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All the King's Men Return to Timeline
All the King's Men
ALL THE KING'S MEN, by Robert Penn Warren

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ALL THE KING'S MEN (1946), by Robert Penn Warren, is perhaps the most famous American novel set in the realm of politics. The story's dominant figure, Willie Stark, is based unambiguously on Huey Long, Louisiana's populist governor during the era of the Great Depression. Stark rises to power as a principled voice of the common people; when he discovers that he has been used as a tool by the moneyed interests of his political party, he turns to self-interest, demagoguery, and evil. The story's narrator, Jack Burden, is Stark's press agent. He fulfills the commands of his employer, for good or ill, and we follow his progress -- from trusting commitment, through rationalization and compromise of principle (an endowment of questionable benefit, as indicated by Jack's Dickensian last name), to complete abandonment of faith, and out the other side. Warren delves into the tragic conundrum that seems inescapable in politics: in order to gain -- and retain -- the power to do great good, it surely helps to have the capacity and the will to do grievous wrong. The novel ultimately holds out the possibility of human redemption and meaningfulness, but its abiding interest lies in its overarching cynicism. ALL THE KING'S MEN poses a question with no happy answer: Who is more vulnerable to complete corruption -- the man who believes in nothing but himself or the man who believes in nothing at all?

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