Review: All the King’s Men

The background in the picture above is from an exhibit by Liz Glynn, currently on display at MASS MoCA. 

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
609 pages
Published by Harcourt, Inc., 1947
Genre: Fiction, politics
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: While there was a bit to unpack here, I don’t think I’ll return to this one.

Reviewed by Indiana

Though it was written 70 years ago, it seems like this book has had a major impact on how the entertainment industry writes and produces political dramas today. All I could think about while I was reading the first few chapters was how much shows like House of Cards or West Wing or really any other political drama I’ve ever seen has borrowed ideas from the book.

Narrated by political reporter turned political PR guy, Jack Burden, All the King’s Men details the rise of governor Willie Stark, other wise known as the Boss. Stark starts out as just one of the people, a hard working Southern boy who works on his family’s farm during the day and studies to become a lawyer at night.

But something happens as Stark gets involved in politics. He gets cynical, power hungry and takes over the town, so to speak. Burden, who joined Stark at the onset of his career, watches all this and follows a similar character trajectory; he begins to manipulate people around him and loses sight of his ethical/moral compass.

Burden intersperses lots of adages or “wisdom nuggets” throughout his telling of the story, like “For whatever you live is Life.” and “An ambitious man is a man who wants other people to think he is great. The Judge knows he is great and doesn’t care what other people think.”

Because I found certain sections to be excruciatingly drawn out—like the over 50-page section where Burden goes on and on about an interesting historical mystery he solved or the very long discussion of his romantic past with Anne Stanton—those brief adages felt like broke up the story in a refreshing way.

While the language in this book isn’t dense by any means, the timeline is blurred and I sometimes had trouble figuring out exactly when certain scenes were taking place. That made it difficult to completely trace the Boss’ rise and fall.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. The pacing is a little stilted, but if you’re really into political dramas (which seem to be really popular today), this one should definitely be on your list of things to read next.   

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