All the Kings Men
Robert Penn Warren was one of the twentieth century's outstanding men of letters. He found great success as a novelist, a poet, a critic, and a scholar, and enjoyed a career showered with acclaim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, was Poet Laureate of the United States, and was presented with a Congressional Medal of Fr edom. He founded the Southern Review and was an important contributor to the New Criticism of 1930s and '40s.
Born in 1905, Warren showed his exceptional intelligence from an early age; he attended college at Vanderbilt University, where he befriended some of the most important contemporary figures in Southern literature, including Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. During a stay in Italy, Warren wrote a verse drama called Proud Flesh,which dealt with themes of political power and moral corruption. As a professor at Louisiana State University, Warren had observed the rise of Louisiana political boss Huey Long, who embodied, in many ways, the ideas Warren tried to work into Proud Flesh. Unsatisfied with the result, Warren began to rework his elaborate drama into a novel, set in the contemporary South, and based in part on the person of Huey Long.
The result was All the King'sMen, Warren's best and most acclaimed book. First published in 1946, Allthe King's Men is one of the best literary documents dealing with the American South during the Great Depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a movie that won an Academy Award in 1949.
All the King's Men focuses on the lives of Willie Stark, an upstart farm boy who rises through sheer force of will to become Governor of an unnamed Southern state during the 1930s, and Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, a cynical scion of the state's political aristocracy who uses his abilities as a historical researcher to help Willie blackmail and control his enemies.
The novel deals with the large question of the responsibility individuals bear for their actions within the turmoil of history, and it is perhaps appropriate that the impetus of the novel's story comes partly from real historical occurrences.
Jack Burden is entirely a creation of Robert Penn Warren, but there are a number of important parallels between Willie Stark and Huey Long, who served Louisiana as both Governor and Senator from 1928 until his death in 1935.
Like Huey Long, Willie Stark is an uneducated farm boy who passed the state bar exam; like Huey Long, he rises to political power in his state by instituting liberal reform designed to help the state's poor farmers. And like Huey Long, Willie is assassinated at the peak of his power by a doctor Dr. Adam Stanton in Willie's case, Dr. Carl A. Weiss in Long's. (Unlike Willie, however, Long was assassinated after becoming a Senator, and was in fact in the middle of challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.)
Jack Burden -- Willie Stark's political right-hand man, the narrator of the novel and in many ways its protagonist. Jack comes from a prominent family (the town he grew up in, Burden's Landing, was named for his ancestors), and knows many of the most important people in the state.
Despite his aristocratic background, Jack allies himself with the liberal, amoral Governor Stark, to the displeasure of his family and friends. He uses his considerable skills as a researcher to uncover the secrets of Willie's political enemies. Jack was once married to Lois Seager, but has left her by the time of the novel. Jack's main characteristics are his intelligence and his curious lack of ambition; he seems to have no agency of his own, and for the most part he is content to take his direction from Willie. Jack is also continually troubled by the question of motive and responsibility in history: he quit working on his PhD thesis in history when he decided he could not comprehend Cass Mastern's motives. He develops the Great Twitch theory to convince himself that no one can be held responsible for anything that happens. During the course of the novel, however, Jack rejects the Great Twitch theory and accepts the idea of responsibility.
Willie Stark -- Jack Burden's boss, who rises from poverty to become the governor of his state and its most powerful political figure. Willie takes control of the state through a combination of political reform (he institutes sweeping liberal measures designed to tax the rich and ease the burden on the state's many poor farmers) and underhanded guile (he blackmails and bullies his enemies into submission). While Jack is intelligent and inactive, Willie is essentially all motive power and direction. The extent of his moral philosophy is his belief that everyone and everything is bad, and that moral action involves making goodness out of the badness.
Willie is married to Lucy Stark, with whom he has a son, Tom. But his voracious sexual appetite leads him into a number of afiairs, including one with Sadie Burke and one with Anne Stanton. Willie is murdered by Adam Stanton toward the end of the novel.
Anne Stanton -- Jack Burden's first love, Adam Stanton's sister, and, for a time, Willie Stark's mistress. The daughter of Governor Stanton, Anne is raised to believe in a strict moral code, a belief which is threatened and nearly shattered when Jack shows her proof of her father's wrongdoing.
Adam Stanton -- A brilliant surgeon and Jack Burden's closest childhood friend. Anne Stanton's brother. Jack persuades Adam to put aside his moral reservations about Willie and become director of the new hospital Willie is building, and Adam later cares for Tom Stark after his injury. But two revelations combine to shatter Adam's worldview: he learns that his father illegally protected Judge Irwin after he took a bribe, and he learns that his sister has become Willie Stark's lover. Driven mad with the knowledge, Adam assassinates Willie in the lobby of the Capitol towards the end of the novel.
Judge Montague Irwin -- A prominent citizen of Burden's Landing and a former state Attorney General; also a friend to the Scholarly Attorney and a father figure to Jack. When Judge Irwin supports one of Willie's political enemies in a Senate election, Willie orders Jack to dig up some information on the judge. Jack discovers that his old friend accepted a bribe from the American Electric Power Company in 1913 to save his plantation. (In return for the money, the judge dismissed a case against the Southern Belle Fuel Company, a sister corporation to American Electric.) When he confronts the judge with this information, the judge commits suicide; when Jack learns of the suicide from his mother, he also learns that Judge Irwin was his real father.
Sadie Burke -- Willie Stark's secretary, and also his mistress. Sadie has been with Willie from the beginning, and believes that she made him what he is. Despite the fact that he is a married man, she becomes extremely jealous of his relationships with other women, and they often have long, passionate fights. Sadie is tough, cynical, and extremely vulnerable; when Willie announces that he is leaving her to go back to Lucy, she tells Tiny Dufiy in a fit of rage that Willie is sleeping with Anne Stanton. Tiny tells Adam Stanton, who assassinates Willie. Believing herself to be responsible for Willie's death, Sadie checks into a sanitarium. .
Tiny Dufiy -- Lieutenant-Governor of the state when Willie is assassinated. Fat, obsequious, and untrustworthy, Tiny swallows Willie's abuse and con- tempt for years, but finally tells Adam Stanton that Willie is sleeping with Anne. When Adam murders Willie, Tiny becomes Governor. Sugar-Boy O'Sheean -- Willie Stark's driver, and also his bodyguard--
Sugar-Boy is a crack shot with a .38 special and a brilliant driver. A stuttering Irishman, Sugar-Boy follows Willie blindly.
Lucy Stark -- Willie's long-sufiering wife, who is constantly disappointed by her husband's failure to live up to her moral standards. Lucy eventually leaves Willie to live at her sister's poultry farm. They are in the process of reconciling when Willie is murdered.
Tom Stark -- Willie's arrogant, hedonistic son, a football star for the state university. Tom lives a life of drunkenness and promiscuity before he breaks his neck in a football accident. Permanently paralyzed, he dies of pneumonia shortly thereafter. Tom is accused of impregnating Sibyl Frey, whose child is adopted by Lucy at the end of the novel.
Jack's mother -- A beautiful, "famished-cheeked" woman from Arkansas, Jack's mother is brought back to Burden's Landing by the Scholarly Attorney, but falls in love with Judge Irwin and begins an afiair with him; Jack is a product of that afiair. After the Scholarly Attorney leaves her, she marries a succession of men (the Tycoon, the Count, the Young Executive). Jack's realization that she is capable of love--and that she really loved Judge Irwin-- helps him put aside his cynicism at the end of the novel.
Sam MacMurfee -- Willie's main political enemy within the state's Democratic Party, and governor before Willie. After Willie crushes him in the gubernatorial election, MacMurfee continues to control the Fourth District, from which he plots ways to claw his way back into power.
Ellis Burden -- The man whom Jack believes to be his father for most of the book, before learning his real father is Judge Irwin. After discovering his wife's afiair with the judge, the "Scholarly Attorney" (as Jack characterizes him) leaves her. He moves to the