All the King's Men
by Robert Penn Warren
All the King's Men Introduction
In A Nutshell
All the King's Men was published by American author Robert Penn Warren in 1946 to enormous critical acclaim. Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1947 for the novel. It's also on Time's "100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present." What's more, it's on the American Library Association's list of top banned and/or challenged books in the 20th century. This means it must be good.
The novel stars Willie Stark, one of the most fascinating fictional politicians you'll ever meet. Like the real life politician Huey Long on whom Willie is partially based, Willie is an often-misunderstood character. Huey Long is so famous because there were many powerful sides to him. He wanted every American to have access to adequate food, shelter, medical care, education, transportation, and employment. While the governor of Louisiana from 1928-1930, he effected changes that made his desire a reality for many in his state.
He's also a controversial figure: lots of people violently disagreed with his goals and his methods for achieving them. Like Warren's fictional character, Huey Long used blackmail and extortion to achieve his political power and his reforms, he was vilified by many, and considered a "dictator" and a corrupt politician.
Though All the King's Men is Robert Penn Warren's best-known novel, he's actually just as famous for his poetry (he won two Pulitzers for it) and literary criticism. In 1935 he was one of the founding members of The Southern Review. He's also considered one of the original "New Critics."
"New Criticism" is a school of literary criticism that is associated with rejecting interpretations of literature that focus on the author or even on historical context. A New Critical approach would focus on the work itself, paying particular attention to form, and construction.
When asked about New Criticism and New Critics in his Paris Review interview Warren said:
"One thing that a lot of so-called New Critics had in common was a willingness to look long and hard at the literary object. But the ways of analyzing the literature might be very different." (Source)
What Warren seems concerned with, both in this quote and in other parts of the interview is that criticism doesn't have a monopoly on interpretation. Anyone willing to "look long and hard" at a book can find their own unique interpretation, and their own unique meaning – including you.
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever hear the phrase, "All politics is local"? It doesn't mean that only local politics are important. It means that all politics hit us where we live. We have a special relationship with the politics going on in our immediate vicinities. Politics determines much about the way we live our daily lives, including the quality of the roads we drive on, the kinds of schools we have, what business is allowed in the area and what business isn't, just to name a few things.
You could call All the King's Men a story about a guy that sees his state in such bad shape that he will do anything to make fast change happen. The corruption we see in this book isn't glamorized or sensationalized. It shows us the dark side behind that innocent looking school, hospital, or office complex. In All the King's Men we see firsthand the backdoor deals that can make you rich and powerful or destroy your reputation. This novel reveals the bizarre and sometimes seemingly happenstance ways that people gain power and influence in the world.