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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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At the end of Chapter 1, the Boss tells Jack to dig up some dirty details about Judge Irwin's past. Jack doubts that the Judge has dabbled in any shady or dishonest deals. Nevertheless, here Jack tells you that his research was successful. But he does not reveal any details-not yet. Instead, he says that this research, which he calls the "Case of the Upright Judge," is his second major historical project. His first excursion into the past was undertaken when he was working on his doctoral dissertation in American history. He did not finish his dissertation. But he does the next best thing (or perhaps this is the best thing): He shares with you the story that haunted him as a graduate student and that haunts him still-the story of Cass Mastern.


This chapter is a complete story in itself-a compelling, romantic, yet tragic story. And it is a "frame" story, told in between descriptions of Jack's life in graduate school. The telling of Cass Mastern's story begins in Jack's student apartment and ends when he walks out of it, leaving the puzzling documents behind. This is a natural way to tell a story that was intended to become Jack's dissertation.

Many readers question why Warren included this story. William Faulkner, the brilliant southern novelist, after reading the publisher's draft of All the King's Men, suggested that Warren throw out the rest of the novel and publish only the Cass Mastern piece! But, as most other readers agree, the novel as a whole is a masterpiece. And the Cass Mastern story is an important part of it. When seen in the light of later events, Jack's first excursion into the past helps him to develop his own sense of moral responsibility.

When Jack came into possession of the Cass Mastern papers, he was studying American history at the university. A distant cousin sent him a parcel containing letters and other documents that belonged to the cousin's grandfather, Gilbert Mastern. Jack looked over the papers and saw some merit in them. He decided to write his dissertation on Cass Mastern's place in history, at least in the history of human emotion and responsibility.

Cass Mastern was related to Jack on the Scholarly Attorney's side of the family. He lived during slave times and died in 1864 from a wound received while he was a Confederate soldier. But the part of his life that interests Jack starts when Cass was a student at Transylvania College in Kentucky. Cass began writing his journal then.

The journal opens with a troubled sound. Cass writes: "For all men come naked into the world, and in prosperity 'man is prone to evil as the sparks fly upward.'" Cass was born in poverty. But his brother, Gilbert, amassed much wealth and was able to send him to college. In college, Cass says, "I learned that there is an education for vice as well as for virtue." He took up gambling, drinking, and womanizing. And his primary instructor in vice was a young banker, Duncan Trice. Cass, however, never mentions his name in the journal or the name of Duncan's wife, Annabelle. Jack had to dig up this information out of old newspaper files. Jack's clue to the identities of Cass's friends was in his reference to the "accidental" shooting death of the man who was Duncan Trice.

But Annabelle Trice, not Duncan, is Cass's main concern in his journal. When Duncan brings Cass home with him, Cass falls in love with Annabelle at first sight. She was not a beautiful woman-"her beauty was in her eyes"- yet she was graceful and had a musical voice. Cass describes her every movement and expression, and adds that Duncan was passionately devoted to her.

A year later, in a garden, Duncan leaves Annabelle alone with Cass. In a subtle way, Annabelle lets Cass know that she is interested in him. Then, that summer, while Cass is away attending to plantation business, she sends him a note containing only two words: "Oh, Cass!" The following fall, they become lovers, and the affair continues that year and well into the next, until the day that Duncan is found dead in his library with a bullet in his chest. It appears that he has accidentally shot himself while cleaning his pistols.

After the funeral, Cass meets Annabelle at the summerhouse. When she slips a gold band-Duncan's wedding ring-on his finger, Cass discovers the truth: Duncan had deliberately shot himself. Annabelle's personal maid, a slave named Phebe, found the gold band underneath Annabelle's pillow. Somehow, Duncan had learned about Cass and Annabelle's love affair. To rid herself of the constant reminder of guilt, Annabelle sells Phebe "down the river," even though Phebe has a husband who works near the Trice home.


Until the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, each state determined whether slavery was legal within its borders. For the most part, slaveholding states were confined to the South. Slavery helped to form Southern traditions, which were far different from traditions in the rest of the nation.

Slaves were white men's property, and they had no civil rights. For example, they could not leave their plantations without written permission, and their marriages were not legally recognized. In fact, as happened to Phebe and her husband, families were often separated when an owner sold a slave. Being sold "down the river" was one of the worst things that could happen to a slave, because it usually condemned the individual to a short life of hard labor or, sometimes in the case of female slaves, to sexual abuse.

Annabelle's decision to sell Phebe "down the river" repulses Cass. To soften his own guilt, he goes in search of Phebe but never finds her. So, he returns to the Mississippi plantation that his brother Gilbert gave him to manage, and he prospers. After accumulating enough cash to buy the plantation from Gilbert, he frees the slaves.

In January 1861, Mississippi secedes from the Union, and soon thereafter, the Civil War begins. With his college background, Cass could have been a Confederate officer, but he enlists as a private. He wants to be on the front line of battle, because, he writes in his journal, "How can I who have taken the life of my friend, take the life of an enemy, for I have used up my right to blood." Looking for death, Cass marches into battle wearing Duncan's wedding ring on a string around his neck, and he carries a musket that he never fires. Finally, a bullet finds him. Cass dies in an Atlanta hospital from the wound. Gilbert saved his journal, letters, and gold band, all of which, much later, come into Jack's possession.

As a graduate student, Jack lived with the Mastern papers for a year and a half. And after all that time and research, he felt that he did not understand Cass. He had the facts but not the insights into human nature. So, Jack walked away from the feelings and left the facts in a box in his apartment. But as he moved from one apartment to another, the Mastern packet of papers somehow always seemed to catch up with him.


One of the passages most often quoted from All the King's Men is the following: 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 all his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God's eye, and the fangs dripping.

But how could Jack Burden, being what he was, understand that?

Try to put the Spider Web Theory into your own words. What does it say about your responsibility to friends, to acquaintances, to mankind, to history? What does it say about the consequences of your actions?

All the King's Men has a complex structure, and the relationships among events can be difficult to grasp at the first reading. To clarify the structure, the following discussion divides most chapters into sections. The title of each section refers to the main topic of the section.

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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary

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