All the King's Men

Quick Reference

Novel by Robert Penn Warren, published in 1946, winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The protagonist is said to be based on Huey Long.

Willie Stark, a self-educated Southern backcountry man, infatuated with power and dreams of public service, is elected governor of his state. Vital, unscrupulous, and demagogic, he attracts into his employ Jack Burden, a newspaperman and “student of history” in search of truth; Sadie Burke, an intense and intrepid secretary, who becomes his mistress; and Tiny Duffy, a fat yes-man. Willie sends Jack to Burden's Landing, his childhood home, to find something with which to blackmail Judge Irwin, a dignified, honorable, old family friend and former attorney general, who reneged on a promise to the Boss. In his “excursion into the past,” Jack Renews old friendships with Adam Stanton, an idealistic surgeon, and his sister Anne, the unmarried patrician who was his first love. Through Jack they become involved with the Boss, who fascinates and repels them and fulfills an incompleteness in their characters: Anne eventually replaces Sadie as his mistress and Adam becomes director of the hospital Willie built as an altruistic act. Jack gets evidence that Irwin took a bribe, but the Judge won't submit to Willie and commits suicide. From his griefstricken mother Jack Learns that Irwin was his father. Adam, after receiving news of Anne's affair by an anonymous telephone call instigated by Sadie, gets into the Capitol and, in shooting Willie, is himself killed. Jack returns to Burden's Landing, marries Anne, and comes to realize that Willie was corrupted by success and destroyed by a conflict between the will to power and the desire to perform good works. At last able to understand his own past and aware of the infinite consequences of a single act and the common guilt of men, Jack prepares to “go into the convulsion of the world… and the awful responsibility of Time.”

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Robert Penn Warren (1905—1989) American poet, novelist, and critic