This Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is considered the best novel ever written about American politics. It tells the story of Willie Stark, a small-town lawyer whose passion for power overtakes his idealistic beliefs.
This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
Table of Contents
It’s 1939, and the narrator, Jack Burden, is reflecting on the past. He remembers a trip in 1936, when his boss and the governor of a Southern state, Willie Stark, visited Jack’s childhood home in Mason City. The trip was both a public relations move and an expression of Willie’s true feelings for the people of Mason City.
Willie, who is in his second term of office and has been separated from his wife Lucy for two years, was accompanied by Tiny Duffy, his cunning lieutenant governor; Sadie Burke, his clever executive secretary and mistress; Sugar-Boy O’Sheean, his loyal bodyguard/driver; his kind-hearted wife, Lucy; their teenage son Tom, a confident and attractive college football player; and Jack himself, Willie’s trusted assistant.
However, plans for the group to spend the night were disrupted by surprising news that a powerful political figure in the state, Judge Montague (Monty) Irwin, had announced he would not support Willie’s chosen candidate for the Senate. Willie and Jack quickly left for Jack’s hometown of Burden’s Landing where Judge Irwin lived. Although the judge was courteous on the surface, it was clear he held contempt for Willie and treated Jack coldly.
On the way back to Mason City, Willie, a former newspaper reporter, tasked Jack to find incriminating information on Irwin and use it against him. Through a flashback, we learn that the young Willie was a hardworking man who spent his days on the farm and studied law at night.
In 1922, with the help of his wife and father, Willie became county treasurer. However, when he protested against awarding a building contract to a friend of the county commissioner, instead of the best option, he lost his job. Similarly, his wife lost her job as a teacher. Unfortunately, the school built was poorly constructed and two years later, a fire escape collapsed, causing the death of three children. This tragedy made Willie a hero in the eyes of the public for standing up against corruption.
In 1926, the Democratic primary race for governor was a contentious battle between a former governor with urban support and the current governor with rural support. The opposing campaign suggested that they nominate a fake candidate with rural support to split the vote. They chose Willie for the job, with a Harrison supporter as his campaign manager, but did not tell him the true reason for his nomination.
Now a lawyer, Willie campaigned in the primary but his speeches were uninspiring. A political advisor for the Harrison campaign followed him from town to town, assessing his effectiveness. After one of his speeches, she met with an old friend, the reporter Jack, and confided that she should have told the leaders of the campaign to drop the plan long ago, as she believed Willie was hopeless and pitiful.
Feeling defeated, Willie confides in Jack that he believes his campaign is not gaining traction with voters. When Sadie mistakenly assumes someone has informed Willie of Harrison’s scheme, she insults him for being too naive to realize he’s been set up. In response, Willie, feeling vengeful, gets drunk for the first time.
The following day, he sets aside his campaign statistics and gives a passionate speech to a group of voters. He reveals Harrison’s plan to sabotage his campaign and urges them to reject corrupt city politicians who take advantage of them. He publicly thanks Sadie for helping him see the truth and announces that he is dropping out of the race to support MacMurfee instead.
Willie then travels the state, rallying rural support for MacMurfee and warning that if MacMurfee does not deliver on his promises, Willie will hold him accountable. MacMurfee wins the 1926 election, and Willie returns to Mason City to practice law. But over the next four years, Willie’s ambition grows. With Sadie’s help, he wins the 1930 governor’s race in a landslide.
To keep an eye on him, he hires the dishonest Tiny Duffy as an assistant. He also hires Jack as a confidential assistant after Jack quits his job at the newspaper due to a disagreement with his manager, Jim Madison.
Willie, who is in his third year as governor, has pushed through many reforms but has resorted to unethical and dishonest methods to do so. He has abandoned his previous morality and idealism, believing them to be irrelevant in politics. Lucy is appalled by Willie’s actions and is ready to leave him, though she stays with him until after the 1934 election.
Jack’s job is to gather information in black notebooks that can be used to blackmail legislators into voting the “right” way. In 1933, he visits his mother in Burden’s Landing and reflects on the past, specifically his parents’ separation in 1904. His father, a scholarly attorney named Ellis Burden, left his family after learning of his wife’s affair with their friend, Judge Irwin (later revealed to be Jack’s real father).
Devastated, Ellis abandoned his law career and moved to a poor area of Burden’s Landing to work with the less fortunate. Jack also thinks back on his childhood friendship with the idealistic Adam Stanton, now a successful surgeon, and Adam’s sister Anne, now an unmarried social worker living in the state capital. They are the children of former Governor Joel Stanton, a friend of Judge Irwin. In the summer of 1915, at the age of 17, Jack fell in love with 13-year-old Anne but nothing came of it.
While Jack is away, the state auditor, Byram B. White, is caught accepting a bribe, and a group led by MacMurfee threatens to impeach Willie and White. Willie travels the state to gain support and uses Jack’s black notebooks to pressure important people into cooperation. The impeachment proceedings are dropped, paving the way for Willie’s successful reelection in 1934.
In a flashback to 1924, Jack recounts leaving his job at a newspaper to pursue a PhD in American history. He planned to write his dissertation on the private papers of his great-uncle, Cass Mastern, who died in 1864. He was interested in understanding the motivations behind Cass’s actions, but despite conducting extensive research, he was no closer to understanding him than when he began. He abandoned the dissertation and returned to work at the newspaper, where he could deal with facts without interpreting them, but where he felt regretfully numb and as if he was living in a “Great Sleep.”
Jack spends seven months researching Judge Irwin’s past in Burden’s Landing. While going through public records in the autumn of 1936, he discovers that in 1914, the judge, in debt and facing the prospect of losing his plantation, was able to raise the money to pay off a $42,000 mortgage. He then learns that during that same time, as attorney general in the administration of Governor Stanton, Irwin was prosecuting the Southern Belle Fuel Co. for violations of state law. However, in May of 1914, the state suddenly dropped its charges against Southern Belle, and in 1915 Irwin accepted the vice-presidency of American Electrical. Jack finds that Southern Belle was a subsidiary of American Electrical. He also discovers that the attorney for American Electrical, Mortimer L. Littlepaugh, jumped to his death from a hotel window in 1915 after being fired from the job that was offered to Irwin. Jack finds Littlepaugh’s sister in Memphis and learns that Irwin dropped the charges after being bribed with stock and a highly paid position with the parent company.
Meanwhile, Willie is planning to build a new hospital, named after himself, that will provide free medical service to the poor. He enlists Jack to convince Adam Stanton to be the director, but Adam refuses. A few days later, Anne, who also wants Adam to take the position, calls Jack to her apartment. To convince Adam, Jack shows Anne the information he has gathered about Governor Stanton’s cover-up of Irwin’s bribe. Anne shows the information to her brother and he agrees to take the position. Jack becomes suspicious when Sadie Burke walks into his office angry that Willie is “two-timing” her again. He walks to Anne’s apartment and sees the truth, that Anne has become Willie’s mistress.
Jack is shattered and retreats by driving to the California coast. He thinks back to 1919, when he and Anne, who were 21 and 17 years old respectively, planned to get married. But their plans were disrupted when Anne’s mother returned home unexpectedly while they were about to make love. They drifted apart and eventually Anne went to a finishing school in the East, while Jack became a law student.
Unfortunately, Jack flunked out of law school and turned to reporting. In 1922, he met Willie for the first time while working for the Chronicle. Two years later, he was in graduate school but returned to newspaper work in 1926 to cover Willie’s campaign. During that time he met Lois Seager, a well-to-do woman whom he married, because they were “perfectly adjusted sexually.” However, once he began to see Lois as a person and not just a beautiful body, his lust turned to disgust, and he deserted her.
On his drive back from California, Jack reflects on losing Anne to Willie and decides it is just another fact to be filed in his black book before moving on to the next job. He also arrives at his theory of the “Great Twitch,” in which he believes that everyone is just “twitching” in reaction to an unknown current, without any understanding of why or control over it, just like a lobotomy patient.
Sibyl Frey and her father Marvin Frey claim that she was made pregnant by Willie’s son, Tom, and Jack learns that anyone from Tom’s platoon could be the father. But Willie cannot afford a scandal, since he intends to run for the Senate when his term as governor ends. MacMurfee gets hold of the story and makes a deal with the Freys to go into hiding in exchange for Willie backing down from the Senate race, which will clear the way for MacMurfee to win.
Willie tells Jack to investigate Judge Irwin since he’s the only person MacMurfee might listen to. Jack leaves photocopies of his notebook with Irwin, then goes to his mother’s house. Shortly after, he hears his mother scream and when he finds her by the telephone, he learns that Judge Irwin has committed suicide. His mother is hysterical and screams “You killed him…Your father and oh! you killed him,” revealing that Irwin was Jack’s father. After Irwin’s burial, Jack inherits his heavily mortgaged estate.
Willie is determined to keep politics out of his new hospital, but after Irwin’s death, Gummy Larson, one of MacMurfee’s biggest supporters, demands the building contract for the hospital in exchange for his support. Although Willie is outraged and ashamed, Tiny Duffy sees this as an opportunity to gain a kickback for himself.
Tragedy strikes again when Tom becomes permanently paralyzed after a spinal cord injury during a college football game. Willie cancels his deal with Gummy Larson, and publicly humiliates Tiny Duffy when he protests. Grief-stricken over his son’s injury, Willie returns to his wife, Lucy, after ending his relationships with mistresses Sadie Burke and Anne Stanton.
Jack, who has been focused on working on a tax bill, refuses to engage in any more political manipulation, even when Willie asks him to. He has come to realize the dangers and consequences of manipulating people and facts. However, Anne tells Jack that her husband, Adam, learned of her relationship with Willie and believed it was a bribe for her appointment as director of the new hospital. Adam confronted Anne, knocked her down and went to the capitol where he confronted Willie, shooting him and being killed in the process. Willie died a few days later and Adam was quietly buried.
Jack, determined to find out the source of the information, discovers that Sadie Burke, in her anger at Willie, told Tiny Duffy about the relationship and that Duffy was the one who tipped off Adam. Jack realizes that if he told Willie’s bodyguard, Sugar-Boy O’Sheean, about Duffy’s betrayal, Sugar-Boy would kill Duffy. However, Jack realizes that if he does this, he would be just as corrupt as Duffy.
Anne and Jack, realizing they still love each other, marry and live in Irwin’s house. Jack reflects that this has been his story as much as Willie’s and that he now looks at the world in a very different way than he did when he believed that “nobody had any responsibility for anything and that there was no god but the Great Twitch.” He brings Ellis Burden, now a dying man, home to live with them and resumes working on the Cass Mastern story with a newfound understanding of personal responsibility.
Willie Stark: Governor of a Southern state (probably Louisiana); “the Boss” of the state’s political machine. Begins as an honest country lawyer but becomes a corrupt, blackmailing, rabble-rousing politician during his political rise to the governor.
Jack Burden: Willie’s devoted confidential assistant; ex-reporter. He searches for the truth about himself and in the end, discovers that people must take responsibility for their actions since they will have an effect on others.
Tiny Duffy: Corrupt political aide; lieutenant governor during Willie’s second term. Greedy, untrustworthy.
Judge Montage (Monty) Irwin: Jack’s real father. Aristocratic and influential in state politics; pretends to have high moral standards, but has committed adultery and taken a bribe.
Anne Stanton: Jack’s first love; later Willie’s mistress; eventually Jack’s wife.
Adam Stanton: Anne’s idealistic brother; a surgeon.
Sadie Burke: Willie’s tough, shrewd executive secretary and mistress.
Main Themes and Ideas
1. All the King’s Men
This is the story of the rise and fall of a political boss named Willie Stark. But it’s also about Jack Burden and others who compromise their ethical standards to become one of the “king’s men.”
While Willie’s character and political career are important to the story, it’s really about Jack’s personal growth and moral development. We get to know Jack better than Willie because everything is seen through his eyes.
2. The “Great Sleep” and the “Great Twitch”
Towards the end of the novel, Jack’s philosophy of life changes. He used to think people could be neatly divided into good and bad categories, but he realizes that most people have both qualities. When confronted with things he can’t understand, Jack retreats into a physical and emotional stupor he calls the “Great Sleep.”
He copes with reality by fleeing it. But when events force him to confront the consequences of his actions, he rejects his theory of the “Great Twitch,” which suggests that everyone is mechanistically controlled by outside forces. Instead, he realizes that a person’s actions do have an effect on others and decides to live a more ethical life.
As the novel nears its end, Jack begins to distance himself from Willie’s actions. He continues to work for Willie, but now he’s focused on compiling statistics for a new tax bill. He no longer wants to be involved in Willie’s unethical actions and tells him to find someone else for blackmailing.
Jack still respects Willie’s genuine reforms, but to be true to himself, he must be Jack Burden. This means taking responsibility for his own actions and learning to live with the consequences.
1. Character Development
Although the book is named after Huey Long, the story revolves around Jack Burden, who serves as Long’s right-hand man. Through Burden’s eyes, we see the rise and fall of Long’s political career, but also his personal journey of self-discovery.
Burden is a complex character, with a cynical view of the world and a troubled past, but as the story progresses, we witness his growth and transformation. The author expertly weaves Burden’s personal journey with the political drama, creating a rich and multi-layered narrative.
2. Beautiful Prose
One of the most remarkable things about this book is the author’s writing style. Robert Penn Warren’s prose is poetic and lyrical, with vivid descriptions and colorful language. His words paint a picture of the world, bringing it to life in the reader’s mind.
The author’s use of metaphor and symbolism is particularly impressive, adding depth and meaning to the story. Even if readers are not interested in the political drama, they can enjoy the sheer beauty of the writing.
3. Timeless Relevance
Although the book is set in the 1930s, its themes are still relevant today. All The King’s Men explores the corruption and abuse of power in politics, and the ways in which individuals are shaped by their past. The characters are flawed and complex, and their struggles with morality and identity are universal.
The book also raises questions about the role of government in society and the tension between individual ambition and the greater good. These are timeless issues that continue to resonate with readers today.
1. Overly Complex Writing Style
Some readers find the language and grammar used in the book to be convoluted and difficult to follow. The author’s habit of going off on tangents and obsessing over insignificant details can make the plot hard to follow. The long, run-on sentences and overly verbose dialogue can also make the book a chore to read for some.
2. Confusing Plot
While the book is named after the charismatic politician Willie Stark (based on Huey Long), the story is actually told from the perspective of his right-hand man, Jack Burden.
Burden’s internal struggles and musings can be hard to follow, especially for readers who are not familiar with the historical context of the book. The nonlinear structure of the narrative can also be challenging to navigate.
3. Outdated Themes
Although All The King’s Men is considered a classic of American literature, some readers may find its themes to be outdated. The book deals with issues of political corruption and the abuse of power, which were certainly relevant in the 1930s when the book was written.
However, in the present day, readers may be more interested in exploring the role of money and influence in politics, rather than the more simplistic depiction of corrupt politicians. Some may find that the book’s focus on Louisiana politics is too narrow and parochial for their tastes.
All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is a book that demands multiple readings to truly appreciate its brilliance. It is a classic of American literature and has rightly earned its place in the literary canon. Warren’s beautiful prose, intricate characterizations, and profound exploration of human nature make this book a masterpiece.
While it may not be an easy read for novice readers, it is a rewarding and engaging experience for those willing to put in the effort. Each chapter stands alone as its own mini-story, and the relationships between the characters are developed in realistic and heartbreaking ways.
All The King’s Men is a coming-of-age story, a political drama, and a meditation on the human condition all rolled into one. Like a fine wine, it needs to be savored and appreciated for all its complexities and nuances. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a classic piece of literature that is both engaging and thought-provoking.
Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was a talented poet, novelist, and literary critic from Guthrie, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in 1925 and his Master’s degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1927. He then went on to study at Yale from 1928 to 1929.
Warren began his career as a writer as part of the “Fugitive” group of young Southern poets. He taught at many different colleges and universities throughout his life. He also served as the editor of the Southern Review, where he had a big impact on Southern literature.
Warren received the Pulitzer Prize twice: once in 1947 for his novel All the King’s Men, and again in 1958 for his poetry. In addition, he was named the first official Poet Laureate of the United States, serving from 1986 to 1987.
Buy The Book: All the King’s Men
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