All the King's Men is a novel by Robert Penn Warren, first published in 1946. The novel is loosely based on the biography of Louisiana governor Huey Long and derives its title from a line in the popular nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty and is also a reference to Long's slogan "Every Man a King". In 1947 Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for All the King's Men. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It was adapted for film in 1949 and 2006; the 1949 version won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
All the King's Men portrays the dramatic political ascent and Governorship in an unnamed Southern state, assumed to be Louisiana, of Willie Stark (a.k.a. "the Boss"), a driven, 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 was an outgrowth of an earlier version of the story, a verse play entitled Proud Flesh.
The version edited by Noel Polk (ISBN 01-5100-610-5) uses the name "Willie Talos" for the Boss as originally written in Warren's manuscript, and is known as the "restored version" for using this name as well as printing several passages removed from the original edit.
Willie Stark (often 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 Machiavellian 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.
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.
"And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love truth."— Page 164
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 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, his life-long 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 imagery and 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.