Robert Penn Warren was one of the twentieth century's outstanding men of letters. He found great success as a novelist, a poet, a critic, and a scholar, and enjoyed a career showered with acclaim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, was Poet Laureate of the United States, and was presented with a Congressional Medal of Freedom. He founded the Southern Review and was an important contributor to the New Criticism of 1930s and '40s. Born in 1905, Warren showed his exceptional intelligence from an early age; he attended college at Vanderbilt University, where he befriended some of the most important contemporary figures in Southern literature, including Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.
During a stay in Italy, Warren wrote a verse drama called Proud Flesh, which dealt with themes of political power and moral corruption. As a professor at Louisiana State University, Warren had observed the rise of Louisiana political boss Huey Long, who embodied, in many ways, the ideas Warren tried to work into Proud Flesh. Unsatisfied with the result, Warren began to rework his elaborate drama into a novel, set in the contemporary South, and based in part on the person of Huey Long. The result was All the King's Men, Warren's best and most acclaimed book. First published in 1946, All the King's Men is one of the best literary documents dealing with the American South during the Great Depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into a movie that won an Academy Award in 1949.
All the King's Men focuses on the lives of Willie Stark, an upstart farm boy who rises through sheer force of will to become Governor of an unnamed Southern state during the 1930s, and Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, a cynical scion of the state's political aristocracy who uses his abilities as a historical researcher to help Willie blackmail and control his enemies. The novel deals with the large question of the responsibility individuals bear for their actions within the turmoil of history, and it is perhaps appropriate that the impetus of the novel's story comes partly from real historical occurrences. Jack Burden is entirely a creation of Robert Penn Warren, but there are a number of important parallels between Willie Stark and Huey Long, who served Louisiana as both Governor and Senator from 1928 until his death in 1935.
Like Huey Long, Willie Stark is an uneducated farm boy who passed the state bar exam; like Huey Long, he rises to political power in his state by instituting liberal reform designed to help the state's poor farmers. And like Huey Long, Willie is assassinated at the peak of his power by a doctor--Dr. Adam Stanton in Willie's case, Dr. Carl A. Weiss in Long's. (Unlike Willie, however, Long was assassinated after becoming a Senator, and was in fact in the middle of challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.)