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All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men (1946)

by Robert Penn Warren

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I don't remember this book all that well, it has been a few years since I read it. I do remember liking it though, but not loving it. So.. 3 stars. ( )
  thefamousmoe | May 1, 2016 |
Like I mentioned a little while back, apart from my bookworm tendencies, I'm also a big fan of movies. I remember watching the Sean Penn movie version of this novel and (like many critics for what was supposed to be an awards-bait picture) walking away deeply unimpressed. I didn't even really remember the plot of the story, except that the main character was supposedly based on former Governor of Louisiana Huey Long and that it was "about" political corruption.

As it turns out, the actual novel is only partially about political corruption. Politics is mostly a framing device for the real story. The meat of the book is about how actions have consequences, and that there's no getting around that. Reporter-turned-political-staffer-type Jack Burden (it's hard to describe what it actually is he does for Willie Stark, the Huey Long analogue referenced above, and don't think for a second that surname isn't symbolic) burned out of his Ph.D. program when he uncovered a story that made the consequences of heedless actions too real, and tries to hide behind inaction to save him from having to deal with that kind of responsibility. His work for Stark means that he mostly doesn't have to make decisions, until it intersects with his personal life in a way that starts forcing him to do just that and refusing to let him slip quietly away from the results.

That central conceit, though, isn't really clear until you get about halfway through with the story. The first part of the story feels very much like a standard issue dramatic story about yes, politics and corruption. We learn the story of Willie Stark, how he made it from a bumpkin, to a young political appointee fighting a shady, kickback-laden county contract, to a stooge goaded into running for Governor by people using him for their own purposes, to a morally questionable Governor himself. That part of the novel is interesting and easily digestible enough, but the real power of it comes from the later, more philosophical part that shifts Stark's story into the background and brings Jack's story up front.

The storyline wrangling and plot development is masterful, but where the real beauty of this book is are the words. Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, but he also won one for poetry, and you can tell. Picking out a highlight quote was torture...I read this on the Kindle and digitally underlined about half the book because I was so in love with the language. It's a page turner, but not in a suspenseful kind of way. You just want to keep reading it to keep basking in the glory of the writing. I was sad to put it down when it was over. ( )
  ghneumann | Apr 26, 2016 |
First read this when I was nineteen. I was intrigued by the Huey Long/Willie Stark story. Loved the writing and the bittersweet Jack Burden-Anne Stanton romance. I'm not a fan of the 1949 film. I didn't think Broderick Crawford captured the cunning of Willie Stark. He just came as a loud-mouthed demagogue.
  Bill.Dawson | Mar 18, 2016 |

Jack Burden, Willie Stark, and Willie’s political associates are on their way to Mason City for a press opportunity. It was Willie’s second term as governor in the summer of 1936, and he was trying to get more publicity for another reelection. Willie tells Jack, his personal aide, to look into the history of Judge Irwin. The Judge had publicly defied Willie, so Willie wanted to find out some secret in order to blackmail the judge in revenge. Because Jack was a former newspaper reporter and research historian, Willie used him to do his dirty work.

Back when Willie was just the Mason County treasurer in 1922, Jack was working at a newspaper. He was sent to cover a scandal surrounding Willie; he had tried to stay away from corrupt politicians, but the politicians had framed him anyway. When a schoolhouse collapsed and killed a group of children, the public realized Willie was innocent. He won the support of the people and the 1930 race for governor. Jack, meanwhile, had entered what he called a “Great Sleep.” He only awoke after Willie hired him.

Willie resisted the temptations of political power at first. It took three years before Willie succumbed to corruption. A member of his cabinet was caught in a scandal. Rather than firing him, Willie protected his associate. However, the rest of the state government officials wanted Willie gone after he proposed his wealth-sharing programs, and the cover-up was the last straw. However, Willie had Jack find incriminating evidence against each of his accusers. This is also when Willie started his affair with another woman after he and his wife had gotten a separation. Now that Jack had given Willie all the ammunition Willie needed to stay in power, Willie kept Jack on his permanent payroll. Jack was able to find out that Judge Irwin, formerly the state attorney general, was guilty of taking a bribe. He also found out his best friend’s father had covered up the bribe.

Since Jack had found out information on Judge Irwin, Willie felt comfortable moving forward with his plans for a public hospital that would take care of its patients for free. Willie asked Adam Stanton, one of Jack’s two best friends, to run the hospital. Adam wanted nothing to do with Willie or the hospital. However, it was his father who covered up for Judge Irwin years ago. Willie disclosed this information, and Adam was blackmailed into working for Willie. Jack then finds out Anne Stanton, Adam’s sister, was the woman having an affair with Willie.

Jack is distraught by the news of Anne and Willie’s affair, so he runs away to the West Coast in order to clear his mind. Anne was his first love, and they had a serious relationship back in college. Anne, though, discovered Jack was lazy and cynical. She left him, and Jack soon dropped out of graduate school and began working for a newspaper. When Jack returns to the South, though, he is surprised to find things have taken a negative turn for Willie and his office.

Willie’s son, a college boy, is accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. Willie’s opponent in the election is using the news as a way of disrupting Willie’s campaign. Willie then used the information on Judge Irwin to make the opponent leave the issue alone. Jack goes to visit Judge Irwin, his childhood father figure. Judge Irwin, refusing to be blackmailed, kills himself. It was only after the judge's death that Jack’s mother let him know that Judge Irwin was his real father.

Because the threat to Judge Irwin didn’t stop his opponent from dropping the issue about the child, Willie gives the hospital contract to a major supporter of his opponent. However, Willie’s son goes into a coma after a serious football injury. Willie takes back the contract, angering his lieutenant governor, Tiny Duffy. Tiny finds Adam and tells him his sister was the woman having an affair with Willie. Furious, Adam assassinates Willie and is subsequently killed by Willie’s guards.

The person who told Tiny about Willie’s affair was his secretary and longtime mistress. She felt so guilty about Willie’s death, though, that she checked into a mental institution. Willie’s wife adopted her grandson soon after her own son died. At the end of the story, Jack marries Anne. He has stepped away from politics, and he is completing his book about Cass Mastern, Jack’s Civil War-era ancestor. He had previously tried to write a thesis based on Mastern’s diary, but Jack lacked the focus and drive to finish. ( )
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
(6) I think I thought this was 'All the President's Men' when I picked it up off the shelf of a used bookstore and I didn't read the blurb very carefully. American political novel; popular film, etc. Anyway - this is all the KING's men and it is about Willie Stark, a country boy who ultimately becomes the Governor of Louisiana, on a rising tide of a populist platform and political blackmail. It is told by one of his henchmen of sorts, Jimmy Burden, journalist and would be historian turned errand-boy for Stark. It is as much about his life as Stark's - his past, his childhood friend and love - Adam and Anne Stanton, and his complicated relationship with his mother. All of these seemingly disparate players intersect in what really is a tragic novel. It is widely believed to be based on the life of Huey Long - Governor of Lousianna in the late 30's.

The author Robert Penn Warren is apparently a poet, this a rare piece of prose (ultimately winning the Pulitzer Prize) for him. His poetry roots are evident in the writing. It is written in what I think is called the 'modernist' style - much stream of consciousness, free association-type of narrative. But it is not particularly difficult to follow, though difficult to get into. I don't think I really liked the book until at least 1/2 way in. Warren is most effective when telling a discrete story from the past - the 'Cass Masterson' reenactment, the story of Jimmy and Anne's magical summer when they fell in love. The present day action felt watered down - Jimmy seemed so detached from everything it almost felt like a dreamscape.

Anyway, this novel drips with atmosphere. You can feel the ennui, the heat, the cigarette smoke, the sweat. You are never quite sure of the motivations of the characters and some of their actions are unpredictable. The dialogue is often repetitive especially in scenes of great emotion. So realism as opposed to a dramatization - it is what is both the power and the Achilles heel of the novel. Achilles heel because it often made it difficult to read and made the characters hard to sympathize with. I can't believe there is anyone who didn't rather loathe Anne Stanton by the end. Loathe them all really.

Very memorable. powerful. dark. tragic. tough and not always enjoyable to read, but in the end I am glad I did and it will stay with me. Apparently the star-studded remake of the old movie in 2006 was a flop - but I might just try and find it.. . ( )
  jhowell | Feb 7, 2016 |
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Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" is magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks, a book so drenched with fierce emotion, narrative pace and poetic imagery that its stature as a "readin' book," as some of its characters would call it, dwarfs that of most current publications. Here, my lords and ladies, is no book to curl up with in a hammock, but a book to read until 3 o'clock in the morning, a book to read on trains and subways, while waiting for street cars and appointments, while riding elevators or elephants.

» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Warren, Robert Pennprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Koskinen, JuhaniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde.

--La Divina Commedia, Purgatorio, III
To Justine and David Mitchell Clay
First words

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it.
It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don't open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel like there's an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what's in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know it, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him. There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.
It was not so much any one example, any one event, which I recollected which was important, but the flow, the texture of the events, for meaning is never in the event but in the motion through event.  Otherwise we could isolate an instant in the event and say that this is the event itself.  The meaning.  But we cannot do that.  For it is the motion which is important.
So there are two you's, the one you yourself create by loving and the one the beloved creates by loving you.  The farther those two you's are apart the more the world grinds and grudges on its axis.  But if you loved and were loved perfectly then there wouldn't be any difference between the two you's or any distance between them.
The creation of man whom God in His foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God's omnipotence.  For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection.  To do so would, to speak truth, be not creation but extension.  Separateness is identity and the only way for God to create, truly create, man was to make him separate from God Himself,and to be separate from God is to be sinful.  The creation of evil is therefore the index of God's glory and His power.
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The rise and fall of

a demagogue, based somewhat

on a real statesman.


Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156004801, Paperback)

This landmark book is a loosely fictionalized account of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, one of the nation's most astounding politicians. All the King's Men tells the story of Willie Stark, a southern-fried politician who builds support by appealing to the common man and playing dirty politics with the best of the back-room deal-makers. Though Stark quickly sheds his idealism, his right-hand man, Jack Burden -- who narrates the story -- retains it and proves to be a thorn in the new governor's side. Stark becomes a successful leader, but at a very high price, one that eventually costs him his life. The award-winning book is a play of politics, society and personal affairs, all wrapped in the cloak of history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:02 -0400)

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Set in the '30s, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the rise and fall of demagogue Willie Stark, a fictional character who resembles the real-life Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana. Stark begins his political career as an idealistic man of the people but soon becomes corrupted by success and caught between dreams of service and an insatiable lust for power. The model for 1996's best-selling novel, Primary Colors, and as relevant today as it was fifty years ago, All the King's Men is one of the classics of American literature.… (more)

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