On Willie Stark as Political Leader

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Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men1 tells the story of two men, Jack Burden, the book’s narrator, and Willie Stark, Jack’s friend and boss. Because my focus is on the politics of the novel, Jack Burden will appear only occasionally in this paper. This approach does not do justice to the richness of the novel, for as Jack himself says, his story and Willie’s story are really one story. With this limitation in mind, I now turn to a review of Willie Stark’s career. Willie Stark, the political protagonist of All the King’s Men, was a reluctant but earnest young politician who had returned quickly to private life after his initial effort to achieve reform at the local level failed. Through a matter of chance, he returned to the public eye, became convinced to run for governor of the state, and was used by a political machine in an effort to undermine its opposition and ensure its continuation in office. During the course of this campaign “Cousin Willie,” as Jack Burden referred to him, received his political education when he learned that he was being used. He turned the tables by becoming a spokesman for the “hicks” whose votes were necessary for election but whose interests the machine ignored. In the course of this revitalized campaign “Cousin Willie” was transformed into “the Boss.” Subsequently Willie Stark was elected Governor of the state, and, after a turbulent administration and successful effort to fend off impeachment, was assassinated. The stages of Willie Stark’s career and the details of his term as governor of the state provide the material from which we may examine the foundations and nature of his political agenda, and the grounds for his ultimate failure. The next two sections will examine Stark’s rhetoric and his actions, respectively. The paper will conclude with an argument against searching for “the political teaching” of All the King’s Men (an argument that could be expanded to include other works of political fiction). Instead of seeking the teaching of the novel, I will suggest that it is more appropriate to consider the meaning of the novel, which is something considerably different. I: Willie Stark: Rhetoric

Willie’s youth might appear to have been undistinguishable from that of many others who grew up in rural America in the early twentieth century: he was raised on a farm, attended a year of college, was in basic training in Oklahoma when World War I ended, married, and fathered a child (67). The young Willie Stark exhibited many of the characteristics of talented but poor children who are committed to succeeding in life against great odds: single-minded focus, tremendous self-discipline, and an almost maniacal drive. He had been elected Treasurer in Mason County because Dolph Pillsbury, the Chairman of the County Commission, who was “a sort of second hand relative” of Willie’s father, had had a falling out with his original candidate for Treasurer and needed someone to replace him (59). Having lucked into the position of County Treasurer, Willie Stark ran head long into the reality of local politics. Mason County was going to build a school-house, and the County Commission had selected as contractor for the project J. H. Moore, a builder who had not submitted the low bid and who had a reputation for using inferior materials in his work (60). Treasurer Stark was opposed to this decision, and he made enough of a fuss to attract the attention of The Chronicle, the leading newspaper in the state capital. While he received some statewide publicity, he also attracted the ire of the County Commission. Willie’s wife, Lucy, was fired from her teaching job, and Pillsbury, the local boss, worked to ensure that Willie would be a one-term County Treasurer (58). Willie ran for re-election, but was soundly defeated by the county machine. In part Willie’s defeat was achieved through racial politics—the low bid firm used black laborers, and Willie was accused publicly of...
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