Critics greeted the August 1946 publication of All the King’s Men with immediate high praise. Diana Trilling in the Nation proclaimed it “a very remarkable piece of novel-writing,” adding, “I doubt indeed whether it can be matched in American fiction.” Two years later, Walter Allen, reviewing the novel’s British release in The New Statesman & Nation called it “a very formidable attempt at a novel on the grand scale.”
On a very basic level, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men can be identified as a roman à clef, a novel in which real persons appear as fictional characters. Readers recognized the novel’s demagogic southern governor, Willie Stark, as similar to Huey P. Long, “the Kingfish,” former governor of Louisiana and that state’s U. S. senator in the mid-1930s. Jack Burden, right-hand man to Governor Stark, narrates the novel, recounting the rise and fall of his boss. Willie starts as an idealistic young lawyer, committed to helping the “little guy,” but evolves into a politician whose power hinges on the numerous shady deals he makes to carry out his vision of what government should be doing.
But multiple generations of readers can testify that All the King’s Men is much more than merely a political or historical novel. Jack’s story parallels Willie’s; he is a young man struggling to understand who he is and what he believes in. His and Willie’s personal transformations rise above the mere retelling of a political tragedy.
If there was any doubt as to the novel’s ongoing influence, in 1996, Joe Klein, under the name Anonymous, published Primary Colors, a novel based on Bill Clinton’s political rise and machinations. The novel was deeply influenced by Warren’s All the King’s Men.