Literature / All the King's Men

All The King's Men is a 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren, which won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. It chronicles the life of radically-liberal (in point of fact, populist-socialist) Louisiana governor Willie "the Boss" Stark (in the book and films)/Talos (in the never-properly-completed play), through the eyes of Lemony Narrator and eventual main character Jack Burden. In particular, it covers Stark's two campaigns for governor, his chronic infidelity, and his increasingly frenzied attempts to create a new state hospital. Almost universally assumed to be loosely based on the true story of Louisiana governor Huey Long, although Warren always denied it. Highly recommended reading.

Made into a film two times, in 1949 and 2006. The 1949 version was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards including Best Picture. The 2006 adaptation however was a Box Office Bomb and critical failure, despite a huge cast including Sean Penn and Kate Winslet.

This book contains examples of:

  • Bittersweet Ending: The Boss and Adam Stanton both die, but Jack has gotten over his nihilism, accepted the past, and is even married to Anne Stanton. Lucy Stark also seems to have dealt with grief fairly well by raising Tom's probable son..
  • Deep South: Although it's never quite made clear which state the novel is set, it is very obviously Southern, and probably a fictionalized Louisiana.
  • Driven to Suicide: Duncan Trice, Mortimer L. Littlepaugh, Judge Irwin.
  • Election Day Episode: At points it focuses on Willie Stark's campaigns for election and re-election for Governor.
  • Gold Digger: Jack's mom is indicated to have been this and a Lady Drunk. In reality both are fueled by her suppressed love for Judge Irwin, who is Jack's real father.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Jack says his investigation into Judge Irwin was successful. It's enough to convince Adam to betray his idealism and become Willie's hospital director. Jack just also happens to find more than he was bargaining for, cause Irwin to kill himself, and send Anne into the arms of Willie, which ends up getting both Willie and Adam killed.
  • The Great Depression: The time period in which the novel is set, and the reason Willie Stark gets elected. (The 2006 film adaptation shifts the setting to the 1950s for some reason.)
  • Hair of the Dog: Willie didn't drink until his first campaign for Governor. Then, one night, he drinks for the first time in his life. Suffering from the hangover of his life, Jack recommends the hair of the dog. He then delivers the speech of his life.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Willie starts honest, but quickly is corrupted when he realizes what he needs to do to become Governor. Adam's fear of being corrupted is part of what leads him to assassinate Willie.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Jack Burden and the "Great Twitch".
    • Jack has an earlier set of these called "The Great Sleep."
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Stark justifies his illegal and unconstitutional actions by saying that he's done a huge amount of good for the state, and everyone just makes up morality as they go along anyway. The former is definitely true, and you can decide the latter yourself.
  • Ironic Nickname: Tiny Duffy isn't.
  • Is This Thing Still On?
  • Karma Houdini: Duffy.
  • Lemony Narrator: Jack, at first.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Jack's real father is Judge Irwin. Jack doesn't learn this until after Irwin's death.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Most commentators have noted that Willie Stark, in his actions and ideology, resembled Huey Long, which would make sense since Warren lived in Louisiana for a time. He always denied that Stark was based on Long.
  • Parental Substitute: Irwin for Jack. Subverted in that Irwin is Jack's actual father.
  • The Pollyanna: Lucy, who ignores her husband's infidelity and assorted antics at first.
  • Puppy Love: Anne and Jack, although by the time of most of the book's events (and even some of the flashbacks) they're both of the appropriate age.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Stark's campaign team, weird-but-happy True Companions vibes and all.
  • Road Show: The portion immediately after Jack's Heroic B.S.O.D..
  • Sassy Secretary: Sadie Burke. (Sassy Campaign Manager, actually, but the dynamic is the same.)
  • The Starscream: Tiny Duffy. A successful example.
  • Trauma Conga Line: It starts with the suicide of Judge Irwin, continues with Tom getting paralyzed, and ends with Adam Stanton and Willie Stark killing each other. It's a Trauma Conga Line for everyone in the story, but is worst for Jack, Anne, and Sadie. Jack found out that Irwin was his father right after his death, Anne was the instrument that was used to set Adam off on Willie, and Sadie being dumped after Tom's paralysis was what led her to give Tiny Duffy the ammo to kill Willie..
  • True Companions: See Ragtag Bunch of Misfits above.
  • The Unintelligible: Possibly unintentional. Sean Penn's accent is really thick and half the things he says are metaphors only people from 1930s Louisiana would understand.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Some think that the book is a covert biography of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long. This was Jossed, but the similarities are so striking that virtually nobody believes it.
  • Villainous Glutton: Tiny Duffy again. Also Willie Stark, for a given value of "villainous".
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Warren never makes clear what state All The King's Men takes place in (if it even exists), other than that it's Southern. However, the parallels to Huey Long are sufficient to get most people to conclude that it's Louisiana.
    • It borders on No Communities Were Harmed, but the fact that it's never identified, rather than given a different name, is sufficient to keep it on this side of the trope.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Adam Stanton. Willie before Sadie revealed he was Harrison's Dupe.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The Boss has an extramarital affair with Sadie Burke, and then cheats on her, first with a random prostitute in Chicago, then with Anne Stanton, which triggers Jack's Heroic B.S.O.D..
    • In the 2006 film version, Stark is shown to have a harem consisting of loose women from all over the world, including a Spanish ice-skater ("The world is full of sluts on skates") and a Japanese geisha. For this reason, Jack Burden is referred to sarcastically as "State Director of Pimps."

Alternative Title(s): All The Kings Men