The novel begins in 1936, approaching Mason City, in a state presumed to be Louisiana. The narrator is in a large, black car with an enormous eight-cylinder engine, flying on a new road to Mason City from the outlying farmlands. The narrator, who speaks in the first-person (with the pronoun “I”), is not yet named, but he describes the pine-forest landscape of northern Louisiana as it whizzes past the car windows. The narrator indicates that he is sitting in the car with Sugar-Boy, the driver; the Boss (his boss); the Boss’s wife and son; and Mr. Duffy. The narrator also indicates that this scene, in 1936, took place three years ago, meaning that the narrator is “speaking” from the “present,” in 1939.
This scene serves already to introduce one of the primary preoccupations of the novel—that of “speed,” or the rate at which one travels through space and time. Burden often remarks that Willie has risen from seeming obscurity in not a very long period of time—and Burden himself has transitioned between various careers in what feels, to him, the blink of an eye. As Burden continues describing Willie’s life, he finds he cannot help reflecting on the nature of the changes that have happened to him in his boyhood and youth.
A second car, following the car in which the narrator sits, contains Sadie Burke (secretary to the Boss) and a pool of journalists who have been assigned to cover this particular trip. The narrator describes Sugar-Boy, the driver, who is a small Irishman with a terrible stutter; the Boss, who sits up-front next to Sugar-Boy, enjoys how quickly and nimbly Sugar-Boy drives the great black Cadillac.
Here the reader is immediately confronted by the size of the Boss’s retinue, which includes his family, his advisers, his secretary, and those who wish to cover and report on his every move. The only character who seems to spend any time alone with the Boss is Jack.
After flying through the surrounding countryside, the two cars stop in front of a soda fountain, and the Boss (whose name is revealed to be Willie Stark) gets out to have a Coke, since it’s an extremely hot day. A crowd quickly forms inside and outside the soda fountain, as the Boss is a local celebrity of some kind—probably a politician, from the hints the narrator has dropped about the Boss thus far.
The first indication of just how intense the Boss’s celebrity is, especially in the region where he grew up. Throughout the novel, even as the Boss’s political fortunes wane, he never loses very much support from “the common man”—in fact, they seem only to love him more, the more his enemies in the legislature speak out against him.
The Boss goes up to an old man the narrator terms Old Leather Face, and asks about him and his family. The old man replies that his son is in trouble with the law—on trial for murder, after getting into a fight. The Boss drinks his Coke, thanks the proprietor of the shop for giving it to him “on the house,” and begins walking outside. Mr. Duffy asks the Boss whether he intends to give a speech in Mason City, which appears to be the Boss’s home town. The Boss says he’s not sure, and continues walking in a straight line from the soda fountain.
The Boss has learned the power of demurring—of pretending that he is not a public man capable of deliver a throttling speech. This is in great distinction to Jack’s depiction of Willie earlier in his political career, when he reads his speeches from prepared note cards, and seems all too ready to speak whenever asked.
But the Boss walks up to the steps of the Mason City courthouse, and it appears he is going to make a speech, after all. Willie begins by saying he won’t ask the crowd for their votes, and that asking them wouldn’t do any good anyway, as Willie must contend with the politicians in the state’s legislature. It here becomes apparent that Willie, the Boss, is the Governor of the state.
Willie breaks out one of his favorite slogans—the idea that he is working for the people, but that the legislature is only working to defeat him and his policies, without concern for the fates of the people in the state. This echoes the speeches of many politicians in America throughout its history.
A man shouts at Willie from the crowd, apparently making fun of him, but Willie has a quick retort for the man, and the remainder of the crowd seems sympathetic to Willie’s fight against his opponents in the state congress. Willie ends his speech by saying he has come back to the Mason City-area to see his father, who lives on a farm nearby, and to shake hands with the “regular folks” who make his Governorship possible. The crowd cheers him.
Willie is not above making public-relations use of his father and his father’s modest farm outside Mason City. Willie seems to want to visit his father for personal reasons, just to talk to him, but he also recognizes the powerful symbolism of going back to his small childhood home and having his picture taken there.
Willie, Lucy, his son, the narrator, and Mr. Duffy get back in the Cadillac, and Sugar-Boy begins nudging it through the streets, which are now choked with Willie’s well-wishers. The narrator, in the car, then recalls how he first met Willie, then a young local elected official, in Mason City in 1922, fourteen years previous.
Sugar-Boy’s driving, and his cursing at those who get in the way of the car, are a running joke throughout the novel. Sugar-Boy’s loyalty to Willie is no joke, however—he is perhaps the character most loyal to Willie, even more so than Burden.
In this scene, in 1922, the narrator is seated at Slade’s, an illegal bar where many politicians meet—with him is Slade, the proprietor, Duffy, who at this point was big in local Mason County politics (Mason City is the seat of Mason County); Alex Michel, the deputy sheriff in Mason County, and Willie Stark, then the County Treasurer for Mason County, who had come down to the city to try to get financing for a new schoolhouse.
One of the novel’s first flashbacks, itself embedded in the “flashback” that starts the book. For Jack is writing at some point after Willie’s death, and he writes of a moment during the heart of Willie’s governorship—and then, in that memory, includes another memory of Willie’s youth and young political career.
The narrator was, at that point, a reporter for the Chronicle, a local paper, and he was there to cover the conversation; Duffy was one of the Governor Joe Harrison’s top men in that region—part of Harrison’s Democratic machine in the state. Alex introduces Willie to Slade, the narrator, and Duffy, and makes fun of Willie, joking that he married a school-teacher—which Alex finds hilarious. Willie takes the joke in stride, though he appeared, at that time, to lack the powerful confidence and projection the narrator notices in the Willie of 1936.
Burden takes great pains to paint the nature of local politics at the time of Willie’s rise—most of those in power were deeply distrustful of any “interlopers” or “farm-boys,” people who wanted to break into political power but had none as of yet. Willie, in this scene, is quiet and polite, but Jack also notices the fire in his eyes—his commitment to a career in the political realm.
Willie finally introduces himself, formally, to the table, and we find out that the narrator’s last name is Burden. Willie shakes Burden’s hand. The narrative shifts back to the 1930s, when Burden is working as the chief of staff and right-hand man for Willie, and Burden asks the Boss, then, if he winked at Burden when he shook hands with him, back in 1922. Burden swears that Willie did wink, but Willie, who enjoys a good joke himself, strings Burden along, never admitting to whether or not he winked at him the moment they met, so long ago. It is revealed, too, that Duffy, once believing himself to be far more powerful than Willie, is now (in the 1930s) Willie’s Lieutenant Governor, and that Willie has helped him to gain this position.
This shows Burden’s skill in weaving narration together—scenes from ten or fifteen years ago blend with scenes from the near-present (close to the time of Jack’s writing), blend with scenes from after Willie’s death, which is discussed bluntly at the end of this first chapter. Willie for his part never wishes to reveal whether he and Jack had a “connection” from that day early on, but it is clear that Willie trusted Jack immediately, and Jack sensed that Willie was no ordinary politician.
Burden switches back to 1922. Burden recalls Willie being offered a beer by Duffy, and Willie declining this beer several times, implying that he does not drink and that his wife, Lucy, does not approve of drinking. Slade, the owner, replies to Duffy, who insists that Willie drink a beer, that Slade only sells beer to those that want it. Burden recalls how, once Prohibition was repealed nationally, Slade was rewarded by Willie, then governor, with lucrative liquor licenses and a profitable location for his new, legal bar. Burden believes this is a testament to Willie’s memory and political favoritism, especially for those who have helped him in the past.
One of Willie’s more notable traits, in his younger years, is his total abstinence from the drinking of alcohol. This was considered a rare trait at the time, in the South, and was often linked with a religious temperament, although in Willie, Lucy, and Willie’s father it seems more a vestige of religion and an enactment of strict bodily discipline: it is harder to work in the fields if you’re drunk or hung-over. Willie’s “simplicity” early on is in many ways symbolized by his unwillingness to drink.
Burden goes on to recall the remainder of the four men’s conversation, that day in 1922, when Alex convinces Duffy that Willie is not just some interloper, as Duffy had thought him to be, nor a country bumpkin, but a shrewd politician who was, in fact, county treasurer for Mason County. Burden reserves the remainder of the story of how Willie built his schoolhouse for later on in the narrative, but as he shifts back to the black Cadillac, in 1936, whirring past the schoolhouse Willie built, near Mason City, Burden seems to imply that Willie has got what he wanted—Duffy now serves him, as Lieutenant Governor, and all those who thought him a “hayseed” or yokel must now recognize that Willie is the chief political power in the state.
Jack again uses the power of his narrative “shifting” to show that, though Duffy was “in the driver’s seat” of his relationship with Willie early on, when Willie was nothing more than a country boy with a law degree, now Duffy answers to Willie—Willie is in charge of the state and has figured out a way to make his former enemies his uneasy allies. It is this talent for forging consensus when there is none that enables Willie to cling to power for as long as he does—although Duffy will “get one over” on Willie eventually, in Willie’s death at the capitol.
The Boss tells Burden, back in the car in 1936, that Burden should find a good lawyer, an “Abe Lincoln type,” to represent the old leathery man’s (named Malaciah) son in his trial for murder. Burden remarks that he has a great deal of his notes written down in black notebooks and locked in a safety deposit box, where enemies of Willie’s cannot find them.
Burden’s indication that there would be good reason for people to “get at” Willie’s files—another strong hint that Willie has many enemies in local and state politics, enemies who would like nothing more than to gain access to all his inside information.
Duffy, in the car, nervously tells the Boss that Malaciah’s son, as Duffy has heard it, knifed the son of an important political figure in that region, and that it would perhaps not be wise for Willie to pay for a lawyer to represent Malaciah’s son. But Willie turns around in his seat and responds harshly to Duffy, saying that no one will be able to trace this lawyer to Willie’s office, and that he, Willie, is loyal to Malaciah, who has been an old friend. This ends the conversation.
Here, Willie demonstrates to Duffy just who is “on top” politically, and who has to follow orders. Duffy believes it would not be politically expedient for Willie to have his “fingerprints” all over this case of Malaciah’s boy, but Willie is more than capable of getting things done behind the scenes, as will become evident when Jack is his go-between during his impeachment.
The black Cadillac pulls up next to the house where Willie grew up, a farmhouse in rural Mason County. Burden remarks that Willie never really had the house repainted or renovated, not in any obvious ways, but that Willie did pay to have an electric pump installed for the plumbing in the bathroom—this improvement isn’t “noticeable from the street,” and therefore means that Willie will not be seen as corrupt, or using money to favor his own family.
An important distinction in the novel. Willie is more than willing to do what he can for his father—to improve that man’s quality of life. But Willie does not want to do anything that would draw attention to his own wealth or power—that would only give more fodder for his critics to attack him. So he helps his father in inconspicuous ways.
Willie’s father, an old farmer, skinny and wrinkled and taciturn, emerges from the house and welcomes, quietly, Willie, Lucy, Jack, and Duffy. After sitting in the parlor for a moment, the next car arrives, with Sadie and the reporters in tow, and a photographer asks to take some “candid” shots of Willie and Lucy in the house. Willie asks Burden to pick up Willie’s father’s old dog, who can barely move, so the dog is placed in the shot, making the photo look more “homey.”
A comic moment—one of the novel’s relatively few—in which Jack must do all he can to make things “right” for the photo-op. Willie will ask Jack, again and again, to help him publically and behind the scenes, and though Jack does not always agree with Willie, he is loyal to him, and willing to try what he can to make sure Willie gets his way in the world.
The photographer then takes some photos of Willie in his old bedroom, where he had studied for the law exam when he was a much younger man. Burden, whose first name has been revealed to be Jack, walks outside, through the farm, and down to a fence, where he looks out over the beautiful rural landscape. After some minutes, Burden hears footsteps, and Willie has come out to join Jack and to sip some of Jack’s liquor, which he has in a flask in his pocket. Willie confesses that his father, like Lucy, is not much for drinking, even now, although Willie clearly is now a drinker.
Willie’s study for the law exam has an important symbolic place in the novel. For Willie remarks later that the exam wasn’t too difficult, and that he did better than many of those students who studied in fancy law schools, and had the money to pay the tuition to attend. Willie was, especially early in his career, a product of his own work ethic and ingenuity, and his success in that bedroom, studying law, is one more indication of this.
Sadie rushes out to join Burden and Willie out back, by the fence. She has something to tell Willie, but is so flustered she cannot get the words out, and Willie makes fun of her, gently, for not being able to speak; this makes Sadie even angrier, and less able to speak. Sadie finally tells Willie that Judge Irwin, an established political figure in Louisiana, has decided to side with Callahan, a politician who opposes Willie’s policies. Willie calls Irwin a bastard under his breath.
Willie, even in this early scene, clearly enjoys poking fun at Sadie, and there is a strong suggestion of sexual tension between Sadie and the Boss—Jack, for his part, lets the two talk to one another, and it might be inferred, even here, that there are parts of Sadie’s and Willie’s interactions that Jack believes to be private and outside of his purview.
Burden leaves Sadie and Willie, who has taken this news poorly, and goes off to watch Sugar-Boy shooting, and cursing, at targets with a small gun at the back of Willie’s father’s property. Willie calls Jack inside for dinner, which is eaten with Willie’s family at a long table, and Willie announces, after the meal, to his wife and his father that Jack, Sugar-Boy, and he will be taking a drive that night, to see about some business. Willie’s father and Lucy seem quietly upset at this, but do not protest.
Sugar-Boy’s shooting of the gun is an instance of foreshadowing—far later, when Willie is shot by Adam in the Capitol building, Sugar-Boy wonders if the Boss will be OK—and he seems shocked that a gun might be used for anything other than shooting at targets in the back of a farm-house. Sugar-Boy’s sweetness, naiveté, and loyalty to Willie are on display throughout.
Burden, Willie, and Sugar-Boy get into the Cadillac, and the Boss announces that they will be traveling to Burden’s Landing, over a hundred miles away, and the town in which Judge Irwin lives. Sugar-Boy drives in his characteristically speedy fashion, but they still arrive in Burden’s Landing late at night. Jack warns Willie that he will not be able to scare Judge Irwin, who has been in Louisiana politics a long time. Willie says he doesn’t want to scare Irwin; he just “wants to look at him.”
Willie finds that he is most effective as a communicator and a cajoler when he is in the face of the person with whom he is speaking. Although he claims here not to want to intimidate Irwin—whose political courage he appears to respect—Willie nevertheless knows that his threats of blackmail and political ruin will be far more powerful when done seated at a table.
Willie reveals to the reader, by speaking to Jack, that Jack grew up in Burden’s Landing, that the Burden name there is his family’s name, and that Jack’s friends, Adam and Anne Stanton, are also from Burden’s Landing. Willie tells Jack to direct Sugar-Boy to the Irwin house, which Jack knows well—he has been mentored by Judge Irwin since he was a small boy.
An early indication of the influence Jack’s family has in the region—and the influence his friends’ family (the Stantons) has too. Jack seems not to take for granted his political heritage; he understands that the state is run in Baton Rouge and among the powerful families of the Landing.
The Boss tells Jack to go up to the door and knock for Judge Irwin, who is in bed at this late hour. Irwin answers the door, eventually, in his bedclothes, and is happy to see Jack; he welcomes Jack inside, asking if Jack is OK or in trouble, but at that moment the Boss pops his head out of the darkness and says that, no, Jack isn’t in trouble, and that, in fact, the Boss and Jack would both like to talk to Irwin.
Irwin is genuinely pleased to welcome Jack into his home; Jack appears to have a standing invitation to the Irwin house in the Landing. But Irwin is far less pleased to let the Boss in—the Boss represents, for Irwin, all that is wrong with current politics—its pushiness, its lack of gentlemanly charm.
The Boss and Irwin stare each other down for a long moment, and Jack wonders what he is doing there—he mutters to himself that both of them, his old mentor and his new boss, can “go to Hell.” Finally, Willie asks Irwin if the rumors are true—if Irwin is in fact supporting Callahan for the Senate nomination, instead of a candidate, Masters, whom Willie backs. Irwin says that the “rumor” is in fact true, and that he has made up his mind in his decision.
Irwin here gives an indication of his unwillingness to “play ball” with the Boss, and his desire instead to do what he feels is right in the state of Louisiana. Irwin has spent a great deal of time as state attorney general (as is revealed later), and he believes this service entitles him to his own political opinions.
Irwin says he does not support Masters as a Senate candidate because Masters will do whatever Willie, governor of the state, wants. Willie says that he is not trying to scare Irwin at the moment—he doesn’t believe Irwin can be scared—but he vows that, if Irwin thinks he has “dirt” (incriminating information) on Mastern, Willie and his team will certainly be able to dig up dirt on Callahan, Irwin’s candidate. Willie then threatens that, perhaps, he could also dig up information on the Judge himself, and feed that information to Callahan, who might then repudiate the Judge’s endorsement publically.
Willie likes to communicate exactly how he might ruin a political opponent (see Duffy or Byram White for other examples, later on), such that the threat of this ruin is enough—then Willie doesn’t have to go to the actual trouble of destroying someone’s reputation. In this sense, Jack’s investigative prowess is more essential for Willie as a threat than as an actual weapon—until Irwin chooses to kill himself later based on Jack’s information.
This latter piece of blackmail is too much for Irwin, who kicks Willie out of his house. Willie calls Jack to follow him, and the Judge and Jack have a terse exchange, wherein the Judge implies that Jack is merely the servant of the powerful Boss. Jack replies, curtly, to Irwin that he knows what he’s doing, and that Irwin had better at least consider Willie’s offers (and threats), if he doesn’t want his reputation tarnished. Back in the car, on the way to the old man’s farm again, Willie tells Jack to dig up dirt on Irwin that will stick.
Here a great deal about Jack and the Judge’s relationship is implied. For a long time Jack was mentored by the Judge—Irwin looked after Jack in the Landing. But here Jack has found a more powerful boss, Willie, someone who has the reins of power in the state now, as compared to “in the past.” Irwin seems to understand that Jack cannot serve two masters, and must choose to follow Willie here.
Willie then says, in a famous line, that “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” meaning that Jack will be able to find something on the Judge. Burden rounds out the chapter by saying, to the reader, that he did manage to find something on Irwin, that it did stick, and that the Judge, the Boss, and Adam Stanton are all dead at the moment—implying that this initial meeting between Willie, the Boss, and Burden is the novel’s central political and personal conflict.
Willie is convinced that Jack will be able to find something on Irwin. Interestingly, Penn Warren chooses to reveal the fates of many of his characters at the end of this first chapter—in this way there is no suspense when the characters reach their demise, but there is suspense in the manner in which these deaths are interrelated—and it is Penn Warren’s achievement that this suspense is maintained throughout.