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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 started reading this in college back in the 1990s and finally finished it last year (2015). One of my favorites. ( )
  Tracy_Tomkowiak | Sep 14, 2016 |
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 |

The novel opens in 1933 as Jack Burden, the narrator and chief of staff for Willie Stark, Governor of Louisiana, rides with Stark in a black Cadillac to Mason City, where Stark grew up. Also in the car are Stark’s wife and son, Lucy and Tom, and Stark’s Lt. Governor, a former political rival named Duffy. Stark stops in Mason City, then visits his father on a farm outside town. Journalists following in another car, along with Sadie Burke, Willie’s secretary, ask for photo-ops at the farmhouse with Willie, Lucy, and Tom. Willie obliges. Sadie informs Willie outside, later, that Judge Irwin has endorsed one of Willie’s political opponents for a Senate seat, and Willie announces later that night that he, Jack, and Sugar-Boy, Willie’s driver, will be driving to talk to Irwin in Burden’s Landing, which is several hours away and the town where Jack grew up. Willie attempts to convince Irwin to change his mind and endorse the candidate Willie prefers, but Irwin says no. While leaving, Willie tasks Jack with finding “dirt” on Irwin that he can use as blackmail to make Irwin comply with his (Willie’s) political wishes.

Jack goes on to describe Willie’s rise as a politician in Louisiana. Once a low-level County bureaucrat, Willie was defeated in an election after crusading for fairness and openness in a bidding process to build a schoolhouse. When the schoolhouse crumbles owing to shoddy workmanship, killing several children, Willie is recognized as a politician “for the people,” and is tapped to run by the state’s Democratic Party as a candidate for governor in 1926. Sadie Burke, who works for the Party machine, takes over Willie’s campaign, and Jack covers it as a newspaper reporter for the Chronicle. One night, Jack is in the room on the campaign trail when Sadie admits to Willie that he is actually a "stooge" candidate, chosen by the Democratic Party to split the rural vote with MacMurfee, another rural politician, so that the Democrats favored politician will win. This news causes Willie to start drinking alcohol (he has, till now, abstained), and Willie goes onto the trail decrying Partying politics, saying he will support MacMurfee in 1926, and vowing to return in 1930 as a gubernatorial candidate himself. Willie makes good on this promise and is elected governor in 1930, then to another term in 1934. Willie later hires Jack when the newspaper fires him (for supporting Willie); Jack becomes Willie’s political “jack of all trades.”

Jack goes on to write about Willie’s political career as governor, his hard-handed methods to keep opposition in line, and his fervent desire to help the people of Louisiana by improving schools, roads, and the tax code, and by building a free hospital for all to use. Some of the political “old guard” in the state, including Judge Irwin, Jack’s mother, and Anne and Adam Stanton, Jack’s friends from Burden’s Landing, do not approve of Willie’s methods, and hate that Jack works for him. But Jack supports Willie during a period when the state legislature attempts to impeach Willie for supposed “bribery”—Willie beats the charges by blackmailing state legislators, and Jack considers this a political victory for Willie and his policies.

Jack recalls his life as a graduate student at LSU, when he was working on a doctorate in history and writing about an ancestor of his named Cass Mastern, who died in the Civil War after being involved in a love affair that caused his friend Duncan Trice to kill himself, and his lover Annabelle Trice to flee Kentucky to Washington, D.C. Cass later died in the Civil War. Jack found he was unable to write his dissertation on Mastern, despite knowing the “facts” of Mastern’s life, because Jack felt he could not properly represent the “truth” of these facts. Jack relates this journey of historical research to his newer task—that of trying to find “dirt” on Judge Irwin. Jack eventually succeeds in linking Irwin to a bribe Irwin accepted from the American Power company long ago, via communication with a woman named Lily Littlepaugh, whose brother Mortimer was fired so that Irwin could take his position at the American Power corporation.

Willie, in the meantime, wants Adam to run his free hospital, despite Adam’s objection, and Willie uses this information about Irwin and Adam’s father, Governor Stanton (who looked the other way while the bribe happened) to show Adam that all politicians, including the Stantons, must use backhanded tactics to get what they want. Adam begrudgingly accepts the job to head Willie’s hospital. But Jack later learns that Anne, who once opposed Willie, has been having an affair with him—Jack confirms this with Anne and drives from Louisiana to California to clear his head.

Jack is so devastated by Anne’s revelation of the affair because he, Jack, was once engaged to Anne back in Burden’s Landing, though they drifted apart and Jack later married, and divorced, a woman named Lois. Jack returns to Baton Rouge after several days and admits to thinking that all life is nothing more, now, than a Great Twitch, a series of responses to stimuli, since Anne, the love of his life, has decided to take up with another man and leave Jack in the dust.

The novel approaches its end as Jack reveals that Tom, Wilie’s only son, is injured severely in a football game; Tom is paralyzed from the neck down, and Willie is receiving political pressure from MacMurfee and the father of a woman named Sibyl to give up his Senate aspirations, since Sibyl reports she is having a child by Tom. Willie can’t stand this blackmail and attempts to get Jack to convince Irwin to put pressure on MacMurfee, by using Irwin’s “dirt” against him; but Irwin kills himself after meeting with Jack, and Jack’s mother reveals that Irwin was secretly Jack’s biological father.

This means Willie cannot use leverage with Irwin to force his hand and defeat his political enemies—he must instead accept Gummy Larson (a Democratic Party strongman) and Duffy’s back-room deal for the hospital, which devastates Willie, who had wanted the creation of the hospital to be clean of any political graft. After Tom’s injury, however, Willie reneges on his deal with Gummy and Duffy. Sadie, angry with Willie about his affair with Anne, convinces Duffy to tell Adam of the affair, knowing that Adam will want to harm Willie, and this indeed comes to pass—Adam shoots and seriously injures Willie in the capitol before he himself is killed.

Willie dies several days later, and Jack reports that, after discovering that Sadie and Duffy were behind the crime, Jack moves back to Burden’s Landing, since he has taken over Irwin’s house, and he and Anne live there with the “Scholarly Attorney,” the man whom Jack had thought was his father before the revelation that Irwin was his real father. Jack reports that he has written the story of Willie’s life and his own, and now he must write the story of Cass Mastern in order to investigate fully the nature of time, regret, and the past on his own life. The novel ends. ( )
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 90 (next | show all)
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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