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All the King's Men
All the King's Men is a novel by Robert Penn Warren first published in 1946. Its title is drawn from the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. In 1947 Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for All the King's Men. It was adapted for a film in 1949 and 2006; the 1949 version won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is rated as the 36th greatest novel of the 20th century by Modern Library, and it was chosen as one of Time magazine's 100 best novels since 1923.
All the King's Men portrays the dramatic political rise and governorship of Willie Stark, a cynical populist in the American South during the 1930s. The novel is narrated by Jack Burden, a political reporter who comes to work as Governor Stark's right-hand man. The trajectory of Stark's career is interwoven with Jack Burden's life story and philosophical reflections: "the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story."
The novel evolved from a verse play that Warren began writing in 1936 entitled Proud Flesh. One of the characters in Proud Flesh was named Willie Talos, in reference to the brutal character Talus in Edmund Spenser's late 16th century work The Faerie Queene.
A 2002 version of All the King's Men, re-edited by Noel Polk (ISBN 0-15-100610-5), keeps the name "Willie Talos" for the Boss as originally written in Warren's manuscript, and is known as the "restored edition" for using this name as well as printing several passages removed from the original edit.
Warren claimed that All the King's Men was "never intended to be a book about politics."
Themes and imagery
One central motif of the novel is that all actions have consequences, and that it is impossible for an individual to stand aloof and be a mere observer of life, as Jack tries to do (first as a graduate student doing historical research and later as a wisecracking newspaperman). In the atmosphere of the 1930s, the whole population seemed to abandon responsibility by living vicariously through messianic political figures like Willie Stark. Thus, Stark fulfills the wishes of many of the characters, or seems to do so. For instance, his faithful bodyguard Sugar-Boy, who stutters, loves Stark because "the b-boss could t-talk so good"; Jack Burden cannot bring himself to sleep with Anne Stanton, whom he loves, but Stark does so; and so on. (It is in this sense that the characters are "all the king's men"; other than borrowing this familiar phrase, the title has nothing to do with the story of Humpty Dumpty. The title is derived from the motto of Huey P. Long, whose life was similar to that of Willie Stark, "Every Man a King".) But this vicarious achievement will eventually fail; ultimately Jack realizes that one must "go out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time".
The novel explores conceptions of Calvinist theology, such as original sin ("Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud," says Willie when told that no adverse information about an opponent would be likely to be found. "There's always something."); and total depravity ("You got to make good out of bad," says Willie when his ruthless methods are criticized. "That's all there is to make it with.") Jack discovers that no man is invulnerable to sin under the right circumstances, and thus his search for dirt on the judge begins with questions as to what circumstances would cause one to do wrong. Jack, Willie, and Adam all abandon idealism when they realize that nobody is pure and unblemished.
Another motif in the novel is the "Great Twitch". When Jack Burden unexpectedly discovers that the love of his life, Anne Stanton, has been sleeping with Governor Willie Stark, he impulsively jumps in his car and drives to California to obtain some distance from the situation. Jack's description of his trip contains overt and indirect references to the notion of Manifest Destiny, which becomes somewhat ironic when he comes back from it believing in the "Great Twitch".
The "Great Twitch" is a particular brand of nihilism that Jack embraces during this journey westward: "all the words we speak meant nothing and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog's leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through." On his way back from California, Jack gives a ride to an old man who has an involuntary facial twitch. This image becomes for him the encapsulating metaphor for the idea that "all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve." In other words, life is without meaning; everything is motivated by some inborn reflex action and nobody is responsible for their choices or even their own destiny. (The concept is brought to life for Jack when he witnesses a lobotomy performed by Adam Stanton.) The emotional distance permitted by this revelation releases Jack from his own frustration stemming from the relationship between Anne Stanton and his boss, and allows him to return to circumstances which were previously unbearable.
Subsequent events (including the tragic deaths of Governor Stark, Jack's lifelong friend Adam Stanton, and Judge Irwin, Jack's father) convince Jack that the revelation of the "Great Twitch" is an insufficient paradigm to explain what he has seen of history. "[H]e saw that though doomed, [his friends] had nothing to do with any doom under the godhead of the Great Twitch. They were doomed, but they lived in the agony of will." Ultimately, he grows to accept some responsibility for his part in the destruction of his friends' lives.
The book also touches on Oedipal themes, as Jack discovers his father's true identity after having caused his death.
The theme of one's father's identity and its effects on one's own sense of identity is explored twice in the novel, first through Adam and Anne's painful discovery that their father (the late Governor Stanton) once assisted in the cover-up of a bribery scandal. Then Jack discovers that his biological father is Judge Irwin, not, as he previously believed, "the Scholarly Attorney". In each case, the discovery catalyzes an upheaval in the character's moral outlook.
Time is another of the novel's thematic fascinations. The idea that every moment in the past contains the seeds of the future is constantly explored through the novel's non-chronological narrative, which reveals character continuities and thematic connections across different time periods.
The central character of Willie Stark (often simply referred to as "the Boss") undergoes a radical transformation from an idealistic lawyer and weak gubernatorial candidate into a charismatic and extraordinarily powerful governor. In achieving this office Stark comes to embrace various forms of corruption and builds an enormous political machine based on patronage and intimidation. His approach to politics earns him many enemies in the state legislature, but does not detract from his popular appeal among many of his constituents, who respond with enthusiasm to his fiery populist manner.
Stark's character is often thought to be inspired by the life of Huey P. Long, former governor of Louisiana and that state's U.S. senator in the mid-1930s. Huey Long was at the zenith of his career when he was assassinated in 1935; just a year earlier, Robert Penn Warren had begun teaching at Louisiana State University. Stark, like Long, is shot to death in the state capitol building by a physician. The title of the book possibly came from Long's motto, "Every Man a King" or his nickname, Kingfish.
In his introduction to the Modern Library edition, Warren denied that the book should be read as either praise for Huey Long or praise for his assassination. However, Warren did not deny that Long served as an influence or inspiration for Stark:
Jack Burden is the novel's narrator, a former student of history, newspaper columnist, and personal aide to Governor Willie Stark.
His narrative is propelled in part by a fascination with the mystery of Stark's larger-than-life character, and equally by his struggle to discover some underlying principle to make sense of all that has happened.
In narrating the story, Jack commingles his own personal story with the political story of Governor Stark. His telling of these two stories side by side creates a striking contrast between the personal and the impersonal. While his wry, detached, often humorous tone suggests an attempt to stand apart from the other characters' passions and intrigues, the highly personal content of his narrative suggests an awareness that he cannot truthfully remove himself and his own history from the story of Willie Stark, because his own story has paralleled and helped shape the tragic outcome of Stark's story.
Jack's overall character development might be roughly described as a journey away from an amoral perspective on human history as a chain of uncontrollable events, toward a belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all of history. In other words, he might be said to trace a path from refusal to acceptance of personal responsibility. On the other hand, one defining trait that remains a constant throughout Jack's development is a passion for discovering the truth of history.
Anne is Jack Burden's childhood sweetheart and the daughter of Willie Stark's political predecessor, Governor Stanton. Many of the novel's passages recounting Jack's life story revolve around memories of his relationship with Anne. Like many of Jack's friends, Anne disapproves of Willie Stark. However, in the wake of a devastating revelation regarding one of her father's moral lapses, she has an affair with Stark.
Adam is a highly successful doctor, Anne Stanton's brother, and Jack Burden's childhood friend. Jack comes to view Adam Stanton as the polar opposite of Governor Stark, calling Adam "the man of idea" and Stark "the man of fact". Elsewhere, he describes Adam's central motivation as a deep need to "do good". Governor Stark invites Adam to be director of his pet project, a new hospital and medical center. The position initially strikes Adam as repugnant because of his revulsion to Stark's politics, but Jack and Anne ultimately persuade him to accept the invitation, essentially by removing his moral high ground. Adam's sense of violation as a result of his entanglement with Governor Stark proves violently tragic when he is informed by Lieutenant Governor Tiny Duffy that Stark has been sleeping with his sister. Adam tells Anne, "he wouldn't be paid pimp to his sister's whore". His pride demolished, Adam finds the Governor at the Capitol building and shoots him. To the extent that Willie Stark's story may have been loosely based on real-life events, the inspiration behind Adam Stanton's character would have been Dr. Carl Weiss.
Judge Irwin is an elderly gentleman whom Jack has known since childhood, a man who is essentially a father-figure to him. Willie Stark assigns Jack the task of digging through Irwin's past to find something with which Irwin can be blackmailed. Jack investigates thoroughly and finds what he is looking for: an incident many years ago when Judge Irwin took a bribe to dismiss a lawsuit against a fuel company, resulting in the personal destruction of a man named Mortimer Littlepaugh. Jack presents the incriminating evidence to Irwin, and before he has a chance to use it against him, Irwin commits suicide. Only at this point does Jack learn from his mother that Irwin was his father.
One of Jack Burden's first major historical research projects revolves around the life of a 19th-century collateral ancestor, Cass Mastern, a man of high moral standards and a student at Transylvania College in Kentucky (Robert Penn Warren's native state). Cass's story, as revealed through his journals and letters, is essentially about a single betrayal of a friend that seems to ripple endlessly outward with negative consequences for many people. In studying this fragment of Civil War–era history, Jack begins to suspect (but cannot yet bring himself to accept) the idea that every event has unforeseen and unknowable implications, and that all actions and all persons are connected to other actions and other persons. Jack suggests that one reason he is unable to complete his dissertation on Cass's life is that perhaps "he was afraid to understand for what might be understood there was a reproach to him."
Cass Mastern and his moral challenges parallel those of Jack, something Jack does not understand when he is doing his doctoral dissertation on Mastern and one of the reasons that Burden abandons it. It is only at the end of the novel that Jack realizes this.
Film and stage adaptations
Besides the early verse play version Proud Flesh, Robert Penn Warren has written several stage adaptations of All the King's Men, one of them in close collaboration with famous German theatre director Erwin Piscator in 1947.
The story was adapted for radio by NBC University Theatre and broadcast in January 1949. Wayne Morris played Jack Burden, with Paul Frees as Willie Stark.
All the King's Men, a movie made based on Warren's novel, was released several months later in 1949. The film won three Oscars that year: Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge). The movie was also nominated for four more categories. In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant", and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It is noted, however, for deviating significantly from the novel's storyline.
NBC network's The Kraft Theatre broadcast a television version of the story in May 1958. This adaptation was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Neville Brand as Willie Stark.
A Soviet TV adaptation named Vsya Korolevskaya Rat' (All the King's Men) was produced in 1971 by Byelorussian TV. It starred Georgiy Zhzhonov (Willie Stark), Mikhail Kozakov (Jack Burden), Alla Demidova (Anne), Oleg Yefremov (Adam), Rostislav Platt (Irwin), Lev Durov (Sugar Boy).
Another film version was produced in 2006 by writer/director Steven Zaillian, who wanted to more faithfully follow Warren's version of the story than the original film did. However, it was a critical and commercial disappointment.
American composer Carlisle Floyd adapted the novel as a full-length grand opera entitled Willie Stark, commissioned and premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1981.
Adrian Hall adapted and directed a stage version of the novel at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island in April 1987. This adaptation has been staged at Trinity and other theater companies in the years since.
Contemporary response to the novel was largely positive.
Writing in the New Republic, George Mayberry wrote that the novel was "in the tradition of many classics," comparing the novel favorably with Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, and The Great Gatsby. "The single quality that encompasses these varied books," he wrote, "is the use of the full resources of the American language to record with imagination and intelligence a significant aspect of our life." He ended the review saying, "All together it is the finest American novel in more years than one would like to have to remember."
The New York Times Book Review's Orville Prescott praised the book's energy, writing that "[i]t 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."
Robert Penn Warren's novel was the winner of the 1947 Pulitzer Prize.