All the King's Men is a political thriller and a powerfully symbolic tale about action, consequence, and political cynicism. Jack Burden, strong right arm of populist politician Willie Stark, whose nature as a cynical manipulator of the masses emerges over the course of the story until his career is cut short by assassination. The story deals heavily with a worldview Stark calls The Great Twitch, a nihilistic theory that all action is meaningless because human biology dictates behavior.
All the King's Men portrays the dramatic political rise and governorship of Willie Stark, a cynical populist in the American South during the 1930s. The novel is narrated by Jack Burden, a political reporter who comes to work as Governor Stark's right-hand man. The trajectory of Stark's career is interwoven with Jack Burden's life story and philosophical reflections: "the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story."
The novel evolved from a verse play that Warren began writing in 1936 entitled Proud Flesh. One of the characters in Proud Flesh was named Willie Talos, in reference to the brutal character Talus in Edmund Spenser's late 16th century work The Faerie Queene .
A 2002 version of All the King's Men , re-edited by Noel Polk (ISBN 0-15-100610-5), keeps the name "Willie Talos" for the Boss as originally written in Warren's manuscript, and is known as the "restored edition" for using this name as well as printing several passages removed from the original edit.
Warren claimed that All the King's Men was "never intended to be a book about politics."