All the King's Men

by: Robert Penn Warren

Chapter 2


This chapter takes a leap backward in time, covering the events that took place between Jack and Willie's first meeting at Slade's in 1922 and Jack going to work for Willie shortly after his election to the governorship. The chapter serves two important functions: it shows Willie's painful transformation from idealistic farm boy to savvy political tycoon, and it illustrates the political process as it functioned in Willie's state during the 1920s and '30s.

Jack makes it clear throughout this chapter that something inside Willie has always spurred him to reach for greatness. Willie naturally accepts the role of political hero that is cast upon him by the citizens of Mason County following the school fire-escape tragedy; and when Tiny Duffy and Harrison's men come to dupe him into running for governor as a dummy candidate, Willie is easily persuaded that he is God's chosen man. Even when he is a patsy for the Harrison gang, Willie throws himself wholeheartedly into his campaign, practicing his dull statistical speech over and over again. Jack repeatedly describes the incessant sound of Willie's footsteps as he paced through his hotel room reading his speech. And when Willie learns he has been duped, he describes to Jack what it was like to lay awake at night yearning to be elected governor.

The fundamental change in Willie's understanding occurs after he learns he has been tricked. He drinks himself unconscious, and then the next day delivers a fiery speech at the Upton picnic, making a fool of Tiny Duffy and utterly captivating the crowd. When MacMurfee is elected largely because of Willie's help, Willie realizes that politics is not a game of ideals, it is a game of willpower and manipulation. With this revelation, he bends his will to the task of learning the game, and emerges as the most powerful figure in state politics. Willie begins the chapter in Jack's mind as "Cousin Willie from the country," a gullible, likable, insignificant hick. He ends the chapter as Jack's employer. This chapter shows Willie's transformation from Cousin Willie from the country into the figure of the Boss.

This chapter also very plainly illustrates the corrupt business of Southern politics in the 1920s and '30s. Willie is only elected County Treasurer in the first place because he is related to Dolph Pillsbury, the political boss of Mason County. The initial controversy in which Willie becomes embroiled is over a building contract--Pillsbury wants to throw it to a man who will give him a kickback, and Willie tries to refuse. (This is significant because of the importance of the hospital building contract later in the novel.) The system of graft, blackmail, bribery, and trickery--as is amply demonstrated by the Harrison gang's dummy campaign for Willie--is the motor of state politics in All the King's Men. It is a system to which Willie is initially opposed, but which he is ultimately forced to master.