It’s Academy Award time so TCM and AMC have been showing many great movies from the past that have won awards. The other night I was flipping channels and landed on All the Kings Men (1949) just as it was starting. Of course I watched it again. I loved the book by Robert Penn Warren and I think the movie does it justice.
A man named Joseph, just by virtue of his name, might be seen as fatherly and caring because of the association with the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. A man named Lucifer could be seen as an inherently evil person or someone not to be trusted, simply because of the association with one of the names The Devil is referred. A name is one important way of how someone is identified. Names affect all people and affect how others view everyone else. Writers have control over the naming of characters no matter if they are writing books, plays, or even movies and television shows. A character’s name can be associated with different feelings or emotions and are created on purpose. Robert Penn Warren deliberately named the characters in the novel All the King’s Men to further personify and reinforce the attributes of the characters in his book, especially the two main characters.
The two main characters in the book are Jack Burden and Willie Stark. These two men’s lives are intertwined throughout the book and their roles in the story cannot exist without each other. Warren gave these two men traits that were reflected in their names.
There are many definitions of the word “jack” that could apply to Warren’s character. For example, in playing cards a jack is seen as a type of male servant or knave. This knave is also looked upon as a soldier. A second definition is that of any of various portable devices for lifting. Another definition is one in the context of an everyman, leaving no one out. How do these different meanings of “jack” relate to Jack Burden in All the King’s Men? Jack Burden is Willie Stark’s knave. He is his right hand man. When Willie wants information on someone, he gets Jack to investigate. Whatever Willie asked him to do, Jack complied. As far as a tool is concerned, Jack was the tool that helped lift Willie to his high position as governor of the state. Without Jack’s help, knowledge, and advice, Willie probably would not have risen as fast as he did. Jack was one of Willie’s most important tools. Concerning the last definition, everyone or “every man jack” has to come to terms with his or her own life and figure out what the purpose is or how he or she sees his or her role in the world. Jack’s dilemma of reconciling his past and discovering of the many illusions of the world is what all people have to deal with at some point in life, unless they are happy to completely avoid any thought on the matter. Jack’s dilemma is one all men and women face if they examine their lives to any depth.
—John Ireland starred as Jack Burden in All the King’s Men (1949)
Warren might have chosen the surname Burden for his character Jack to reinforce the storyline of how his burden is to reconcile this past and find some peace of mind. Jack was burdened with the fact that he was virtually abandoned by his father (who really was not his father), the fact that his mother had relationships with a succession of men, the fact that the love of his life rejected him, and the fact that he chose to walk a fine line ethically to do his job on a daily basis.
Since Ellis Burden was not really his father, Jack inherited a name that was not really his. Warren uses this irony to show how important knowing or not knowing the truth can affect a person’s inner thoughts and feelings. The association with a name that is given, even if this is not someone’s true name, can sometimes influence a person’s own self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though Jack was not a Burden, he definitely carried an inner one.
Warren’s other main character, Willie Stark, shadows the life of Huey Long, the former governor of Louisiana who was assassinated. Did Warren make of point of the similarity of Willie Stark to Huey Long? The name Willie Stark itself even has a similar sound and number of syllables as Huey Long. Willie is commonly a nickname for William, just as Huey is a shortened version of the more distinguished name Hugh. Many Williams throughout history have been royalty and the name has been associated with such. Willie Stark many times professes to be a hick like most of the voters in his state. Going by the nickname Willie puts him on the same level as his constituents, even though his name is probably William. To them he is not high on a pedestal and above everyone as the formal name William would normally reflect, but instead he is just one of them, he is just Willie.
The other name that Willie is known as in the novel is “Boss.” The boss is someone that is in charge or someone that “runs the show” (Bruce Springsteen). A boss can also be a politician who controls his party organization in a particular district. The type of boss that Willie is created to be is a political boss.
Why did Warren choose Willie’s surname to be Stark? The root word of “stark” is the German word “starc,” which means strong. Another definition of stark is absolute. What Willie said or did, he usually did absolutely. He never really second-guessed himself until the end of the novel. He made important decisions in his life, in the lives of his family members, and in the lives of his political family members. He was an absolute ruler. He decided what the people of the state needed and accomplished much.
The two main characters of All the King’s Men do reflect the deliberateness with which Warren named his characters. Most of the characters in the novel had unusual names that somehow reflected their personalities or situations in life. These include Sugar-Boy O’Sheean, Tiny Duffy, Hugh Miller, Montague Irwin, and Adam and Anne Stanton. Warren probably on purpose did not name Jack Burden’s mother. All these names or lack of names were carefully chosen to enhance or reinforce the traits of the characters. Most writers deliberately choose to use this technique and I think Warren used the method magnificently.
Maybe I will catch the 2006 movie with Sean Penn, Jude Law, and Anthony Hopkins. All the King’s Men is a great and timeless story.