Throughout the novel, alcohol, whiskey, or “likker” as it is often styled by Robert Penn Warren, is an important symbol of character’s control or lack thereof. Willie
, as a young man, does not drink alcohol, as neither his father
nor his young wife Lucy
“approve” of the practice. Importantly, at a lunch meeting in Mason City where Jack
meets Willie for the first time, Willie refuses beer and the bar-keep, Slade, respects this decision—Willie then rewards Slade
, many years later, indicating that Willie has a long memory for those who support him. Later, however, Willie experiences a turning point, during his first, failed campaign for Governor, when Sadie accidentally reveals to Willie, in Jack’s presence, that he’s a “stooge” of the Democratic Party—Willie begins drinking, and finishes an enormous bottle of whiskey, getting so drunk he nearly misses his speech the next day. Willie then has a “hair of the dog” to combat his hangover and speak in Upton, where he inveighs against the Party’s corruption and sows the seeds for his own political successes. Whiskey thus “loosens up” Willie in these years; later on, however, once he is in office, Willie is clearly more dependent on whiskey. Alcohol is a kind of universal lubricant for social interaction in the South—nearly every meeting begins with a suggestion to drink it, even during Prohibition. In this sense, too, alcohol signals that important political business in the novel is going to take place, and also, perhaps, the likely corruption that will come hand-in-hand with that business.