First published in 1946, All the King's Men was directly influenced by Robert Penn Warren's firsthand experiences with fascism in Benito Mussolini's Italy and radical populism in governor Huey P. Long's Louisiana.
In 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, Warren began teaching at Louisiana State University, affording him a bird's-eye view of the stark political upheaval of Huey Long. Born into a large middle-class family in upstate Louisiana, Long rode into the governor's mansion in 1928, capitalizing on historic tensions between poor dirt farmers in the northern part of the state and the wealthy business interests in the south around New Orleans, a gentle class of men who had been in complete control of state politics since Reconstruction. Decades of class antagonism had placed Louisiana's social infrastructure in a dire situation: public schools were heavily underfunded, illiteracy rates were steadily increasing, and the poor areas of the state remained hopelessly indigent, receiving little help from Baton Rouge. Huey Long promised highways, bridges, hospitals, and textbooks, all to be distributed fairly among the dispossessed areas of the state. His victory and the changes he initiated were met with hostility from the state aristocracy, which began ill-fated impeachment proceedings shortly after his elections. Crafty and bold political maneuvering on Long's part routed the legislators, and over the course of the following six years, he not only delivered on his promises, but came to dominate every aspect of the state government through his political machine. "Corruption became rampant and political freedom was destroyed" (Woodell 6).
With Louisiana politics firmly under his thumb, Huey Long migrated to the Senate, then launched a national program of populist social reform termed "Share Our Wealth" as he postured for the White House. In a famous address, he declared:
Now, we have organized a society, and we call it "Share Our Wealth Society," a society with the motto "every man a king."
On September 8, 1935, before his national aspirations could come to fruition, Huey Long was assassinated in the Louisiana State Capitol by Dr. Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of an anti-Long judge. The erratic drama of Long's life--including the ethical paradox that his positive social reform involved (and perhaps necessitated) a high degree of corruption and underhanded politics--served as the inspiration for Warren's conflicted and multifaceted Willie Stark and his sensational life.
In the late 1930s, Warren traveled to Italy, where he began work on a complex verse drama inspired by Huey Long's life entitled Proud Flesh. Unsatisfied with the play, Warren reworked the themes of political ethics and corruption into a modernist Southern novel. Ultimately, All the King's Men became a book that involves much more than a sensationalist roman à clef about Huey Long's life. The depth of Willie Stark's character and his moral conflicts contrast with the popular perception that Huey Long was an American "dictator." Warren includes a significant conflict between the genteel, conservative aristocracy of the "Old South" and the modern populist ideals of the "New South": this theme of recent modernity versus the Old South morality places All the King's Men on the same thematic level as contempory works such as Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and the stories of Flannery O'Connor. Most significantly, All the King's Men is centered around its ennui-filled narrator Jack Burden, a "twentieth-century man"--an invention of Warren's with no real analogue in the life of Huey Long (Woodell 11).
The position of All the King's Men in the American literary canon was assured when the work won Robert Penn Warren a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947. The book was a popular success upon publication, and a critically-acclaimed film adaptation focusing on the life of Willie Stark was released in 1949, receiving several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. A second Hollywood film version (2006) sets the events in the 1950s and focuses much more on the tribulations of Jack Burden.