Study Guide

All the King's Men Visions of America

By Robert Penn Warren

Visions of America

Way off ahead of you […] the slab will glitter and gleam like water, as though the road were flooded. (1.2)

Our first vision of America is from the backseat of a Cadillac, with Sugar-Boy at the wheel, on a road that Willie Stark built. It's also a mirage – a mirage that can get you killed if you are hypnotized by it. This seems a nifty metaphor for both the American dream, and maybe the entire novel.

They ain't real, I thought […]. But I knew they were. (2.103)

Jack is talking about the Commissioner and the Sheriff after his meeting with them in Mason City, the first time he goes there. Jack is commenting on their unabashed racism and small-mindedness. His comment shows a tug-of war between his idealism, and his need to acknowledge truth and reality.

In the evening, toward sunset, he and the girl walk down the street of the town, now dusty, and move out beyond the houses, where the stumps are. (3.173)

This vision of America is a product of Jack's imagination combined with his knowledge of history. He knows that the Arkansas town where Ellis Burden met his mother was a lumber town. Jack sees this "ruined land" as a metaphor for their ruined relationship.

Once while she was engaged in flogging a servant in an apartment on the second floor of her palatial apartment, a small N**** boy entered the room and began to whimper. (4.151)

This is part of a chilling story within the story of Cass Burden. It presents a horrific vision of America. When we think of slavery, we often think of big cotton plantations. This reminds us that there were also inner city torture chambers in the very best of homes. That was part of the American dream.

The band blaring, the roaring of the seas, the screams like agony, the silence, the one woman-scream, silver and soprano spangling the silence like the cry of a lost soul […]. (4.282)

This is not the way we ordinarily hear people talking about football. Is this line slightly confusing, or did you get it right away? The "one-woman scream" is a fancy way of saying that some woman is singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at a football game. Jack poeticizes the moment to express his complicated feelings about this aspect of the American dream.

[Willie Stark:] "I'll hit him. I'll hit him with that meat axe." (6.490)

Some guys play air guitar. Other guys play air meat axe. We never see Willie do anything physically violent in the novel, but his speeches are full of blood and guts and meat axings. This is what the crowd wants. When the gentle approach doesn't work, Willie has to switch over to a more violent approach.

"I told him that if he wanted to do any good […] – here was the time. And the way. To see that the Medical Center was run right. And even expanded." (6.189)

Anne's words evoke a more positive vision of America in the novel. Anne, Adam, and Willie all care about the sick, and the poor. They dedicate their lives to helping those in need .

When a few months ago I found him sick in the room above the Mexican restaurant, what could I do but bring him here? (10.493)

This is a vision of compassion and empathy. After the tragedies and after the truth is revealed, Jack's vision of himself has changed, and with it his visions of America. This vision now includes Ellis Burden.

But I still had the money, and so I am spending it to live on while I write the book I began years ago, the life of Cass Mastern […]. (10.450)

That Jack has the freedom to write such a story is hopeful. And though the story of Cass Mastern presents a grim vision of America, it also presents a courageous and hopeful vision of an American man who tries to do the right thing against all odds.