All the King's Men's PhDs -- A Cautionary Tale

Before coming to work for Louisiana politician Willie Stark, Jack Burden -- the protagonist of Robert Penn Warren's American classic All the King's Men -- had spent some time pursuing a US history PhD. It did not go well...

"But I must tell about the first excursion into the enchantments of the past. Not that the first excursion had anything directly to do with the story of Willie Stark, but it has a great deal to do with the story of Jack Burden, and the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story.

Long ago Jack Burden was a graduate student, working for his Ph.D. in American History in the State University of his native state. This Jack Burden (of whom the present Jack Burden, Me, is a legal, biological, and perhaps even meta-physical continuator) lived in a slatternly apartment with two other graduate students, one industrious, stupid, unlucky, and alcoholic and the other idle, intelligent, lucky, and alcoholic.

At least, they were alcoholic for a period after the first of the month, when they received the miserable check paid them by the University for their miserable work as assistant teachers. The industry and ill luck of one canceled out against the idleness and luck of the other and they both amounted to the same thing, and they drank what they could get when they could get it. They drank because they didnít really have the slightest interest in what they were doing now, and didnít have the slightest hope for the future. They could not even bear the thought of finishing their degrees, for that would mean leaving the University (leaving the first-of-the-month drunks, the yammer about Ďworkí and the Ďideasí in smoke-blind rooms, the girls who staggered slightly and giggled indiscreetly on the dark stairs leading to the apartment) to go to some normal school on a sun-baked crossroads or a junior college long on Jesus and short on funds, to go to face the stark reality of drudgery and dry rot and prying eyes and the slow withering of the green wisp of dream which had, like some window plant in an invalidís room, grown out of a bottle. Only the bottle hadnít had water in it. It had had something which looked like water, smelled like kerosene, and tasted like carbolic acid: one-run corn whiskey.

Jack Burden lived with them, in the slatternly apartment among the unwashed dishes in the sink and on the table, the odor of stale tobacco smoke, the dirty sheets and underwear piled in corners. He even took a relish in the squalor, in the privilege of letting a last crust of buttered toast fall to the floor to be undisturbed until the random heel should grind it into the mud-colored carpet, in the spectacle of the fat roach moving across the cracked linoleum of the bathroom floor while he steamed in the tub. Once he had brought his mother to the apartment for tea, and she had sat on the edge of the overstuffed chair, holding a cracked cup and talking with a brittle and calculated charm out of a face which was obviously being held in shape by a profound exercise of will. She saw a roach venture out from the kitchen door. She saw one of Jack Burdenís friends crush an ant on the inner lip of the sugar bowl and flick the carcass from his finger. The nail of the finger itself was not very clean. But she kept right on delivering the charm, out of the rigid face. He had to say that for herÖ

A few days later the check [from Burdenís mother] came and a note telling him to get a Ďcouple of decent suits and accessories.í The check was for two hundred and fifty dollars. He did not even buy a necktie. But he and the two other men in the apartment had a wonderful blowout, which lasted for five days, and as a result of which the industrious and unlucky one lost his job and the idle and lucky one got too sociable, and, despite his luck, contracted a social disease. But nothing happened to Jack Burden, for nothing ever happened to Jack Burden, who was invulnerable. Perhaps that was the curse of Jack Burden: he was invulnerable.

So Jack Burden lived in the slatternly apartment with the two other graduate students, for even after being fired the unlucky, industrious one still lived in the apartment. He simply stopped paying anything but he stayed. He borrowed money for cigarettes. He sullenly ate the food the others brought in and cooked. He lay around during the day, for there was no reason to be industrious any more, ever again. Once at night, Jack Burden woke up and thought he heard the sound of sobs from the living room, where the unlucky, industrious one slept on a wall bed. Then one day the unlucky, industrious one was not there. They never did know where he had gone, and they never heard from him again.

But before that they lived in the apartment, in an atmosphere of brotherhood and mutual understanding. They had this in common: they were all hiding. The difference was in what they were hiding from. The two others were hiding from the future, from the day when they would get degrees and leave the University. Jack Burden, however, was hiding from the present. The other two took refuge in the present. Jack Burden took refuge in the past. The other two sat in the living room and argued and drank or played cards or read, but Jack Burden was sitting, as like as not, back in his bedroom before a little pine table, with the notes and papers and books before him, scarcely hearing the voices. He might come out and take a drink or take a hand of cards or argue or do any of the other things they did, but what was real was back in that bedroom on the pine table.

What was back in the bedroom in the pine table?

A large packet of letters, eight tattered black-bound account books tied together with faded red tape, a photograph, about five by eight inches, mounted on cardboard and stained in lower half by water, and a plain gold ring, man-sized, with some engraving in it, on a loop of string. The past. Or that part of the past which had gone by the name of Cass Mastern...

But to return: Jack Burden came into possession of the papers from the grandson of Gilbert Mastern. When the time came for him to select a subject for his dissertation for his Ph.D., his professor suggested that he edit the journal and letters of Cass Mastern, and write a biographical essay, a social study based on those and other materials. So Jack Burden began his first journey into the past.

It seemed easy at first. It was easy to reconstruct the life of the log cabin in the red hillsÖ

Jack Burden lived with the Mastern papers for a year and a half. He wanted to know all of the facts of the world in which Cass and Gilbert Mastern had lived, and he did know many of the facts. And he felt that he knew Gilbert Mastern. Gilbert Mastern had kept no journal, but Jack Burden felt that he knew him, the man with the head like the block of bare granite, who had lived through one world into another and had been at home in both. But the day came when Jack Burden sat down at the pine table and realized he did not know Cass Mastern. He did not have to know Cass Mastern to get the degree; he only had to know the facts about Cass Masternís world. But without knowing Cass Mastern, he could not put down the facts about Cass Masternís world. Not that Jack Burden said that to himself. He simply sat there at the pine table, night after night, staring at the photograph, and writing nothing. Then he would get up to get a drink of water, and would stand in the dark kitchen, holding an old jelly glass in his hand, waiting for the water to run cold from the tap.

I have said that Jack Burden could not put down the facts about Cass Masternís world because he did not know Cass Mastern. Jack Burden did not say definitely to himself why he did not know Cass Mastern. But I (who am what Jack Burden became) look back now, years later, and try to say why.

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like Godís eye, and the fangs dripping.

But how could Jack Burden, being what he was, understand that? He could read the words written many years before in the lonely plantation house after Cass Mastern had freed his slaves or in the lawyerís room in Jackson, Mississippi, or by candlelight in the hotel room in Vicksburg after the conversation with Jefferson Davis, or by the dying campfire in some bivouac while the forms of men lay stretched on the ground in the night around and the night was filled with a slow, sad, susurrous rustle, like the wind fingering the pines, which was not, however, the sound of wind in the pines but the breath of thousands of sleeping men. Jack Burden could read those words, but how could he be expected to understand them? They could only be words to him, for to him the world then was simply an accumulation of items, odds and ends of things like the broken and misused and dust-shrouded things that gather in a garret. Or it was a flux of things before his eyes (or behind his eyes) and one thing had nothing to do, in the end, with anything else.

Or perhaps he laid aside the journal of Cass Mastern not because he could not understand, but because he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him.

In any case he laid aside the journal and entered upon one of the periods of the Great Sleep. He would come home in the evening, and because he knew that he could not work he would go to bed immediately. He would sleep twelve hours, fourteen hours, fifteen hours, feeling himself, while asleep, plunge deeper and deeper into sleep like a diver groping downward into dark water feeling for something which may be there and which would glitter if there were any light in the depth, but there isnít any light. Then in the morning he would lie to bed, not wanting anything, not even hungry, hearing the small sounds of the world sneaking and seeping back into the room, under the door, through the glass, through the cracks in the wall, through the very pores of the wood and plaster. Then he would think: If I donít get up I canít go back to bed. And he would get up and go out into a world which seemed very unfamiliar, but with a tantalizing unfamiliarity like the world of boyhood to which an old man returns.

Then one morning he went out into that world and did not come back to the room and the pine table. The black books, in which the journal was written, the ring, the photograph, the packet of letters were left there, beside the thick stack of manuscript, the complete works of Jack Burden, which was already beginning to curl at the edges under the paperweight.

Some weeks later, the landlady of the apartment sent him a big parcel, collect, containing the stuff he had left on the little pine table. The parcel, unopened, traveled around with him from furnished room to furnished room, to the apartment where he lived for a while with his beautiful wife Lois until the time came when he just walked out the door and didnít come back; to the other furnished rooms and hotel rooms, a big squarish parcel with the brown paper turning yellow and the cords sagging, and the name Mr. Jack Burden fading slowly."

- Robert Penn Warren, All the Kings Men, pp. 157-160, 162, 188-190.

Back to Ghost in the Machine

Main Page/Family/Links/Gallery/Biography/Soapbox/Writings/Weblog