A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.
- Emerson, American Poet and Essayist (1803-1882)
Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is a fictionalization based not loosely at all on Huey Long, one of the greatest characters in all American political history and a man who was truly larger than life by even the largest standards.
Following our narrator Jack Burden, we witness Burden’s transformation from that of a political journalist to the trusted right-hand man of Governor Stark, who takes the strong-arm tactic to levels that would impress Machiavelli himself. As Burden moves from merely recording history to acting as one of Stark’s most powerful agents in steamrolling all that dare stand in his way, we see the evolution of a man’s conscience, from a man who once, as a journalist, managed to stay clean, aloof and detached from the seedy dealings of politics, to a man who now must make sense of his ever growing role in all of it.
You can call this passage original sin as described by our seemingly atheist narrator:
Long back, I had made up my mind that when Lucy Stark asked me to do something I was going to do it. It was not exactly that I felt I owed Lucy Stark a debt, or had to make restitution, or do penance. At least, if there was a debt, it was not to Lucy Stark, and if there was restitution to be made it was not to be made to her. If there was a debt, it was, perhaps, due to me, from me. And if restitution was to be made, it was to be made to me, by me. And as for penance, there had been no crime for which I should do it. My only crime was being a man and living in the world of men, and you don’t have to do special penance for that. The crime and the penance, in that case, coincide perfectly. They are identical.
“All the King’s Men” – Robert Penn Warren, 1946.