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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 2 | Summary



Jack Burden recalls a newspaper assignment he received many years ago, which involved checking out a bond issue about building a schoolhouse in Mason City. It was the second time Jack met Willie. At his house Willie explained to Jack that the commissioner chose the highest bid for building the schoolhouse, even though he received many lower bids from reputable companies. The highest bid came from J.H. Moore Construction, a company that used bricks made by the commissioner's brother-in-law. The building inspector claimed these bricks were defective, but nothing came of this. Willie wanted to expose this corruption and nepotism, but the people in the area didn't listen to him, so J.H. Moore built the schoolhouse. Three years later Willie was vindicated when the school's fire escape collapsed with children on it, killing three of them. Despite his popularity Willie didn't run for political office but instead continued to study law.

The next Democratic primary for governor of the state proved to be a tight one. Harrison had most of the city votes and MacMurfee had strong support in rural areas. A political strategist got the idea of sticking Willie, who was popular in the country, in the race to draw votes away from MacMurfee, thereby giving the victory to Harrison. It was Tiny Duffy who persuaded Willie to run for governor, telling him he'd be the savior of the people. Tiny, though, said nothing about using Willie to get Harrison elected. Jack was the reporter working on Willie's campaign, and Sadie Burke was a political consultant for Willie.

Jack recalls how Willie earnestly tried to run an honest campaign, but his dry, fact-filled speeches were terrible. Jack, Sadie, and many others involved in politics knew that Willie was being used as a stooge. However, Willie remained oblivious to this and became dejected when he realized he was not going to win the race. Seeing Willie depressed, Sadie brutally told him the truth, calling him a sap. Stunned, Will drank a large glass of whiskey, even though he hardly touched alcohol before. Sadie's revelation is a turning point for Willie. In his next speech he drops his planned talk and instead gives a fervent description of how he had been used as a stooge. Willie said he'd drop out of the race and let MacMurfee win—but if MacMurfee did not support hicks like himself and the people in the crowd, then he would run for governor next term. Sadie was transfixed by Willie's speech. In the 1930 Democratic primary Willie ran for governor and won with the promise to serve the rural folks in the state. Willie made Tiny the highway commissioner to show he had power over him.

At that time Jack quit his job at the newspaper and began to lead an aimless life. He visited his childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who had become a successful surgeon. Jack resented Adam's success and couldn't resist goading him a little: "Don't you have a good time being a big-shot?" Jack had dinner with Anne Stanton, and they discussed Jack's father, Ellis Burden, who abandoned him. Jack was still bitter toward Ellis but apologized to Anne about his attitude. Soon after this Willie asked Jack if he wanted a job working for him. Jack accepted and wondered what he was supposed to do. Willie said, "Hell, I don't know. Something will turn up."


The burden of history encompasses most of the events of Chapter 2. As opposed to Chapter 1 in which the past and present constantly interweave, the author in this chapter focuses on two significant segments of Jack's back story: his involvement in Willie's early political career and his talks with Adam and Anne Stanton. In the latter segment the author introduces one of the main methods Jack uses to block out his own past and thereby avoid taking personal responsibility. After Jack quits his job at the newspaper, he enters an aimless stage of his life, in which he sleeps late and wanders around in a self-induced daze. Even when Jack is awake he seems to be in a type of sleep. He says, "You ... get up in order that you may be able to go back to sleep." Later in the novel the author refers to this condition as the Great Sleep. Jack uses the Great Sleep to avoid his personal history and history in general. It is not by chance that Jack first enters this sleepy state in college when he is finishing up his thesis on American history. Even though his thesis is in good shape, Jack suddenly quits school and descends into a constantly sleepy condition. At the same time he walks out of his marriage to a woman named Lois.

In such a state Jack sees no reason not to take a job offered by Willie. The fact that Willie uses corrupt methods doesn't faze Jack. When Willie says he's going to put the newspaper Jack worked for out of business, Jack replies, "That will suit me."

Jack also avoids responsibility during Willie's early political career. Jack constantly sees Willie being disappointed in his attempts to establish a large constituency, leaving him a dejected man. Jack knows he should try to get Willie out of his agony, but he refuses to act. He passes the buck to Sadie, telling her to inform the political leaders that Willie's campaign will not draw enough votes away from MacMurfee to make a difference; these leaders should stop Willie's campaign and save him further suffering.

Willie's early political career illustrates the theme of rebirth. Willie suffers a defeat when he can't persuade townsfolk not to back the commissioner's corrupt choice of a contractor for the schoolhouse. However, Willie is vindicated when the building's fire escape collapses. After this Tiny Duffy persuades Willie to run as governor, telling him that he'll be the "savior of the State." Willie, therefore, has a political and spiritual rebirth as a reaction to the commissioner's corruption. Inspired by righteous ideals, Willie honestly tries to win the nomination at the Democratic primary.

Willie's second rebirth is also caused by corruption, but this time it results in more corruption. Willie has no idea he is being manipulated to draw votes away from another candidate. When Sadie makes Willie aware of this corruption, Willie goes through a transformational process that has Christian overtones. According to the Gospels, Jesus was persecuted and condemned, died on the cross, and was then resurrected. Willie suffers persecution from Tiny and Sadie's brutal mocking of him, then gets "dead drunk" and is reborn a changed man. Willie is hardly Christlike, however; he's now filled with anger and seeks revenge on the corrupt officials who fooled him.

The question remains why Willie made such a sudden shift from an honest politician to a corrupt one. If he truly believed in being honest, why did he decide to accept corrupt methods? The answer lies in Willie's duplicity. In Chapter 1 Jack notices that Willie has a soft, congenial appearance but underneath this façade is hardness. Willie is a man driven by ambition. Although he seems to use his ambition for the good of the people, it really supports his own pride. Willie can't abide being used or treated badly by others. His hatred of being belittled overwhelms his desire to be honest, and he becomes a notoriously corrupt politician. He believes all politicians are corrupt and that only dishonest means can produce results.

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