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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is a novel of intense political intrigue that contemplates the corrupting influence of power. Published in 1946, All the King's Men tells the story of Willie Stark, a lawyer-turned-statesman whose popularity explodes in his home state during his gubernatorial campaign. Warren crafts Willie as an incomparably charismatic yet utterly corrupt politician whose ideologies and methods change drastically—from populism and idealism to intimidation and moral depravity—as he's exposed to the dark side of American politics.

Warren's novel is narrated by a journalist, Jack Burden, who becomes obsessed with covering Stark's political maneuvers and corrupted policies. Warren stated that All the King's Men was actually "never intended to be a book about politics," but instead about the changing characters of these two men and their similarities and differences. Despite Warren's intentions, All the King's Men is remembered as one of the greatest political novels of the 20th century, inspiring an Academy Award–winning 1949 film adaptation, as well as serving as a disillusioning reminder about power's ability to erode moral integrity.

1. All the King's Men was inspired by the rise of fascism in Italy.

While Warren was fascinated by political figures of the American South, he also drew a great deal of inspiration from foreign leaders. In 1938 Warren traveled to Italy, where he wrote the theatrical precursor to All the King's Men. At this time Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini, the infamous fascist dictator who allied Italy with Adolf Hitler's Nazi German regime during World War II. Although Warren's portrayal of Willie Stark seems to be inherently American, Warren was inspired to craft the corrupt character based on Mussolini's dramatic rise to power and clever use of populism to maintain a loyal base of support.

2. The title All the King's Men comes from a popular nursery rhyme.

The title All the King's Men probably sounds familiar—because it was taken straight from one of the most well-known nursery rhymes in the United States. The line comes from the end of "Humpty Dumpty," which reads "All the king's horses and all the king's men/Couldn't put Humpty together again." Although the source material may seem juvenile, Warren chose the title to reflect the moral breakdown of Willie Stark over the course of the novel and the irreparable damage that corruption causes in the political arena.

3. All the King's Men criticizes a particular branch of Protestantism.

Warren mentions Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism, throughout the novel, portraying the group in an unflattering light. All the King's Men is part of a long American literary tradition that describes Calvinists (and their Puritan precursors) as stern, unforgiving, and judgmental. In the novel Warren includes depictions of Calvinists at moments of moral ambiguity, such as when Jack Burden visits Willie's wife Talos to inform her that her son has impregnated a younger girl. During this tense scene, Warren describes the portraits of various Calvinist figures on the wall of the house, describing them as "big walnut and gilt frames ... enclosing the stern, malarial, Calvinistic faces whose eyes fixed you with little sympathy."

4. All the King's Men is based on a play that Warren wrote—and then stashed away in a drawer.

During a trip to Italy in 1938, Warren wrote a play titled Proud Flesh, which he'd later adapt into the novel All the King's Men. Proud Flesh was essentially the same story but featured the name "Willie Talos" instead of "Willie Stark" for the protagonist. Warren was disappointed with his play and hid it away for years before returning to it.

5. The 1949 film adaptation of All the King's Men was significantly different from the novel.

The 1949 film version of All the King's Men was extremely well received, winning three Academy Awards (including Best Picture)y. The film, however deviated significantly from Warren's novel. In the novel the reporter and narrator Jack Burden has a much greater role and acts as the central voice of the story. The film focuses more on the role of Willie Stark himself, delegating Burden to a secondary viewpoint. Despite this reversal of Warren's two most critical characters, the adaptation of All the King's Men is widely regarded as one of the greatest political drama films of its era.

6. Willie Stark was based on a real tyrannical U.S. governor.

Although Warren drew inspiration from dictatorial leaders overseas, such as Benito Mussolini, his primary model for Willie Stark was American politician Huey Long. Long served as the governor of Louisiana from 1928–31, later representing the state in the U.S. Senate from 1932–35. Although Long made great strides in welfare reform and poverty alleviation, earning him fiery support from his rural constituents, he also made a great number of political enemies by picking fights with a number of industry leaders. Long also ran the state like a dictator, surrounding himself with bodyguards and bullying local legislators into bending to his will. Just like Willie Stark, Long was assassinated by a political rival in September 1935 as he was contemplating a presidential campaign.

7. Warren was a member of a "secret society" of poets.

Warren was one of the "Fugitive Poets," a 1920s literary group based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The goal of the Fugitives was twofold: to maintain traditional techniques in poetic writing and to produce works that defended the rural, agrarian values of the South in response to a rapidly industrializing country.

8. Warren was the first writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for both prose and poetry.

Warren's work earned him a very distinguished honor: Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry and prose. All the King's Men earned Warren a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947, while two volumes of his poetry, Promises: Poems and Now and Then received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979, respectively.

9. Warren was the first official Poet Laureate of the United States.

The Poet Laureate is a title given to the United States's "official" poet and is widely regarded to be the highest honor a poet can achieve in the country. The concept of a state-endorsed poet has existed in the United States since 1937, when the title was "Consultant in Poetry." Warren held this title in 1944–45, but he was later named Poet Laureate when the office was first established in 1986.

10. A 1974 exposé about U.S. President Richard Nixon paid homage to Warren's novel.

The 1974 novel All the President's Men borrowed Warren's title to discuss the impact of Richard Nixon's presidency on the United States. Nixon, who was disgraced after the findings of his notorious Watergate scandal, has been compared to Willie Stark for his autocratic style of governance and memorable corrupt actions while in office. Published only two years after Watergate—in which Nixon was accused of bugging the offices of political opponents and subsequently covering his tracks—All the President's Men was notable for revealing the alias and speculating on the true identity of "Deep Throat." This was the infamous code name of the anonymous source that exposed the scandal to the Washington Post in 1972.

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