Home > 1940, 20th Century, American Literature, Highly Recommended, Penn Warren Robert, State of the Nation > All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – magnificent

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – magnificent

December 7, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) French title: Tous les hommes du roi. Translated by Pierre Singer.

I had never heard of Robert Penn Warren before receiving All the King’s Men through my Kube subscription. I read it in a French translation by Pierre Singer and in a magnificent edition by the publisher Monsieur Toussaint Louverture. It has a beautiful golden cover, the pages are on very nice paper, the text is published in an agreeable font. It has several tiny details that cost nothing but appealed to me as a reader and showed the reverence and the care this publisher has for books. Like that MERCI printed beside the price of the book on the back cover.

A gorgeous book as an object and a gorgeous piece of literature.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) is a Southern writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for All the King’s Men a complex novel about politics, legacy and the meaning of life. A tall order.

The narrator is Jack Burden and we’re in 1936 in the Deep South. We know from the start that he’s recovering from a tragedy and the fall of his boss, Willie Stark.

Governor Willie Stark is the king mentioned in the book’s title and his men are composed of Sadie Burke, his secretary and long-time lover, Jack Burden, his right hand and sounding board, Tiny Duffy an obsequious man Stark would rather have with him than against him and Sugar Boy, his faithful driver.

Willie Stark comes from a poor farm, studied law by himself and decided to go into politics. He’s a populist who addresses to the redneck voters and who got genuinely angry when children died in the collapse of a school due to poor workmanship. Thanks to corrupt politicians, the contract wasn’t awarded to the most competent bidder.

Jack attached himself to Stark after he covered his first campaign for a newspaper. It was in 1922 and he was a journalist at the time. Now, he’s in his thirties, has a degree in history and he has no ambition. Jack comes from Burden’s Landing, a small town on the coast. His family is wealthy, at least his mother is. His parents are divorced and he despises them a little. He sees his mother as a serial monogamist who married for the third time, and to a much younger man. His father, a former lawyer, now devotes his time to religious endeavors. Jack thinks that his mother is materialistic and that his father is idealistic. During his younger years, Judge Irwin, a friend of the family, mentored him.

Willie Stark started out his political career with excellent ethics but he soon learnt that he had to play the same game as the current political circles if he wanted a chance to be elected and pass laws.

Now he’s powerful, has enemies and knows how to pull strings. He’s ruling the State as a dictator and his long-time opponent is still after him.

The beginning of the end starts when the virtuous Judge Irwin starts sniffing around him and Stark decides to use his usual method of threats and intimidation.

Jack tells us what happened from the moment the king’s men arrive at Burden’s Landing to threaten Judge Irwin. It doesn’t work and Stark missions Jack to investigate the judge’s past and unearth some dirt for Stark to gain leverage. From now on, Stark’s orders overlap with Jack’s private life. He’s known Irwin since he was a kid, it’s his hometown and this will set everything into motion.

Robert Penn Warren writes a perfectly oiled tragedy. The various characters ignite things here and there and lives blow up.

Jack is a man whose family picture doesn’t add up. He knows something is amiss and but he doesn’t know what. His background is like a jigsaw with a missing piece and he feels incomplete. He tends to be depressed. He never got over his adolescent love affair with Anne Stanton, his best friend Adam’s sister. He goes with the flow, trying to swim in clear waters and avoid joining the sewage that surrounds Stark.

Jack takes Stark as he is: he has no illusion about what man is ready to do to win an election and yet he forgives him a lot of things because he knew him before he became governor and because the local political scene is rotten to the core. If Stark doesn’t play by the corrupt politician playbook, how can he win an election? And if he doesn’t win, how is he going to implement his program and improve the people’s lives? Jack maneuvers to stay on Stark’s good side without getting his hands too dirty.

Stark is a complex character based on the real politician from Louisiana Huey Long. Yes, he’s a bully who manipulates people around him. Yes, he’s a shameless populist. But he did something for his fellow-citizen. He had roads built. He raised taxes to improve public services and transports. He wanted to have a positive legacy through affordable health care. Robert Penn Warren shows that some good comes out of Stark’s mandate despite his despotic ways.

Like in a Greek tragedy, Stark’s public fall and Jack’s private shattering come from their Achilles’ heels. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

All the King’s Men is a brilliant novel that allies Stark’s rise and fall and Jack’s private life as he finally finds some peace. The style is elaborate and stunning. It’s a novel from the South before air conditioning. It’s hot and the weather puts a lid of languor over Jack. Since Huey Long was the governor of Louisiana, the novel is supposed to be set there but there is no direct mention of a precise Southern state. I was thinking more about Alabama or Mississippi as there is no mention to Cajun culture in the whole book.

It’s also a novel from the South before the Civil Rights movements. There are no black characters in this novel except quick mentions to black servants. This microcosm around Stark lives in an all-white environment.

It’s also a novel from the South with its religious undercurrent. Religion is not present through churches and clergymen. It’s understood in Jack’s questioning about moral compasses and fate. I can’t explain it but the characters ooze some kind of Bible Belt vibe.

Robert Penn Warren writes an intelligent book with multidimensional characters. He could have written something really polarized, good versus evil, virtue against sin but he didn’t. He chose to draw complex characters, flawed humans who have their moments of darkness and their moments of generosity and loyalty. Their emotions overrule them sometimes, they are unethical and accept to have their hands dirty. I liked Jack’s voice, lucid and poetic. No sugar coating for Jack.

I don’t know if All the King’s Men is “The definite novel about American politics” as the New York Times says. I hope not because it would be depressing. What I do know is that it’s an exceptional piece of literature.

Highly recommended.

  1. December 7, 2022 at 10:35 pm

    Hey, I just read this a few months ago. Well reviewed!

    I have read a good chunk of Warren’s poetry – he is one of our greats, although not famous like Robert Frost – and am now wondering which of his novels I should read next. I doubt there is another as good as All the King’s Men.

    You might like The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, which has a similar feel although the subject is totally different. Definitely read it if you take a trip to New Orleans.


    • December 11, 2022 at 6:18 am

      What a coincidence! How much stayed with you after a few months?

      I’m not a good reader of poetry. I’ve heard of Robert Frost but I had never heard of Penn Warren. He’s one of the great discoveries of my Kube subscription.

      Don’t your think that there’s a bit of Citizen Kane in this? This hospital sounds like Stark’s rosebud, not a link to his childhood but a link to the beginning of his political engagement after the collapse of a school.

      I’ll look up The Moviegoer, thanks.


      • December 17, 2022 at 1:56 am

        I think much of the book has stayed with me.

        Yes, this is a Citizen Kane kind of story.


  2. Vishy
    December 8, 2022 at 4:12 am

    Wonderful review, Emma 😊 Was looking forward to your review. I watched the 1949 film adaptation of the book a few years back and I loved it. I’ve heard readers say that the book is better. Now after reading your review, I want to read it soon. After seeing your one-word review before, I went and got the book 😊 Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If you do get a chance to watch the 1949 film adaptation, do let me know whether you liked it.


    • December 11, 2022 at 6:06 am

      Thanks Vishy.
      It is a stunning book: nuanced characters, great sense of place, plot threads drawn with expertise…
      I need to find the film.


      • Vishy
        December 14, 2022 at 4:16 pm

        Wonderful! Hoping to read it soon. Hope you are able to find the film and enjoy watching it. It is beautiful. Happy watching!


        • December 14, 2022 at 8:23 pm

          I’m looking forward to reading your review.


  3. December 9, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    Brilliant review that has made me add this to my wishlist. If I get book tokens for Christmas (fingers crossed) this will be one of the books I buy.


    • December 11, 2022 at 6:03 am

      Thanks Cathy. I hope you’ll like it when you read it.
      Pay attention to the year of the edition, I understood that a unedited version was republished lately. It might explain why my version in French comes with a revised translation.


  4. December 9, 2022 at 4:49 pm

    Great review! The movie is fantastic


    • December 11, 2022 at 6:01 am

      Thanks! It sounds like I should really watch the film too.


  5. December 30, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    I’m sorry that I’ve been so absent most of the year. I’ve struggled to keep up my own blog – and wrote fewer posts than I have for many years – but I just wanted to say hello (and to say that this is one of those books I’d love to read. You’ve confirmed that!)


    • December 31, 2022 at 8:48 am

      No worries, Sue. I don’t have much time to read other blogs either, I totally understand. I barely managed to keep mine afloat this year. Let’s hope 2023 will be better.
      I really, really recommend All the King’s Men, it’s a gem.

      Liked by 1 person

      • December 31, 2022 at 12:25 pm

        I’m just drafting my Blogging Highlights post for posting on 1 January, and one of the things I noted is that I wrote significantly fewer posts this year, so yes, I too had trouble staying afloat too. I wonder why?


  1. December 29, 2022 at 8:37 pm
  2. January 1, 2023 at 5:02 pm

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