Like Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) has come to be read as an emblematic, even an allegorical, text. The idealistic Carol Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the romantic-minded and doomed Jay Gatsby (formerly James Gatz of North Dakota), and the charismatic Southern politician Willie Stark have acquired the status of American archetypes, larger than the historically precise fictional worlds they inhabit; like outsized farcical-heroic figures in a painting by the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, they are more interesting for what they represent than for what they are.
The Great Gatsby, the most subtle of the three, as it is the shortest, sold only modestly at the time of publication, All the King’s Men has long been regarded as an American classic and has been continuously in print since 1946. As its chatty narrator, Jack Burden, prophesies, or boasts, at the end of the novel, “We shall go…into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”
Inspired by the astonishing career and abrupt death of Huey P. Long (1893–1935), All the King’s Men means to be much more than the sum of its disparate parts. Robert Penn Warren took pains to make it clear that the novel isn’t a roman à clef merely:
…If I had never gone to live in Louisiana and if Huey Long had not existed, the novel would never have been written. But this is far from saying that my “state” in All the King’s Men is Louisiana, or that my Willie Stark is the late Senator. What Louisiana and Senator Long gave me was a line of “thinking and feeling” that did eventuate in the novel.
A young Ph.D. who’d done graduate work at Berkeley and Yale, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Warren had accepted an assistant professorship of English at the University of Louisiana at …