Robert Penn Warren enjoyed a distinguished career as a novelist, poet, scholar, university professor, and man of letters. His first widely read work was the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men, and it was not until the 1950s that he actually seemed to be courting a wider audience. His best fiction maintains a high level of intellectual and dramatic interest, and yet remains accessible to ordinary readers.
Set in the Deep South, All the King’s Men examines the complex web of influence that members of a closed society have on one another. Most of Warren’s large cast of characters are corrupt in some way. Their corruption stems from an indignation traced back to the Civil War-a war fought by idealistic young gallants humiliated less by losing the war than by watching their land being plundered during Reconstruction. Warren’s corrupt political boss, Willie Stark, and others of his kind have fallen into the worst depravity of not knowing right from wrong.
All the King’s Men describes the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a political boss and governor of an unnamed southern state, during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The state is a thinly disguised Louisiana, and readers and critics have drawn inevitable parallels between Stark and Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932. Enormously popular with his poor white constituency-which was suffering terribly from economic havoc wreaked by the Great Depression-Long was fiercely dedicated to improving the standard of living in rural Louisiana through tax reform, expansion of paved roads, construction of bridges, and increased support for charity hospitals. But he achieved these ends through any means possible, indiscriminately using his vast power to manipulate any political situation to his advantage. After his election to the U.S. Senate, Long remained governor until his hand-picked successor could assume the governorship. He essentially served as both Louisiana governor and a U.S. senator until 1935, when he was gunned down by an assassin in the presence of numerous bodyguards.
nstead of presenting Stark as a monster of evil and iniquity, a nightmarish demagogue who exploits the poor and middle-class citizens who form his constituency, Warren’s sympathetic characterization portrays him as a disillusioned idealist whose actions, though pragmatic and frequently illegal and unethical, often lead to humanitarian progress. Stark, who enters politics seriously when his criticism of a defective school building’s construction makes him a temporary hero, is driven by a passion to provide better public services for the rural people of his state. Stark’s murder, which provides the dramatic climax of the novel, grows out of his dream to build an extraordinary hospital and medical research center to serve the people of the state (and memorialize his son). It is one of the many ironies of the novel that the pragmatic and unethical Stark, who will blackmail political opponents and use bribery if convenient, does more to improve the quality of life for the people of his state than generations of more genteel and supposedly more honorable predecessors.
All the King’s Men draws on a rich tradition of literature, ranging from Jacobean drama to the novels of William Faulkner. Parallels with Faulkner, an older contemporary of Warren and a fellow southerner, are especially striking. Both writers use southern settings to explore universal themes, particularly those of moral and spiritual corruption, the effects of time, the search for meaning in the universe, and the need to create meaning if none exists. Both writers point out the dangers of people adhering too rigidly to any set of rules or pattern that they may have created in the quest for meaning. Warren’s Adam Stanton and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury are inflexible idealists, each of whom dies because he cannot bear the discovery that his sister falls short of his ideals. Warren states that “Life is Motion toward Knowledge,” and neither Adam nor Quentin can tolerate that motion, like time, inevitably brings knowledge capable of destroying any ironclad set of ideals. At the end of The Sound and the Fury the reader realizes that the Compsons’ uneducated maid, Dilsey, has taken on the responsibility for finding meaning in a world ravaged by the fluidity of time, while in All the King’s Men, Jack Burden sets out to assume the “awful responsibility of time.”
All the King’s Men abounds with moral ambiguities. Violence, betrayal, blackmail, infidelity, and political corruption shape the plot line, and the conclusion does not present a clear victory of good over evil. For Warren, Adam Stanton’s idealism is as dangerous as Willie Stark’s Machiavellianism. But from this morass, Jack Burden develops from a passive and cynical character to a man ready to accept moral responsibility. Because of this change in Jack, the novel can be seen as a call for individuals to take action tempered with forethought, and to reject the dogmatic impulses that doom Adam Stanton’s and Willie Stark’s attempts to change their worlds.
1. What attracts passive characters such Jack Burden and Anne Stanton to Willie Stark?
2. Sometimes Stark seems to be less of an individual than an embodiment of the crowds he performs for. Cite examples of this. When does he seem most like an individual?
1. Throughout the novel Jack seems to have been telling Willie Stark’s story, but in the end the reader learns that the story equally belongs to Jack. Retrace the events in the novel to show how Jack changes more than Willie.
Robert Rossen directed a black and white film adaptation of All the King’s Men in 1949. This picture was considered the kind of “serious” effort, complete with heavy-handed social commentary, that Hollywood ought to produce regularly, and it won the Academy Award for Best Film. Broderick Crawford, as Willie Stark, and Mercedes McCambridge, as Sadie Burke, both won Oscars. Despite its apparent success, the film has not aged especially well. In spite of a good performance by Crawford, the self-conscious direction lacks the expansive openness and vulgarity that the saga of Huey Long seems to demand. The script-obliged to condense and cut Warren’s novel-focuses inevitably more on the Stark character than on Burden.