The first time I read All the King’s Men I was in my mid teens. It was the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy that prompted me to pick it up again all these years later, even though Willie Stark, the Southern governor whose rise to power in the 1930s the book chronicles, is the opposite of Trump in many ways. For one thing, Trump inherited wealth while Stark was born poor.
Maybe Willie is closer to Bill Clinton, another Southern governor who pulled himself up from poverty and dallied with women (and they do have the same first name). You could even make a case for parallels between Stark and Barack Obama, since a major plot threat in All the King’s Men concerns Willie’s determination to build a state-of-the-art hospital where his state’s residents would be welcome no matter how poor (nowadays it might be called “Williecare.”)
Yet there is a key similarity between Willie Stark and Donald Trump; both tap into a deep vein of populist discontent with the status quo. But as iconic an American character as Willie is, All the King’s Men is at least as much about its narrator: Jack Burden, a bitter ex-newspaperman who serves as Willie’s hatchet man as he consolidates his power in a Southern state that is never specified but it obviously based on Louisiana under Governor Huey Long.
Warren won a Pulitzer Prize for All the King’s Men and went on to become the equivalent of America’s Poet Laureate as well as the only writer ever to win Pulitzers for both fiction and poetry. I haven’t read his poetry, but I suspect he was a poet first and a novelist second, which means he must have been one hell of a poet.
But as beautiful as much of its prose is, the brilliance of All the King’s Men for me lies in how all its incidents proceed not just logically, but inevitably from the interactions of its characters. After the novel’s climax, a series of revelations illuminate Burden’s elegiac ruminations on how we can make peace with ourselves only by accepting our own past and the consequences of our choices.
Embedded at the center of the novel is an interior story that parallels the larger narrative, about a Civil War ancestor of Burden’s, and it is here that Warren puts his finger on America’s original sin: slavery. Warren strives to encapsulate America’s national narrative in All the King’s Men, to write as emblematic an American novel as The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn. And in large part, he succeeds.