Robert Penn Warren was one of the twentieth century's outstanding men of letters. He found great success as a novelist, a poet, a critic, and a scholar, and enjoyed a career showered with acclaim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, was Poet Laureate of the United States, and was presented with a Congressional Medal of Freedom. He founded the Southern Review and was an important contributor to the New Criticism of 1930s and '40s. Born in 1905, Warren showed his exceptional intelligence from an early age; he attended college at Vanderbilt University, where he befriended some of the most important contemporary figures in Southern literature, including Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.
During a stay in Italy, Warren wrote a verse drama called Proud Flesh, which dealt with themes of political power and moral corruption. As a professor at Louisiana State University, Warren had observed the rise of Louisiana political boss Huey Long, who embodied, in many ways, the ideas Warren tried to work into Proud Flesh.
Unsatisfied with the result, Warren began to rework his elaborate drama into a novel, set in the contemporary South, and based in part on the person of Huey Long. The result was All the King's Men, Warren's best and most acclaimed book. First published in 1946, All the King's Men is one of the best literary documents dealing with the American South during the Great Depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a movie that won an Academy Award in 1949.
All the King's Men focuses on the lives of Willie Stark, an upstart farm boy who rises through sheer force of will to become Governor of an unnamed Southern state during the 1930s, and Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, a cynical scion of the state's political aristocracy who uses his abilities as a historical researcher to help Willie blackmail and control his enemies. The novel deals with the large question of the responsibility individuals bear for their actions within the turmoil of history, and it is perhaps appropriate that the impetus of the novel's story comes partly from real historical occurrences. Jack Burden is entirely a creation of Robert Penn Warren, but there are a number of important parallels between Willie Stark and Huey Long, who served Louisiana as both Governor and Senator from 1928 until his death in 1935.
Like Huey Long, Willie Stark is an uneducated farm boy who passed the state bar exam; like Huey Long, he rises to political power in his state by instituting liberal reform designed to help the state's poor farmers. And like Huey Long, Willie is assassinated at the peak of his power by a doctor--Dr. Adam Stanton in Willie's case, Dr. Carl A. Weiss in Long's. (Unlike Willie, however, Long was assassinated after becoming a Senator, and was in fact in the middle of challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.)
All the King's Men is the story of the rise and fall of a political titan in the Deep South during the 1930s. Willie Stark rises from hardscrabble poverty to become governor of his state and its most powerful political figure; he blackmails and bullies his enemies into submission, and institutes a radical series of liberal reforms designed to tax the rich and ease the burden of the state's poor farmers. He is beset with enemies--most notably Sam MacMurfee, a defeated former governor who constantly searches for ways to undermine Willie's power--and surrounded by a rough mix of political allies and hired thugs, from the bodyguard Sugar-Boy O'Sheean to the fat, obsequious Tiny Duffy.
All the King's Men is also the story of Jack Burden, the scion of one of the state's aristocratic dynasties, who turns his back on his genteel upbringing and becomes Willie Stark's right-hand man. Jack uses his considerable talents as a historical researcher to dig up the unpleasant secrets of Willie's enemies, which are then used for purposes of blackmail. Cynical and lacking in ambition, Jack has walked away from many of his past interests--he left his dissertation in American History unfinished, and never managed to marry his first love, Anne Stanton, the daughter of a former governor of the state.
When Willie asks Jack to look for skeletons in the closet of Judge Irwin, a father figure from Jack's childhood, Jack is forced to confront his ideas concerning consequence, responsibility, and motivation. He discovers that Judge Irwin accepted a bribe, and that Governor Stanton covered it up; the resulting blackmail attempt leads to Judge Irwin's suicide. It also leads to Adam Stanton's decision to accept the position of director of the new hospital Willie is building, and leads Anne to begin an affair with Willie. When Adam learns of the affair, he murders Willie in a rage, and Jack leaves politics forever.
Willie's death and the circumstances in which it occurs force Jack to rethink his desperate belief that no individual can ever be responsible for the consequences of any action within the chaos and tumult of history and time. Jack marries Anne Stanton and begins working on a book about Cass Mastern, the man whose papers he had once tried to use as the source for his failed dissertation in American History.