All The King's Men

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All The King's Men Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Robert Penn Warren
An extremely important 20th-century literary figure in the United States, Robert Penn Warren was a poet, novelist, and critic, associated with various “schools” or movements throughout his life, including the “New Critics,” the Southern Agrarians, and the Fugitives (the latter two being important in the development of Southern letters in the beginning of the 1900s). Born in Kentucky and educated, as an undergraduate, at Vanderbilt, Robert Penn Warren also studied at Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Warren’s most famous (and Pulitzer-Prize-winning) novel is All the King’s Men—it has earned a place on numerous lists of the greatest American novels of the past century—and he won two Pulitzers for his poetry, making him the lone writer to do so in both genres. Warren was named the US Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry (to the Library of Congress) on two separate occasions (in the ‘40s and the ‘80s). Warren died in Vermont at the age of 84.
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Historical Context of All The King's Men
All the King’s Men takes place against the backdrop of Prohibition and the Great Depression in the American South, in the 1920 and 1930s—specifically in Louisiana, a state that was defined by the strictness of its racial segregation, and by the infusion of a certain amount of “French” culture in its upper classes, especially in those that controlled the government and the Democratic Party “machine.” Willie Stark is based on the real-life Governor of Louisiana Huey Long, who was also considered a populist and occasionally-corrupt leader, and who also was assassinated in the capitol building. But Warren has also taken a good deal of license with Long’s life, in particular using it as an occasion to tell the intertwined story of Jack Burden’s own life—one that bears a strong autobiographical resemblance, in parts, to that of the author, although Robert Penn Warren himself was not a political “hand” but rather a writer and teacher.
Other Books Related to All The King's Men
All the King’s Men participates in a kind of writing that some have called “the great American novel,” or an attempt to encapsulate the experience of “normal” Americans from across the country. The tools of this kind of novel were typically realist—depicting life as it was truly lived, by both important or influential characters and by the “common man”—and often attempted to make sense of the world before and after the Second World War, when the United States rapidly rose to global prominence. Both Hemingway and Steinbeck—great American male writers who attempted to document the experience of “ordinary people” in their own ways—wrote historically significant novels around this time: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The former dealt, ironically, with an expatriate American living and fighting in Spain during the Spanish Civil War; the latter attempted to document the experience of “Okies” driving west from the Dust Bowl to find work in California. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, used realist techniques to depict what life was like for enlisted, or “ordinary,” men in wartime. All the King’s Men applies the principles of realistic description and family drama to a very particular time and place—1930s Louisiana—but nevertheless attempts to distinguish what is so compelling and particularly “American” about its main characters, Willie Stark and Jack Burden.
Key Facts about All The King's Men
  • Full Title: All the King’s Men
  • When Written: 1936-1946
  • Where Written: Louisiana and New York
  • When Published: 1946
  • Literary Period: American post-war modernism
  • Genre: Political novel; “Great American novel”; American modernism
  • Setting: Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Climax: After attempting to blackmail Judge Irwin into supporting a political cause of Governor Stark’s, Jack Burden finds out, from his mother, that Irwin has killed himself overnight, and that Irwin is his biological father.
  • Antagonist: Tiny Duffy
  • Point of View: first-person (told from the perspective of Jack Burden)
Extra Credit for All The King's Men

An Oscar and a Box-Office Bomb. The novel has been adapted for the screen twice—once in 1949, with Broderick Crawford playing Willie Stark, and once in 2006, with Sean Penn in Willie’s role. The former won the Academy Award for Best Picture, although the latter was panned by critics and shunned by audiences at the box office.