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Book #58: All The King’s Men

Several years before I went back to school to get my English degree, I actually graduated from college with a Political Science degree.

I planned on going to law school and blah, blah, blah, and Political Science was just one of the degrees you got if you were going to law school. It was a bad decision, but that’s another story for another day.

But to say the only reason I majored in Political Science was because of my ill-conceived law school aspirations wouldn’t be entirely true. As a teenager and young adult, I had always been strangely fascinated by politics.

I never had any desire to be a politician, but I was fascinated by the game of politics, the organized farce of it all, like a rubbernecker who can’t stop looking at a fatal car crash.

The psychological aspect of politics, the cyclical nature of elections (the public gets tired of one party and votes the other one in—rinse, wash, repeat), and the willingness of the public to believe a man just because he has a nice smile and a convincing tone has always amazed me. Ninety percent of politics is just marketing—plain and simple.

So all of that to say I was heavily predisposed to enjoy All The King’s Men, and it didn’t disappoint. Robert Penn Warren crafted a novel that, in the 1940s, showcases many of the same problems we have with politics and politicians in 2013.

Willie Stark is a small-town southern politician who scraps and claws his way from a local administrator to wildly popular governor. In my edition of All The King’s Men, this character’s name was actually “Willie Talos”—read more about that here—but since most of you know him as Willie Stark, I’ll go with that.

Stark is a womanizer, a manipulator, and a bully behind the scenes. But out in the public, he’s a “man of the people.” He gets stuff done. He pushes for government programs to “share the wealth” and fight against the rich, greedy people, as he sees them.

His right-hand man, the narrator in the novel, is Jack Burden. Jack’s a clever guy, a journalist and historian. He’s much smarter than Willie Stark, and you get the sense that he doesn’t always agree with Stark’s tactics. Burden (appropriately named) is the only guy who will take Stark’s crap and then dish it back at him.


Robert Penn Warren

There’s always a love interest, and in All The King’s Men it’s Anne Stanton. She’s Jack Burden’s childhood sweetheart, the one who got away, the one who still has a hold on him. There’s her brother, the doctor, Adam Stanton, an idealist, a guy who loathes politics and politicians like Willie Stark—but who can’t seem to stay away.

And then there’s Tiny Duffy. He’s always around, and you never know whether The Boss can trust him. That turns out to be a vital point of tension in the plot.

I love the characters in All The King’s Men, and I love the plot. But there are some downsides to the book too.

The pacing is off. Whether it’s because RPW is a poet or because it’s just his style of writing prose, he’s a verbose guy. Sometimes it takes Warren 5 pages to say what it would take Hemingway 5 sentences to say.

It’s just a matter of style. It’s not that RPW is a bad writer—absolutely not. He just focuses on detail and setting much more than a writer like Hemingway. Warren is definitely not a minimalist.

He sets the scene, and he’s very detailed in doing so. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of that style—that’s why I like Hemingway so much. RPW can write some seriously long sentences, too. Case in point:

We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind that become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first. Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increases that the brightness is meaning, or the legend of meaning, and without the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters.”

Surprisingly, that wasn’t a huge negative for me in All The King’s Men. I can’t really tell you why. Maybe it was because I was so drawn to these characters and to this story, which caused me to overlook his wordy style.

Ultimately, I love what Orville Prescott from the New York Times Book Review had to say about the novel.

[It] isn’t a great novel or a completely finished work of art. It is as bumpy and uneven as a corduroy road, somewhat irresolute and confused in its approach to vital problems and not always convincing. Nevertheless, 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.

That’s the way I feel. All The King’s Men is far from being a perfect novel. It’s raw and even unpolished in places, but the positives outshine the negatives here. And I disagree with Orville Prescott on one point: I would call this a “great novel.”

All The King’s Men is truly a classic. It’s a novel I would have no problem reading again.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Mason City. 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.”

The Meaning: The title is taken from the Humpty Dumpty nursery and is very telling if you know that line from the poem: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty back together again.”

Highlights: These characters…oh, these characters. I’ve read novels with a lot of flat characters while journeying through the Time list, but All The King’s Men isn’t one of them. From Willie Stark to Jack Burden, Anne Stanton and Adam Stanton, and Tiny Duffy. These are some of strongest, most memorable characters I’ve come across in a novel.

Lowlights: The pacing in the novel is slow. It feels about 200 pages too long, and that is owed to Robert Penn Warren’s wordy and descriptive style. Sometimes while reading I wanted to politely ask him, “Would you just get to the point?”

Memorable Line: “And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”

Final Thoughts: All The King’s Men is the most accurate political novel I’ve ever read. I’m now a big fan of this novel, and I would definitely read it again. Sure, Warren isn’t the most concise writer, but he’s a superb storyteller and he crafts some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered in a book. I would highly recommend this one.

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. You haven’t told much about the story itself. Is it because it’s low on plot and high on character growth, or is it to avoid spoilers?


    June 25, 2013
    • You’re right! I had a small paragraph about it in an earlier draft and removed it then forgot to put it back in. Basically, it’s just the rise and fall of this politician, Willie Stark. It follows his scandals and how they affect all the people around him. You also get to see how they play into the psyche of the narrator, Jack Burden, and how he finds himself compromising his morals to follow this man. It’s a great story.


      June 25, 2013
  2. Thanks for responding. I am not too much into political novels unless there is a certain amount of drama involved. But this one sounds very interesting and I love the book title. Definitely, something I should look for.


    June 25, 2013
  3. Awesome……..Just Awesome Share.I love it.Looking forward for more.Alex,Thanks.


    June 25, 2013
  4. It sounds like the writing style of Charles Dickens. The style actually reminded me of Great Expectations. I’m not a fan of that kind of writing style, but if the characters are as intriguing as you say they are, I think I’ll try the book out.
    I too am fascinated by politics and the behind-the-scenes of it, so I think the plot would also be interesting.


    June 25, 2013
  5. Actually I think that a Political Science degree is great training for public library work. All politics is local after all.
    All the King’s Men is a great novel. Reading a biography of Huey Long will help you understand it more completely.


    June 25, 2013
  6. I have just graduated from a Film Studies course. I’ve found myself reading more than watching films. Funny how people change.


    June 25, 2013
    • Bob Berry #

      I just wonder if you’ve seen the film versions, one With Broderick Crawford (1949) and one with Sean Penn (2006) ? I love the novel and I’ve heard good things about both films. FYI.


      July 6, 2014
      • I’ve never read the book or seen the films, I was commenting on how people change their preference in different forms of media.

        But if you say you love the novel and the films are good, I may have to look into acquiring both 🙂


        July 8, 2014
  7. I love the excerpt. It’s the only thing that’s made me want to read this – my interest in political thrillers is very low.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 25, 2013
  8. The language of this book got into my head like few others. I think of bits of it all the time – I whisper to myself “You’ve got to lead a duck, son” – whenever I’m watching a movie of someone shooting at a running target and missing.
    I’m currently reading “The Sun Also Rises,” and it’s the richness of the language that I miss in Hemingway. I’m waiting for those lines that sound *just right*:”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” and of course there aren’t any.


    June 25, 2013
  9. vrbridge #

    I’m glad you liked this novel. I always feel like in a minority when I advocate for “All The King’s Men,” because it is such a raw book. It strips away notions of humans being good or bad and shows that people are good AND bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 26, 2013
  10. clfyamm #

    follow me please.


    July 1, 2013
  11. cathi #

    Robert, how do you think a person who has NOT ever been interested in reading about politics would like this book? Are the characters enough to make you want to keep reading whether it’s about politics or not? Just wondering, because I keep putting off reading this one. Not looking forward to the meandering prose you describe, but I guess I’ll eventually have to read this one since it’s on my top 100 list. Here’s a clear cut question…is it more or less cumbersome than The Golden Notebook? 🙂


    July 1, 2013
  12. Marianna #

    Interesting. This book has sat unread on my bookshelf for too many years. I think it’s time to polish it off.

    I had no aspirations of going to law school, but I did minor in PS & enjoyed most of my classes. I think everyone should take some of those classes just to be an informed citizen.


    July 3, 2013
  13. Robert, I’m writing this at the second time of asking as my connection went down while leaving the first message. You’re right about ‘All The King’s Men’ as it is a book which is essentially slow in its narrative drive. I suppose all books with finite description and which play on the ‘big image’ feel as if they require a jump start to accelerate the narrative. Therefore it takes patience and perseverance to follow it to its natural conclusion. However, I also agree with you
    in describing it as a ‘great’ book! A fantastic recommendation from you!

    May I recommend a couple of books to you? The two texts are by the great Scottish authors, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, (‘Sunset Song)’; and Neil Gunn (‘Morning Tide’).
    The first is a beautiful, haunting narrative set in war time—but one which looks at the world in microcosm and macrocosm—taking in its broad sweep the ambitions of a young farm girl (Chris) who yearns to become a teacher of English literature; (this has a personal resonance with me as I too harboured the same ambition and eventually began working as a teacher of English lit). The second novel by the brilliant Gunn… well it certainly gives the reader a taste of rural Scotland as well, the people and their relationships with the natural environment.

    As for Hemingway, I do follow what you are saying. I prefer his spare, direct style too. In fact, my wife bought me a book recently called ‘A Moveable Feast’ which is an account of his time in Paris when it was the artistic and aesthetic hub of Europe; an interesting picture of the great man’s thoughts and feelings. At the moment I am reading John Fante, an Italian-American author who is much under rated. As for critical thinking on world literature, you may like to explore James Wood, an outstanding ‘close reader’ of fiction and non-fiction, in short, he is indispensable! (see ‘How Fiction Works’).

    Indeed, if you prefer the direct approach you may be interested in my own book, ‘A History of Feeling: Dreams & Nightmares — This is an extensive poem with an accelerated narrative focusing on the American Dream— its successes and lamentable failures. Part non-fiction, part fiction and autobiography. There is a short essay (foreword) introducing the narrative and the thematic concerns on the site.

    Anyway, keep up the good work with the project. I look forward to any comments on the books that you read from the list with regard to style, character, theme etc. I’ll certainly be following your blog. Your commitment to a task of this magnitude is truly admirable!

    Cheers. Colin


    July 21, 2013
  14. This is one of my favorite books ever. It just fires on all cylinders for me: character, story, writing. I know what you mean about the super long sentences but I loved them. They really are what I remember most and seemed to me to capture the feeling of the book in a sum is greater than its parts sort of way. I believe it took him ten years to write it.

    Liked by 1 person

    July 22, 2013
  15. Love the background information. But did you enjoy this reading and believe it was worth a Pulitzer? I just finished it a few months back and was extremely disappointment. This work couldn’t keep my attention in sections, and I found myself unattached to the majority of the characters, even Jack himself.


    April 30, 2015
  16. thanks for article


    October 1, 2015
  17. J.E. Fountain #

    I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Nice review. My review:


    August 12, 2017

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