Burden begins this chapter by stating that, as of his writing (of, presumably, the account that forms the novel), it is 1939, and that his visit to Mason City and Willie’s father’s house occurred in 1936. Burden then goes on to describe the first time he visited Mason City, in 1922, on assignment as a reporter for the Chronicle newspaper.
Burden makes clear the nature of his shifting narrative: how he jumps forward or backward in time as much as ten or fifteen years, in order to flesh out his own life-story and that of Willie. These techniques of “chopping up” time are classified as “modernist” fictional techniques.
Burden hangs out at an outdoor meeting place in Mason City, in 1922, where a group of old men are talking. As part of his reporting, Burden asks the men if they know anything about Willie Stark’s efforts to get a new bond issued for a schoolhouse in Mason County. The old men say they do know; that Willie has gotten “too big for his britches,” and that the contract Willie favors would employ black laborers to, in the old men’s words, “take away” jobs from the white men who need them. Burden thanks the men for their information and heads to the Mason City Courthouse.
Burden breaks down the nitty-gritty of Willie’s involvement in local politics in his capacity as County Treasurer. It seems that one of Mason County’s biggest concerns is providing jobs for white laborers—there was a widespread feeling, even seventy years after the formal end of slavery in the South, that African Americans would “take” white jobs and, because they were paid lower wages, workers would be more inclined to hire black laborers than their white counterparts.
Burden meets a sheriff and Dolph Pillsbury, chairman of the board of county commissioners in Mason County, who tells Burden that the County did not accept the lowest bid for the schoolhouse (made by a man named Jeffers), but rather accepted a higher bid (meaning the county would have to pay more money) made by a man named Moore. Pillsbury claims that Moore has the know-how to do the job right, but Burden suspects that some kind of favoritism has been used to award Moore and not Jeffers the bid. Both the sheriff and Pillsbury also imply that Willie is willing to give the job to black laborers over white ones.
Pillsbury and the sheriff are two examples of entrenched, inherently conservative interests in the state. They are primarily interested in furthering the status quo and in enriching themselves through “skimming,” or the process of taking a certain amount of money, as a percentage of any government contract signed when they are in office. This process of skimming is extremely common in Louisiana, and generally officials look the other way when it takes place.
Burden visits Willie, whose office happens to be at the other end of a long hallway in the same Courthouse. Burden asks Willie what’s happened with the bidding, and Willie, who remembers Burden from their previous encounter at Slade’s bar, is willing to talk to him, to have his side of the story in the press. Willie tells Burden a story that Burden does not immediately reveal to the reader (presumably implying that the County Commissioners have a back-room deal with Moore over Jeffers), and Burden ends up at Willie and Lucy’s house for dinner that night. Lucy also tells Burden that she has been fired as a schoolteacher, presumably as retribution against Willie’s attacks on the powers that be in Mason County.
Willie’s prodigious political memory will crop up numerous times in the novel—in particular, he tends to remember quite well those who cross him seriously and those who serve to help his cause. Thus Slade is amply rewarded for his small kindness to Willie, and this only reinforces Slade’s willingness to help Willie in the future. Willie similarly develops a strong loyalty for Burden, since Burden was willing to listen to Willie long before Willie had any serious influence in state politics.
Burden then relates to the reader the story Willie told him long ago, in 1922, which, in essence, states that Moore was using cheap convict labor and cheap, poor-quality bricks to build the schoolhouse, and Willie supported the Jeffers bid because the materials were better and the labor more efficient—Willie didn’t care that the laborers would be black, but Pillsbury used the racial issue as a cudgel against Willie in the local elections following the bidding, which Willie then lost (he therefore only served one term as County Treasurer).
Willie realizes that the complaint about black labor on the part of those in power in Mason County is a cover—in reality, the officials support the Moore bid because Moore is going to give a large bribe to those officials, and because he can construct a cheap but substantial-looking schoolhouse in a short period of time. Only Willie seems to sense that this could spell a political and social disaster in the future.
Willie tried to get his side of the story out, after losing the election, in other ways, by printing out leaflets and distributing them on street corners in Mason County. Burden moves ahead in time to describe what happens to Willie between 1922 and 1925. After losing his reelection bid as County Treasurer, on account of his opposition to Pillsbury’s corrupt schoolhouse bidding process, Willie returned to his father’s farm with Lucy, and set about as a door-to-door salesman. Willie also began studying for the law exam on his own, in his boyhood room, since he did not have enough money to attend law school properly.
An instance of Willie’s immensely strong work ethic, even in the face of disappointment. In fact, disappointment seems to spur Willie on to an increased workload—because he was not reelected to his position as County Treasurer, he was able to devote himself more fully to the study of the law and pass the state bar exam (at that time, a degree from a law school was not required to become a lawyer). Willie’s setbacks therefore become a part of his political rise.
Burden falls out of touch with Willie again for those three years between 1922 and 1925, when Willie works on his father’s farm, sells products door-to-door, and studies for his exam. Then Burden reports that, in 1925, Willie had a stroke of good luck that derived from terrible circumstances. The poor-quality, rotten bricks used by Moore caused the schoolhouse to collapse during a fire drill, injuring a great many young students and even killing several.
Burden makes clear that, although Willie does not support the taking of bribes early on in his political career, he is still shrewd enough to recognize a political opportunity when he sees it, even if this opportunity comes in the form of the misfortune of others. Thus Willie seizes on the school collapse to “make hay” politically.
Because Willie had made a name for himself in the local papers in the intervening three years campaigning publically against corruption in government, this terrible event at the schoolhouse played exactly into his image as a man of the people, and as a prophet against government waste. Willie new he had his opportunity, and became, overnight, the most popular political figure in Mason City, capable of unseating any rival, in Burden’s telling. Then Willie was tapped to run in the Democratic state primary for Governor, based on his appeal in the northern part of the state.
Willie understands that the “common people” of the state, who are voting in ever-increasing numbers and who are now more willing to subvert or ignore the Democratic Party machine, which has governed the state since the Civil War, desire a candidate who speaks “directly” to them—even if this speaking is a kind of political theater. Thus Willie comes along as a populist candidate at a time ripe for populism.
Willie is “placed” in this election by the powers that be in the state’s Democratic Party because he is a rural candidate, and the “city” candidate, named Harrison, wants a “dummy” candidate to split the vote with his main rival, MacMurfee, who is also from the rural part of the state. But at this point in the election, Willie does not know what’s happening to him, and therefore runs for Governor with great gusto, primarily on his record as an ethical candidate who supported the best bid to construct the schoolhouse properly.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Party machine remains a force to be reckoned with in the state, and Willie can only defeat the machine by getting a start working within his rules. He seems to understand that his campaign is in the thrall of the machine and a set of party “handlers,” but he is genuinely surprised, later, to find out that he is a “stooge” of the party intended to split the rural vote.
Burden states that Willie, during this 1926 election, is a lawyer—and that he had passed the bar exam on his own between being booted out of the Country Treasurer’s office, after losing his second election, and before the disaster at the poorly-built schoolhouse. In this interim period, along with continuing to sell products door-to-door, Willie made a name for himself as a small-town lawyer; Willie also remarked to Burden, later, that he expected the state’s bar exam, to become a lawyer, to be much more difficult than it was—Willie said that, if he knew how easy it would be, he would have stopped studying for it years before.
Willie was successful as a lawyer because he worked indefatigably to find cases no one else would take up. Thus Willie built up a name for himself not only as a crusader against public waste and malfeasance, but as a “worker for the common man,” a lawyer who understood the troubles of those that worked on the farms of the northern part of the state. Willie uses this practical knowledge to fuel his campaign, especially once he begins “speaking from the heart.”
Now, in 1926, Burden is following Willie’s campaign for Governor as a reporter for the Chronicle, and because he has known Willie for some time, and has been sympathetic to Willie’s causes, Willie grants Burden a good deal of access to his campaign. Burden reports to the reader, however, that Willie was not yet aware that he was merely a pawn for the Democratic Party, and that his candidacy was a joke. Burden discusses hearing Willie rehearse his speech for Governor on the other side of a thin partition in a hotel room in a small Louisiana town—the speech, filled with boring statistics, is terrible, Burden says. Burden tries to tell Willie his speeches aren’t exciting, but Willie won’t listen to Burden’s advice.
Willie, though, tries first to speak with a great deal of information about the manner by which the public has been defrauded by those in power. This information, though correct, is not “true”—it does not ring true in the ears of those who hear it, and it does nothing to rally their interest around Willie. Burden seems to understand, before Willie does, that Willie must seize the hearts of the public first, and their minds and votes will follow—Willie does not take this action until his “sap” campaign is revealed to him by Sadie.
One day during the campaign, Burden is at a coffee shop in a small town and is joined by Sadie Burke, who has recently moved from the Harrison machine to Willie’s campaign. Burden tells Sadie he knows that she knows that Willie is only a split-the-vote candidate, and Sadie admits this is true. Sadie says that Willie is a sap for believing his candidacy is real, and Burden says he will meet up with the campaign again in Upton, a small community in the rural north of the state.
Sadie’s loyalties are not exactly to the Democratic Party—since the state has no meaningful Republican Party (this did not emerge in the South until the 1960s). Sadie’s loyalties are not yet to Willie, though she will eventually support his candidacy with great vigor. At the moment, Sadie is loyal primarily to the pursuit of power in the state.
In Upton, Willie walks into Burden’s hotel room and admits, glumly, that his campaign is going poorly, although he is not sure why at this point. Willie speaks passionately about the reforms the state requires, including better roads and a new tax system, and while Burden is agreeing with him, although gently suggesting that Willie’s campaign might be doomed, Sadie comes into the room, and believing that Burden has told Willie that his campaign is a lark and that Willie is a “sap,” Sadie begins agreeing with them. Burden realizes that Sadie has jumped the gun—she has admitted that the campaign is a ploy to help Harrison—and this is a rare miscalculation on Sadie’s part, since she is typically adept at reading what other people know.
Sadie makes a rare political miscalculation here, believing that Jack has told Willie about his “sap” campaign before he actually has. But Sadie is quick to realize, later, during Willie’s first “honest” speech, delivered while drunk, that she could throw her support behind Willie and make her career in this way. Sadie is therefore greatly adept at “finding” the powerful candidates to whom she can latch on as a supporter and strategist—this is what keeps her alive in the cutthroat world of political advising in Louisiana.
Willie becomes extremely upset and asks Burden if it’s true that he’s been framed, and that his campaign is a joke. Burden sadly agrees, and Willie begins drinking wildly, with abandon, from a large bottle of whiskey in the hotel room. It is the first time Willie has consumed alcohol in his life. Sadie counsels him to watch himself, and Burden goes out for the night in Upton, returning to find that Willie is passed out in bed, and that Sadie has been looking after him. Willie has consumed the whole bottle of whiskey.
Willie’s first night of drinking—in a manner that is characteristic of his style of going “all in,” Willie does not have just a drink or two; instead, he has a whole bottle, and both Jack and Sadie seem to recognize what this implies about his ability, the next day, to give a stirring prepared speech in the hot Upton sun.
In a bit of a fugue, before narrating what happens next, Burden admits that he fell in love with Sadie a little bit that night, and that she turned him away—that he never had any relationship with Sadie, though he respected her and thought her to be a “tough cookie.” The next morning, Burden tries to rouse Willie by giving him coffee, but Willie is so hung-over he can’t stomach anything—but he must give a speech at a rally in Upton later that afternoon. Finally, with nothing else to try, Burden gives Willie a little more whiskey, then still more—the hair of the dog—and Willie makes his way to the fairgrounds to deliver his speech in Upton, presumably drunk again.
Burden does not every really come back to this suggestion that he once tried to initiate a romantic relationship with Sadie—at this point in the text, the idea of Burden and Sadie together is a bit of a red herring, since it will later be revealed by Jack that he has long been in love with Anne, and that Anne and Sadie are both having affairs with the Boss, who, for his part, is still married to Lucy and keeping up the public appearance of that marriage.
Willie, now freed from the belief that he needs to educate the people, gives a rousing speech in Upton, revealing that he has been a stooge, that Duffy (on stage at Upton and working for Harrison) has arranged for him, Willie, to split the MacMurfee vote, and that he is now resigning to campaign for MacMurfee. Burden remarks to Sadie (the two are in the crowd) that she is out of a job, and when Duffy, on-stage, attempts to contradict what Willie is saying about him, Willie nudges him away, and Duffy tumbles off the stage into the crowd, which is stunned by Willie’s revelation. Burden takes the train back to the capital (presumed to be Baton Rouge), and Sadie and Duffy are left to pick up the pieces and to explain Willie’s behavior to their boss Harrison.
Willie’s speech here—in contrast to his prepared speeches, and a little like the speech he gives on the Mason County Courthouse steps in the very beginning of Chapter 1—is a rousing affair; it grabs everyone in Upton by their lapels and forces them to consider exactly what the Democratic Party machine is planning for them in Louisiana. What is perhaps most shocking to Willie is the idea that the machine is smart enough to take a popular candidate, like Willie, and use him for their own ends. Willie resents this, and vows to take his message directly to the people.
Willie spends the remainder of the campaign season stumping for MacMurfee, who wins the election, but Willie speaks so freely, and with such fire, that members of the Democratic Party loyal both to Harrison and to MacMurfee become afraid of him and hope to appease him. After the election, Willie goes back to Mason City, practices law, and uses this same fire and energy to win several large cases, which increase his fortune and allow him to run for Governor in 1930. Based on the goodwill Willie has built up in the state, Willie wins the 1930 election and begins consolidating his power.
Willie’s success in private practice is, of course, at least partially attributable to his now-fiery speeches on behalf of MacMurfee—indeed, Willie has become just as famous in the state as those that govern in. This poises him for the 1930 election and for a powerful base of popular support, which is not so much dependent on the machine but rather on the voice of the people, with whom he has connected on the stump.
One instance of this consolidation of power is the fact that Duffy and Sadie, once working for Harrison, now choose to work for Willie as Governor. Duffy eventually becomes a bigwig in the Stark administration and then Lt. Governor, and Sadie becomes one of Willie’s closest advisers. Meanwhile, Burden is kicked out of his job at the newspaper for supporting Stark in the 1930 election, over MacMurfee, who is the paper’s official candidate. After being kicked out of the job, Burden spends several weeks doing nothing, as part of a “Great Sleep,” or a period of major depression, which seems to crop up at various moments during his life.
An interesting part of Burden’s personality is here revealed. His periods of “Great Sleep” would now be characterized as a mental condition, a sustained mental illness that seems to crop up in his life during periods of special stress or torment. But at the time, in the 1930s, these sorts of issues were not often openly discussed; for example, Sadie Burke is later hospitalized with something called “nervous exhaustion,” which was another euphemism for a period of psychological trauma or difficulty.
Burden then reports on time he spends with two childhood friends in 1930, just after Willie’s election and his being fired from the paper—Adam and Anne Stanton. Adam is a famous doctor in Louisiana, one of the most accomplished in the state, and Burden goes to his small apartment to talk with him and to listen to Adam play the piano. Burden also goes out to eat with Anne, with whom it is implied he has long ago had a romantic relationship that didn’t pan out. He and Anne have a pleasant dinner, until Anne talks about Jack’s father, whom Jack hasn’t seen for some time, and who Anne describes as a crazy man, a religious mystic who lives in squalor and who needs Jack’s help. But Burden dismisses his father out of hand, says he will not visit him, and Anne becomes angry with Jack.
A great deal of backstory is introduced in this section. The reader learns that Jack’s father is a kind of religious mystic, and that Jack has very little to do with him; his mother, on the other hand, is a kind of vulgar materialist—someone who seems to care about money, and the men who can provide her with this money—more than anything else. But Jack still has a soft spot for his mother (he considers himself to be something of a “mother’s boy”), perhaps because he feels, at this point, that his father abandoned the family for no reason when Jack was young.
They eventually make up at dinner, however, and part as friends, and in the next few days—again, in 1930—Jack is called by Sadie Burke, working for Governor Stark, saying that Stark would like to speak with Jack about a job, seeing he is out of work at the paper. Willie offers to pay Jack three hundred a month to work not for the state but for him, although he does not tell Burden exactly what he’ll do—only that some “work will turn up,” meaning that Jack is in charge, essentially, of maintaining Willie’s political advantage in the state.
Willie makes Jack a fateful offer. Just as Willie helped Slade many years after Slade first did Willie a favor, so now does Willie help Jack after recognizing that Jack has been a supporter of his political ambitions for many years. Willie seems to know something about Jack that Jack doesn’t even know—that Jack’s skills as a researcher and a historian can be applied to political and electoral ends.