William Allen White (February 10, 1868 – January 29, 1944) was an American newspaper editor, politician, author, and leader of the Progressive movement. Between 1896 and his death, White became a spokesman for middle America.
Born in Emporia, Kansas, White moved to El Dorado, Kansas, with his parents, Allen and Mary Ann Hatten White, where he spent the majority of his childhood. He loved animals and reading various books. He attended the College of Emporia and the University of Kansas, and in 1899 started work at The Kansas City Star as an editorial writer.
Young White was a political conservative at this stage of his career. In 1896 a White editorial attracted national attention with a scathing attack on William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats, and the Populists titled "What's the Matter With Kansas?" White sharply ridiculed Populist leaders for letting Kansas slip into economic stagnation and not keeping up economically with neighboring states because their anti-business policies frightened away economic capital from the state. White wrote:
The Republicans sent out hundreds of thousands of copies of the editorial in support of William McKinley during the intensely fought United States presidential election, 1896, giving White a national reputation.
With his warm sense of humor, articulate editorial pen, and commonsense approach to life, White soon became known throughout the country. His Gazette editorials were widely reprinted; he wrote syndicated stories on politics; and he published many books, including biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. "What's the Matter With Kansas?" and "Mary White" — a tribute to his 16-year-old daughter on her death in 1921, portraying her as an anti-flapper — were his best-known writings. Locally he was known as the greatest booster for Emporia.
He won a 1923 Pulitzer Prize for his editorial "To an Anxious Friend," published July 27, 1922, after being arrested in a dispute over free speech following objections to the way the state of Kansas handled the men who participated in the Great Railroad Strike of 1922.
In his novels and short stories, White developed his idea of the small town as a metaphor for understanding social change and for preaching the necessity of community. While he expressed his views in terms of the small town, he tailored his rhetoric to the needs and values of emerging urban America. The cynicism of the post-World War I world stilled his imaginary literature, but for the remainder of his life he continued to propagate his vision of small-town community. He opposed chain stores and mail order firms as a threat to the business owner on Main Street. The Great Depression shook his faith in a cooperative, selfless, middle-class America. Like most old Progressives his attitude toward the New Deal was ambivalent: President Franklin D. Roosevelt cared for the country and was personally attractive, but White considered his solutions haphazard. White saw the country uniting behind old ideals by 1940, in the face of foreign threats.
White sought to encourage a viable moral order that would provide the nation with a sense of community. He recognized the powerful forces of corruption but called for slow, remedial change having its origin in the middle class. In his novel In the Heart of a Fool (1918), White fully developed the idea that reform remained the soundest ally of property rights. He felt that the Spanish–American War fostered political unity, and believed that a moral victory and an advance in civilization would be compensation for the devastation of World War I. White concluded that democracy in the New Era inevitably lacked direction, and the New Deal found him a baffled spectator. Nevertheless, he clung to his vision of a cooperative society until his death in 1944.
White became a leader of the Progressive movement in Kansas, forming the Kansas Republican League in 1912 to oppose railroads. White helped Theodore Roosevelt form the Progressive (Bull-Moose) Party in 1912 in opposition to the conservative forces surrounding incumbent Republican president William Howard Taft.
White was a reporter at the Versailles Conference in 1919 and a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson's proposal for the League of Nations. The League went into operation but the U.S. never joined. During the 1920s, White was critical of both the isolationism and the conservatism of the Republican Party.
According to Roger Bresnahan:
In the 1930s he was an early supporter of the Republican presidential nominees, Alf Landon of Kansas in 1936, and Wendell Willkie in 1940. However, White was on the liberal wing of the Republican Party and wrote many editorials praising the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The last quarter century of White's life was spent as an unofficial national spokesman for Middle America. This led President Franklin Roosevelt to ask White to help generate public support for the Allies before America's entry into World War II. In 1940 White was fundamental in the formation of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, sometimes known as the White Committee. He had to fight the powerful America First faction, which believed, like most other Republicans, that the U.S. should stay out of the war. White spent much of his last three years involved with this committee.
Sometimes referred to as the Sage of Emporia, he continued to write editorials for the Gazette until his death in 1944. He was also a founding editor of the Book of the Month Club along with longtime friend Dorothy Canfield.
White married Sallie Lindsay in 1893. They had two children, William Lindsay, born in 1900, and Mary Katherine, born in 1904. Mary died in a 1921 horse-riding accident, prompting her father to write a famous eulogy, "Mary White," on August 17, 1921.
White visited six of the seven continents at least once in his long life. Due to his fame and success, he received 10 honorary degrees from universities, including one from Harvard.
White taught his son William L. the importance of journalism, and after his death, William L. took charge of the Gazette and continued its local success. William L.'s wife, Kathrine, ran it after he died. Their daughter, Barbara, and her husband, David Walker, took it over much as William had earlier, and today the paper remains family-run, currently headed by WAW's great-grandson, Christopher White Walker.
White developed a friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s that lasted until Roosevelt's death in 1919. Roosevelt spent several nights at White's Wight and Wight-designed home, Red Rocks, during trips across the United States. White was to say later, "Roosevelt bit me and I went mad." Later, White supported much of the New Deal, but voted against Franklin D. Roosevelt every time.
His autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1946 won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.
Life described him:
He is the small-town boy who made good at home. To the small-town man who envies the glamour of the city, he is living assurance that small-town life may be preferable. To the city man who looks back with nostalgia on a small-town youth, he is a living symbol of small-town simplicity and kindliness and common sense.
The University of Kansas Journalism School is named for him, as is the library building at Emporia State University. There are also two awards the William Allen White Foundation has created: The William Allen White Award for outstanding Journalistic merit and the Children's Book Award.
The city of Emporia raised $25,000 in war bonds during World War II and were granted naming rights for a B-29 bomber in early 1945. They unsurprisingly chose to name it after their most famous citizen, William Allen White. This bomber was sent with a crew of men to the island of Tinian in the South Pacific and was part of the same bomber squadron that the Enola Gay was in.
During WWII a Liberty ship was named for White.
In 1948 a 3¢ stamp was made in his honor by the U.S. Postal Service.
White's image is used by the band They Might Be Giants in stagecraft and music videos.
From editorial Mary White:
A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.
From editorial Student Riots, The Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, April 8, 1932:
As a matter of fact student riots of one sort or another, protests against the order that is, kicks against college and university management indicate a healthy growth and a normal functioning of the academic mind.
Youth should be radical. Youth should demand change in the world. Youth should not accept the old order if the world is to move on. But the old orders should not be moved easily—certainly not at the mere whim or behest of youth. There must be clash and if youth hasn't enough force or fervor to produce the clash the world grows stale and stagnant and sour in decay. If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all their youthful vim and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better world for tomorrow.
From 1933 editorial about the futility of war (referring to World War I):
The boys who died just went out and died. To their own souls' glory of course -- but what else? ... Yet the next war will see the same hurrah and the same bowwow of the big dogs to get the little dogs to go out and follow the blood scent and get their entrails tangled in the barbed wire.
"We who hate your gaudy guts salute you."
From a March 20, 1899 editorial, The Emporia Gazette:
Riots against the police are occurring in Havana. They will keep occurring. No Latin country governs itself. Self-government is the most difficult thing in the world for a people to accomplish. It is not a matter that a nation acquires by adopting a set of laws. Only Anglo-Saxons can govern themselves. The Cubans will need a despotic government for many years to restrain anarchy until Cuba is filled with Yankees. Uncle Sam, the First, will have to govern Cuba as Alphonso, the Thirteenth, governed it if there is any peace in the island at all. The Cubans are not and, of right, ought not to be free. To say that they are, or that they should be, is folly. Riot will follow riot. Anarchy will rise to be crushed. And unrest will prevail until the Yankee takes possession of the land. Then the Cubans will be an inferior—if not a servile—race. Then there will be peace in the land. Then will Cuba be free. It is the Anglo-Saxon’s manifest destiny to go forth in the world as a world conqueror. He will take possession of all the islands of the sea. He will exterminate the peoples he cannot subjugate. That is what fate holds for the chosen people. It is so written. Those who would protest, will find their objections overruled. It is to be.
White had 22 works published throughout his life. Many of these works were collections of short stories, magazine articles, or speeches he gave throughout his long career.
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6 October 1924
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|Pulitzer Prize Winners: Journalism