51 pages 1 hour read

Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1946

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Summary and Study Guide


All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is a fictional political novel originally published in 1946 by Harcourt Brace & Company. Robert Penn Warren was an acclaimed novelist and poet from the American South. Along with fellow Southerners Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom, he was a leading proponent of the literary critical approach known as New Criticism. His best-known novel, All the King’s Men follows the political rise and fall of Governor Willie Stark, based on the real-life figure of Louisiana Governor and US Senator Huey Long. The novel explores the corrupting nature of power and the use of public perception to consolidate power. Willie Stark, like Huey Long, uses questionable political practices to gain momentum and influence over his opponents and consolidate power in his state. Robert Penn Warren is the only person to win the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and fiction, having first won the award for All the King’s Men in 1947 and later for books of poetry in both 1958 and 1979. The novel enjoys popularity to this day and was adapted for the screen in 1949 and 2006, with the latter adaptation starring Sean Penn.

This guide references the paperback Second Harvest edition published in 1996, featuring a foreword by Joseph Blotner.

Content Warning: The source text and this study guide contain references to racism, sexual violence, enslavement, suicide, and abuse.

Plot Summary

Jack Burden takes a trip with his boss, Willie “the Boss” Stark, his lieutenant governor Tiny Duffy, and Willie’s family to Mason City. In Willie’s hometown, he is recognized by many and asked to make a speech when they stop. Willie at first refuses but then speaks to the people about how he is not home to earn their votes but to visit his father. Willie’s group makes its way out of the town toward his father’s house, where a photographer is waiting with Willie’s secretary, Sadie Burke. Willie and his family take some photos, but Willie sends everyone but his family and Jack home when Sadie tells him that Judge Irwin endorsed someone other than Willie’s choice for the US Senate.

Willie and Jack eat dinner with the family and then drive to Burden’s Landing, Jack’s hometown, to speak with Judge Irwin, who is a father figure to Jack. Judge Irwin insists that he does not endorse Willie’s style of governing through blackmail and bribery and will not endorse any of his candidates. Willie threatens the man, but Judge Irwin stands firm, just as Jack expected. As they leave, Willie tells Jack to start digging into Irwin’s past and to make whatever he finds stick.

Jack remembers when he first met Willie, years before he was governor. Willie was the county treasurer at the time and was working on the bid for the local schoolhouse. There was conflict between him and the chairperson of the county commissioners, who wanted to hire an expensive company known to use bad bricks because he would receive kickbacks for hiring them. Willie opposed this bribery and lost the election over it. In the long run, this helped Willie become popular, as the school’s fire escape collapsed, killing three students. People saw Willie’s opposition to that company as a sign from God and began supporting him.

Willie’s first run for governor was a set-up intended to split the vote between the rural candidates. Speaking about facts and figures, Willie failed to excite the crowd. When his campaign aide Sadie Burke accidentally revealed to Willie that his campaign was a ploy to sink another candidate, Willie gave a speech in which he revealed the trickery and dropped out of the race. He ran during the next cycle and won, then won again, making Tiny Duffy, his former campaign manager sent to trick him, his lieutenant governor. Jack, a newspaper reporter at the time, covered the campaign until Willie offered him a job.

Jack performs many jobs for Willie, often doing research to find information Willie can use to blackmail his opponents. When Willie’s state auditor is caught in a web of corruption, impeachment charges are brought against him. Willie protects his auditor, not wanting the attack to spread to the rest of his administration, but because of this, Attorney General Miller resigns. Willie plans on building a state-of-the-art hospital to show his opponents how benevolent he is but soon comes up against impeachment himself. He uses blackmail to stop the impeachment short before it ever goes to a vote, but because of his actions, Lucy, his wife, grows cold toward him.

As Jack begins researching Judge Irwin, he remembers a time when he struggled with the truth in the past. When he worked toward a PhD, he wrote about a distant relative, Cass Mastern, whose papers and accounts of the Civil War he possessed. He knew the facts of the man’s life but could never string the truth of it together. As a result, he fell into a depression, which he calls the Great Sleep, and gave up. This time around, he takes a methodical approach to uncovering Judge Irwin’s past. He figures that Judge Irwin would only engage in corruption if he needed money and begins asking around. He first asks his estranged father, Ellis, the former friend of Judge Irwin, but gets no answer. He then speaks with his two childhood friends, Anne and Adam Stanton, the children of the former Governor Stanton, and they mention that they did once hear that he had money trouble but that he married rich.

Jack’s research finds that the woman Judge Irwin married only appeared to be rich and that she did not solve his problems. He does, however, find that as attorney general, Judge Irwin went easy on a subsidiary of the American Electric Power Company and seemingly earned shares and a job as the company’s counsel in return. The former counsel, Mortimer Littlepaugh, dies around the same time. Jack tracks down Littlepaugh’s sister, who tells him that Littlepaugh lost his job because of corruption and that when he went to Governor Stanton, he turned him away. As a result, Littlepaugh took his own life.

Willie asks Jack to convince his friend Adam, a successful surgeon, to be the director of his new hospital despite Adam’s strong disapproval of Willie. Willie also fights with Tiny Duffy over whether to give Gummy Larson the contract for its construction, as Tiny Duffy will receive money for it but Willie wants no corruption involved. Jack is able to convince Adam by showing him and Anne the information he found on Judge Irwin, which changes Adam’s perception of politicians. He always believed that good politicians were noble, but Judge Irwin’s corruption and Adam’s own father’s role in covering it up disillusion him. Adam agrees to the job begrudgingly, convinced that Willie wants him for the good he does.

One day, Sadie, romantically involved with Willie, tells Jack that Willie is with another woman, and when Jack discerns that it is Anne, he runs to her apartment only to have his suspicions confirmed. Jack is crushed and escapes to California on a road trip, remembering the brief romantic relationship he and Anne had when they were both young. His feelings for her were intense and he thought they would marry, but as she returned to school, they grew apart and moved on with their lives. Jack married a woman named Lois and then became disenchanted and left her, while Anne fell into charity work after a few broken engagements. Jack returns to Willie with a nihilistic belief that nothing matters and tries to move on from his feelings for Anne.

When one of Gummy Larson’s men tries to bribe Adam, Jack must sway him to keep the director job by convincing him that Willie would prosecute the man if it would not require putting Anne on the stand, where lawyers would eviscerate her. Meanwhile, MacMurfee, Willie’s main opponent, finds dirt on him with a girl who is allegedly having the baby of Willie’s son, Tom. MacMurfee wants the US Senate seat Willie covets, but Willie, not willing to wait for the US Senate, asks Jack to convince Judge Irwin, an influential MacMurfee supporter, to call MacMurfee off, even if he must use the blackmail. Jack visits Judge Irwin, but when Judge Irwin refuses to help Willie, Jack shows him the blackmail. Judge Irwin does not deny it but will not change his mind, only saying that he too could share something that would stop Jack. Jack visits his mother and takes a nap, only to be awoken by her screams. Judge Irwin shoots himself in the heart and dies after Jack leaves, and Jack’s mother reveals that he is Jack’s real father.

As Jack makes peace with this revelation, Willie decides to give Gummy Larson the contract and effectively stop MacMurfee, now missing a key supporter, from attacking him. In this stressful time, Willie relaxes by watching Tom’s football games. In one game, Tom is knocked out and taken to the hospital, where Adam diagnoses him with a broken neck and paralysis. Willie and his wife opt for a risky surgery, but it is unsuccessful. The following week, as sympathy pours in for Willie, Anne calls Jack to her home. She tells him that someone called Adam and told him of her affair with Willie and that it is the reason he is offered the director job. Adam left in a hurry and she sends Jack to find him.

Jack cannot find Adam anywhere and is eventually called to the capitol, where he finds Willie on the Senate floor. As they walk out, Adam appears and shoots Willie, only to be shot and killed himself. Willie survives the attack but succumbs to an infection days later. In the aftermath of the assassination, Jack discovers that Sadie, angered that Willie was to leave her and return to his wife in his grief, convinced Tiny Duffy to call Adam and tell him of his sister’s affair, knowing that Adam would kill Willie. Jack considers seeking revenge against Tiny Duffy but refrains from perpetuating the violence. He inherits Judge Irwin’s house and fortune, though he is uncomfortable with how the fortune was made. He and Anne marry, and he withdraws completely from politics, returning to his PhD manuscript on Cass Mastern. Judge Irwin’s house is heavily mortgaged, and Anne and Jack plan to leave soon, ready to start a new life together.