Study Guide

All the King's Men Memory and the Past

By Robert Penn Warren

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Memory and the Past

[…] he was like a circus elephant, he never forgot anything, the fellow who gave him the peanut or the fellow who put snuff in his trunk. (1.86)

Jack doesn't talk about Willie's superb memory often, but it's probably one of the things that explain their mutual attraction. To both of them, memory is everything.

In a town like Mason City the bench in front of the harness shop is […] the place where Time gets tangled in its own feet and lies down like an old hound and gives up the struggle. (2.18)

Mason City is stuck in the pre-Civil War days. The old men on that bunch can't quite square the present moment with their memories of the past. Getting time's feet untangled is what drives Willie, Jack, and many of the other characters.

"No," [Mrs. Murrell] said, "he [Ellis] isn't dead. He has gone away but you can think of him like he was dead, Son."(3.36)

That's some heavy fare for a six year old to swallow. No wonder Jack has issues with Ellis before he learns the truth. In this moment, it seems as if Mrs. Murrell hates Ellis. Why? We don't know for sure. We never hear her side of the story. Not all of the secrets in this novel are revealed.

But I must tell about my first excursion into the enchantment of the past. (4.6)

This is a pivotal moment for the novel. All the sudden we are plunged into shocking antebellum times. Plus, since Cass Burden is the dominant narrator of this section, and since his style is so different from Jack's we need to reorient ourselves.

Then it was another day, and I set out to dig up the dead cat, to excavate the maggot from the cheese, […] to find the deceased fly among the raisins in the rice pudding. (5.128)

Jack doesn't consider digging up dirt on Judge Irwin to be an enviable task. All the same, he still feels the familiar pull of "the enchantment of the past." All the dead things in his extended metaphor foreshadow the multiple deaths that will occur when he finds the seemingly dead things he seeks. History is only dead when nobody knows it.

[Anne:] "Those things – those papers you said you had – send them to me."(6.276)

Like Jack, Anne can no more resist the enchantments of the past than Jack can. Also like Jack, she won't be satisfied until she has seen the evidence and analyzed it thoroughly, coming to the most logical conclusion.

I dreamed gently back over the years. (7.12)

This is one thing Jack means when he says he "drowned in West." He couldn't well remember all this stuff when he was in Mason City or Burden's Landing – where everything he needs to remember happened. He needed to get our of town in order to get a perspective on his past with Anne that would allow him to constructively deal with their present situation.

My mind took one of those crazy leaps and I saw her floating in the water […] with her eyes closed and the violent sky above and the white gull flashing high over […] (8.114)

Jack is so hooked on memory that it intrudes on his love life, and Anne's. It will take them almost twenty years to get past the memories of the past. In other words, neither of them will forget that Jack left her cold after undressing her on that rainy night long ago.

[Judge Irwin:] "I could just – […] I could just say to you – I could just tell you something […]. But I won't," he said cheerfully, and smiled directly at me. (8.393)

Did you guess the Judge was Jack's father at this point? We didn't. But when we learn the truth, we flash back on our memory of reading these lines. Isn't memory nifty, in a grim kind of a way?

But in the end the truth gave the past back to me. (10.439)

This could be this book's motto. The truth of the past might be painful, it might be dirty, it might be ugly, it might get people close to us killed. But it the end it's our only hope for the future.

All the King's Men Memory and the Past Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...