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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Context


The South in the 1920s and 1930s

In All the King's Men Robert Penn Warren vividly describes the poverty that consumed parts of the South in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, in Chapter 2 Jack states, "The houses didn't look as though they belonged there, improvised, flung-down, ready to be abandoned." Later Jack says, "The floor of the house is thin against the bare ground." The reason for the economic decline in the South can be traced back to the collapse of the plantation system after the Civil War. Before the war, plantations grew large-scale "cash crops" such as cotton and used slave labor to farm the land. Warren reveals the cruelty of the slave system through the story of Cass Mastern, who struggles between plantation ownership and guilt over the sale and familial separation of slaves. After the Civil War wealthy landowners set up sharecropping, allowing farmers to work the land in return for a share of the crop's value, and tenant farming, renting the land for use by farmers to maintain their cash crop economy. Both systems kept farmers in a state of poverty.

By the 1930s when the novel begins, African Americans and rural whites had been working in a tenancy system for decades. Between 1880–1930, tenant farming in the South increased from 36 to 55 percent. Since the Civil War, generations of families had been steeped in poverty. These people were fed up with the large landowners who wanted to keep them poor. One of the main characters of the novel, Willie Stark, as governor of a southern state, promises to change this system, and millions of voters rally around Willie, seeing him as a savior. When Willie makes good on many of his promises, his support in rural counties grows even stronger. Indeed, when Willie gives impassioned speeches his constituency give him unquestioning support, despite the rumors about his corrupt methods.

Discrimination against blacks in the South was also widespread during this time period, as shown in the novel. For example, the commissioner and sheriff of Mason City don't want to hire a construction contractor because he uses African American workers. Discrimination was supported legally by the "Jim Crow" laws, passed from 1877 to the 1950s, which enforced segregation and discrimination against blacks. Among other things, the laws limited their voting rights and forced them to use different facilities than whites. Whites in the South often felt they had it bad, but not as bad as blacks, and they wanted to maintain this hierarchy. They supported "Jim Crow" laws to keep blacks from improving their economic status.

The Ruling Class in the South

During Reconstruction in the South, wealthy landowners and their associates, like the characters Judge Irwin and Governor Stanton in All the King's Men, emerged as a ruling class. This elite class of men gained power by forming close-knit groups that exerted considerable political influence over the southern states for decades. As the novel's character Governor Willie Stark says of the judge, "When you wanted anything you just reached out and took it."

While the setting of All the King's Men is not named, it can reasonably be presumed to be Louisiana, since the character of Stark is based on longtime Louisiana governor Huey Long. In Louisiana, an elite group called the Bourbon Democrats reduced investments in infrastructure, such as roads and railroads, and social services, such as education. In addition they lowered taxes on property owners. Although the Bourbon Democrats had fallen from power by the early 1900s, the elite class they established continued to exert considerable influence on the state well into the 1920s. The plot of All the King's Men revolves around the need for reformation in a state government as a result of poor leadership.

Huey Long versus Willie Stark

Robert Penn Warren once stated, "If Huey Long had not existed, [All the King's Men] would never have been written." Huey Long was the charismatic governor of Louisiana from 1928–32, then served in the U.S. Senate until 1935, when he was assassinated.

Indeed, the similarities between the politician Huey Long and the fictional character Willie are many. Some scholars claim that Willie is based on Long with few changes. However, Warren insisted that Long served as an inspiration for a "line of thinking" that eventually developed into the novel: the author did not view Willie as a replica of Long.

Similarities Between Huey Long and Willie Stark


  • Born in poverty on farms in the late 1800s
  • Received enough education to pass a bar exam
  • Served as governors of southern states
  • Raised taxes and improved infrastructure and social services
  • Made many political enemies
  • Used corrupt methods
  • Defeated impeachment attempts
  • Gave fervent speeches that appealed to rural folks
  • Were assassinated by doctors in state capitols



  • Served one term as governor
  • Served in the U.S. Senate
  • Had a politically active wife
  • Was assassinated because he smeared his father-in-law's reputation


  • Serves two terms as governor
  • Is assassinated before being elected to the U.S. Senate
  • Does not have a politically active wife
  • Dies because he is having an affair with his assassin's sister
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