Forgotten Book: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

this is the 252nd in my series of forgotten or seldom read books 

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, 1946 , Harcourt, Brace & Company political fiction

 allthekingsmenAll the King’s Men portrays the dramatic political rise and governorship of Willie Stark, a 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.

A word on the writing style is in order. The first paragraph goes on to the second page, and the descriptive power of it grabs the reader immediately. By today’s standards, it’s what I might call heavy, and there are words in it, ones in common use in the American south at the time, that some readers of the squeamish variety might find offensive. It’s all part of the setting.

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.”

Though Stark is a gubernatorial candidate, and has a history in politics, there are enough echoes of the book in current events that I couldn’t resist putting it up as this Friday Forgotten Book. Yes, this was published a long time ago, but it’s worth reading now, and I think in many ways it’s held up pretty well.

The character of Willie Stark is a bully, with an over the top ego. He’s cruel, taunts the handicapped, is greedy and seeks ever more power. The newspaper man Jack Burden (a journalist/media reporter, we’d say today) starts out as an observer, but becomes a “right hand man”, caught up in the political circus. Various events pull him away, and the book ends up being his. There are a lot of undercurrents, themes of religious belief, loneliness, the cruelty of power and the helplessness of weakness and poverty, but above all is Stark, riding roughshod over every person and obstacle.

A fine book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, made into film in 1949 and 2006. Read it.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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18 Responses to Forgotten Book: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

  1. Jerry House says:

    A pure coincidence that you published this review today, right?

    A great book and a great movie. Thanks for covering this one, Richard.

  2. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I agree. I read this a long time ago, after seeing the great Broderick Crawford movie. I would not watch the Sean Penn version.

    Great choice.

  3. I should read this. I never have

  4. macavityabc says:

    Great pick.

  5. ALL THE KING’S MEN is one of the best political novels ever published. I read it back in the 1970s but should read it again. Nice choice on Inauguration Day!

  6. realthog says:

    Very topical indeed. The other elderly novel I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

  7. prettysinister says:

    Perfect post for today. It Can’t Happen Here might have been too close to the mark. It features political assassinations, an overthrowing of the presidency by cabinet members, and a war between the US and Mexico among other dystopian nightmares. Do you hear strains of the “Twilight Zone” theme, too?

  8. Evan Lewis says:

    Tempting, but Ten Years Beyond Baker Street sounds more like my meat.

  9. Richard, I read this book last year and, yes, I found it quite heavy. There were times when I’d to reread certain sections for a better understanding.

  10. Matt Paust says:

    Been a long time since I read it, but I’ve no doubt it’s more pertinent now than ever.

  11. Haven’t read the book, RIchard, but I do remember seeing the film. It starred Broderick Crawford who was excellent as Willie Stark and I believe won an Oscar. Coincidentally, I’ve recently read a bit on the actual real-life event which inspired the book and movie: the ‘assassination’ of Huey Long, La. politician. Turns out that historians believe that the doctor who supposedly killed him didn’t. There is a evidence of some sort or another that Long was accidentally shot by his own men while they tried to subdue the doctor who had not pulled a gun but was making some sort of loud protest in a tight space. Who knows. Interesting, at any rate.

    And the parallel of ALL THE KING’S MEN with today’s politics can’t be ignored. All these many years later and we’re still not immune to dangerous flim-flam men.

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