All the King's Men

All the King's Men

Infobox Book |
name = All the King's Men
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Robert Penn Warren
illustrator =
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country = United States
language = English
series =
subject =
genre = Political fiction
publisher = Harcourt, Brace & Company
release_date = 1946
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (hardcover & paperback)
pages = 464 pp (hardcover 1st edition)
isbn =
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"All the King's Men" is a novel by Robert Penn Warren, first published in 1946. The novel is loosely based on the biography of Louisiana governor Huey Long and derives its title from a line in the popular nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty and is also a reference to Long's slogan "Every Man a King". In 1947 Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for "All the King's Men". "Time" magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005". [ [,24459,all_the_kings_men,00.html All the King's Men - ALL-TIME 100 Novels - TIME ] ] It was adapted for film in 1949 and 2006; the 1949 version won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The novel

"All the King's Men" portrays the dramatic political ascent and Governorship in an unnamed Southern state, assumed to be Louisiana, of Willie Stark (a.k.a. "the Boss"), a driven, cynical populist in the American South during the 1930s. The novel is narrated by Jack Burden, a political reporter who comes to work as Governor Stark's right-hand man. The trajectory of Stark's career is interwoven with Jack Burden's life story and philosophical reflections: "the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story." [Page 157, p. 236 in the Harcourt version.]

The novel was an outgrowth of an earlier version of the story, a verse play entitled "Proud Flesh."

The version edited by Noel Polk (ISBN 01-5100-610-5) uses the name "Willie Talos" for the Boss as originally written in Warren's manuscript, and is known as the "restored version" for using this name as well as printing several passages removed from the original edit.


Willie Stark

The central character of Willie Stark (Willie Talos as originally written by Robert Penn Warren), is sometimes thought to have been partially inspired by the life of Huey P. Long, "the Kingfish", former governor of Louisiana and that state's U.S. senator in the mid-1930s.

Willie Stark (often referred to as "the Boss"), undergoes a radical transformation from an idealistic lawyer and weak gubernatorial candidate into a charismatic and extraordinarily powerful governor. In achieving this office Stark comes to embrace various forms of corruption and builds an enormous political machine based on patronage and intimidation. His Machiavellian approach to politics earns him many enemies in the state legislature, but does not detract from his popular appeal among many of his constituents, who respond with enthusiasm to his fiery populist manner.

Jack Burden

Jack Burden is the novel's narrator, a former student of history, newspaper columnist, and personal aide to Governor Willie Stark.

His narrative is propelled in part by a fascination with the mystery of Stark's larger-than-life character, and equally by his struggle to discover some underlying principle to make sense of all that has happened.

In narrating the story, Jack commingles his own personal story with the political story of Governor Stark. His telling of these two stories side by side creates a striking contrast between the personal and the impersonal. While his wry, detached, often humorous tone suggests an attempt to stand apart from the other characters' passions and intrigues, the highly personal content of his narrative suggests an awareness that he cannot truthfully remove himself and his own history from the story of Willie Stark, because his own story has paralleled and helped shape the tragic outcome of Stark's story.

Jack's overall character development might be roughly described as a journey away from an amoral perspective on human history as a chain of uncontrollable events, toward a belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all of history. In other words, he might be said to trace a path from refusal to acceptance of personal responsibility. On the other hand, one defining trait that remains a constant throughout Jack's development is a passion for discovering the truth of history.

"And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love truth."— Page 164

Anne Stanton

Anne is Jack Burden's former lover and the daughter of Willie Stark's political predecessor, Governor Stanton. Many of the novel's passages recounting Jack's life story revolve around memories of his relationship with Anne. Like many of Jack's friends, Anne disapproves of Willie Stark. However, in the wake of a devastating revelation regarding one of her father's moral lapses, she has an affair with Stark.

Adam Stanton

Adam is a highly successful doctor, Anne Stanton's brother, and Jack Burden's childhood friend. Jack comes to view Adam Stanton as the polar opposite of Governor Stark, calling Adam "the man of idea" and Stark "the man of fact". [Page 436.] Elsewhere, he describes Adam's central motivation as a deep need to "do good". [Page 238.] Governor Stark invites Adam to be director of his pet project, a new hospital and medical center. The position initially strikes Adam as repugnant because of his revulsion to Stark's politics, but Jack and Anne ultimately persuade him to accept the invitation, essentially by removing his moral high ground. Adam's sense of violation as a result of his entanglement with Governor Stark proves violently tragic when he is informed by Lieutenant Governor Tiny Duffy that Stark has been sleeping with his sister. His pride demolished, Adam finds the Governor at the Capitol building and shoots him point-blank. To the extent that Willie Stark's story may have been loosely based on real-life events, the inspiration behind Adam Stanton's character would have been Dr. Carl Weiss.

Judge Irwin

Judge Irwin is an elderly gentleman whom Jack has known since childhood, a man who is essentially a father-figure to him. Willie Stark assigns Jack the task of digging through Irwin's past to find something from the past with which Irwin can be blackmailed. Jack investigates thoroughly and finds what he is looking for: an incident many years ago when Judge Irwin took a bribe to dismiss a lawsuit against a fuel company, resulting in the personal destruction of a man named Mortimer Littlepaugh. Jack presents the incriminating evidence to Irwin, and before he has a chance to use it against him, Irwin commits suicide. Only at this point does Jack learn from his mother that Irwin was his father.

Cass Mastern

One of Jack Burden's first major historical research projects revolves around the life of a 19th century collateral ancestor, Cass Mastern, a man of high moral standards and a student at Transylvania College in Kentucky (Robert Penn Warren's native state). Cass's story, as revealed through his journals and letters, is essentially about a single betrayal of a friend that seems to ripple endlessly outward with negative consequences for many people. In studying this fragment of Civil War–era history, Jack begins to suspect (but cannot yet bring himself to accept) the idea that every event has unforeseen and unknowable implications, and that all actions and all persons are connected to other actions and other persons. Jack suggests that one reason he is unable to complete his dissertation on Cass's life is that perhaps "he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him."


A central motif in the novel is the "Great Twitch". When Jack Burden unexpectedly discovers that the love of his life, Anne Stanton, has been sleeping with Governor Willie Stark, he impulsively jumps in his car and drives to California to obtain some distance from the situation. Jack's description of his trip contains overt and indirect references to the notion of Manifest Destiny, which becomes somewhat ironic when he comes back from it believing in the "Great Twitch".

The "Great Twitch" is a particular brand of nihilism that Jack embraces during this journey westward: "all the words we speak meant nothing and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog's leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through." [Page 310.] On his way back from California, Jack gives a ride to an old man who has an involuntary facial twitch. This image becomes for him the encapsulating metaphor for the idea that "all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve." [Page 311.] In other words, life is without meaning; everything is motivated by some inborn reflex action and nobody is responsible for their choices or even their own destiny. The emotional distance permitted by this revelation releases Jack from his own frustration stemming from the relationship between Anne Stanton and his boss, and allows him to return to circumstances which were previously unbearable.

Subsequent events (including the tragic deaths of Governor Stark, his life-long friend Adam Stanton, and Judge Irwin, Jack's father) convince Jack that the revelation of the "Great Twitch" is an insufficient paradigm to explain what he has seen of history. " [H] e saw that though doomed [his friends] had nothing to do with any doom under the godhead of the Great Twitch. They were doomed, but they lived in the agony of will." [Page 436.] Ultimately, he grows to accept some responsibility for his part in the destruction of his friends' lives.

The book also touches on Oedipal imagery and themes, as Jack discovers his father's true identity after having caused his death.

The theme of one's father's identity and its effects on one's own sense of identity is explored twice in the novel, first through Adam and Anne's painful discovery that their father (the late Governor Stanton) once assisted in the cover-up of a bribery scandal. Then Jack discovers that his biological father is Judge Irwin, not, as he previously believed, "the Scholarly Attorney". In each case, the discovery catalyzes an upheaval in the character's moral outlook.

Time is another of the novel's thematic fascinations. The idea that every moment in the past contains the seeds of the future is constantly explored through the novel's non-chronological narrative, which reveals character continuities and thematic connections across different time periods.

Movie and opera versions

"All the King's Men", a movie made based on Warren's novel, was released in 1949. The film won three Oscars that year: Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge). The movie was also nominated for four more categories. In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant", and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It is noted, however, for deviating significantly from the novel's storyline.

Another film version was produced in 2006. Writer/director Steven Zaillian has said it was his goal to more faithfully follow Warren's version of the story than the original film did.

American composer Carlisle Floyd adapted the novel as a full-length grand opera entitled "Willie Stark", commissioned and premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1981.

ee also

* All the President's Men
* Politics in fiction


External links

* [ Proceedings of a symposium on "All the King's Men"] sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council in October 2007
* [ Photos of the first edition of "All the King's Men"]

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