A review of the classic novel “All The King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren

This 660-page work, published in 1946, is a classic example of the great American novel. Indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize and is often rated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It has twice been made into a film: first in 1949 (winning the Academy Award for Best Picture) and much more recently in 2006. In fact, it was only after seeing both movies that I used the third lockdown of the global pandemic to tackle the novel, but I’m pleased that it did because it is a finely-written and cleverly constructed work – although of its time (so one has to overlook a few uses of the N-word).

It is set in the !920s and 1930s and written from the point of view of Jack Burden, a political reporter who covers the ascent to power of charismatic populist Willie Stark and then becomes the right-man man of the dynamic but corrupt governor of the unnamed southern state. It is widely believed that the story was inspired by the record of Huey Pierce Long (1893-1935) who was the radical populist governor of Louisiana (whom Warren was able to observe closely while teaching at Louisiana State University), a controversial character who was eventually assassinated. 

Although the focus of the novel is initially Stark (usually called “the Boss”), it increasingly becomes about Burden who states: the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story”.

“All The King’s Men” presents a deeply cynical view of “poly-ticks”. Willie Stark insists several times: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.” The ‘something’ is the part of a man’s record that permits him to be bullied into submission or bribed into compliance. 

The novel reads like a Shakespearean tragedy with the unexpected consequences of various characters’ actions leading to a succession of deaths. Indeed a major theme of the work is that life is all about consequences. As Stark puts it: “politics is always a matter of choices and a man doesn’t set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice.” As the final words of the book put it, we all have to accept “the awful responsibility of Time”

These days it is impossible to read the novel or view either of the film adaptations without thinking of Donald Trump.


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