippi because Jack goes to both of those places from where he lives. The geography just doesn't fit for Florida. Plus, there's no denying that this novel has lot's to do with Huey Long, former Governor of Louisiana.
But why is Warren so coy about the setting of his novel? We can think of two reasons. The first is to emphasize that this story is a piece of fiction, and not a piece of history. A second reason would be to stress that the state of politics and racism in the 1920s and 30s is not a "Louisiana problem," but rather one that affects the entire South.
Cass Mastern and Annabelle Trice have their love affair from 1854-1855, when Cass is 21 years old and Annabelle is 29. This is some ten years before the end of the Civil War. If it weren't for this story, slavery wouldn't quite make it as a theme in All the King's Men, even though in the 1920s and 1930s (fifty years after the end of the Civil War) in Louisiana we still see the evidence and impacts of slavery. From Jack's mom to Willie Stark's dad, many characters have black servants, and racism is rampant.
But in the Cass Mastern story, slavery becomes the focus, completely overshadowing the sordid tale of adultery and suicide featured in the beginning. This aspect of the setting is important to the novel because it helps us see how slavery directly impacts current times.
The story of how Judge Irwin saved his wealth by driving a man to suicide runs from about 1910 to 1915, after which Governor Stanton puts the lid on it. It remains hidden for some 22 years before Jack digs it up again. This is important for the same reason as the antebellum setting of the Cass Mastern story – it shows us how the past directly impacts the present.
The novel actually begins in 1939 – three years after 1936 when Jack and Willie pay Judge Irwin the midnight visit that has such profound implications for most of the characters. As we learn in the novel's last pages, everything that happens in the book is being remembered by Jack in 1939. Still, we want to give you a linear timeline of the novel's important events: