William Allen White

views updated May 09 2018

William Allen White

William Allen White (1868-1944), American journalist, was a spokesman for small-town America. His folksy wisdom and political commentaries were read and loved by millions.

On Feb. 10, 1868, William Allen White was born in Emporia, Kan. While attending Emporia College and the University of Kansas, he became involved in newspaper work and left, before receiving a degree, to work on various newspapers. After valuable years of experience writing for Kansas City newspapers, in 1895 he purchased the Emporia Gazette, the small-town weekly which he edited for the next 49 years.

The heat of a political campaign soon thrust White, a Republican, into national prominence. He was a virulent foe of the Populists and William Jennings Bryan, and during the presidential campaign of 1896 he published a vitriolic editorial attacking populism entitled "What's the Matter with Kansas?" The Populists, said White, were "gibbering idiots" intent on despoiling the rich and driving business and capital from the state. The editorial was reprinted by various Republican newspapers and magazines, and soon thousands of copies were being circulated in pamphlet form by the Republican campaign committee.

White did not long remain the darling of the conservatives. He soon moved toward progressivism and became a friend and supporter of President Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt bolted the Republican party in 1912 to run on the Bull Moose ticket, White backed him. During World War I White became an ardent supporter of Woodrow Wilson's form of internationalism and fought for American entry into the League of Nations. In the 1920s White battled both the nativist Ku Klux Klan and the urban sophisticates who disparaged rural America. He came to stand for all that was decent and tolerant in small-town America, all the virtues that were rapidly being lost in an industrializing and urbanizing country. During the 1930s he supported most of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation but voted against Roosevelt in elections.

In 1940 White lent the great weight of his name to an organization lobbying for American support for the opponents of Nazism in Europe. "The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies" became popularly known as the "White Committee." He died on Jan. 31, 1944, in Emporia.

Further Reading

White was a prolific writer and published many books, of which the best is his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Autobiography of William Allen White (1946). The finest biography is Walter Johnson, William Allen White's America (1947), written with loving care and considerable insight, whose bibliography lists 22 books written by White. As a supplement, Johnson edited the Selected Letters of William Allen White: 1899-1943 (1947). Also of interest are Everett Rich, William Allen White: The Man from Emporia (1941), and David Hinshaw, A Man from Kansas: The Story of William Allen White (1945), the recollections of a friend supplemented by selected editorials from the Emporia Gazette.

Additional Sources

Griffith, Sally Foreman, Home town news: William Allen White and the Emporia gazette, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Johnson, Walter, William Allen White's America, New York: Garland Pub., 1979, 1947.

White, William Allen, The autobiography of William Allen White, Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1990. □

White, William Allen

views updated May 29 2018


William Allen White (February, 10 1868–January 29, 1944), over a long career as a journalist, author, and political commentator, came to be widely respected as the embodiment, in the words of a Life profile, of "small-town simplicity and kindliness and common sense." Born in Emporia, Kansas, he attended the College of Emporia and the University of Kansas. In 1895 he purchased a daily newspaper, the Emporia Gazette, which he continued to publish even as he won a national audience for his many books and magazine articles. With Theodore Roosevelt and other reform-minded Republicans, White founded the Progressive Party in 1912. Though White returned to the Republican Party in 1916, he remained a pillar of its progressive-to-moderate wing.

White's reputation as spokesman for middle-class middle America deepened over the next decades, prompting H. L. Mencken to dub him the "Sage of Emporia." He criticized presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge for bowing to the interests of "benevolent plutocracy," and supported fellow progressive Herbert Hoover in 1928. His support of the liberal values of free speech and opposition to the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas won the respect of big-city liberals. But they were mystified by his support of prohibition and loyalty to the Republican Party in the 1930s, after Franklin D. Roosevelt seized the banner of reform for the Democrats. White gave a mixed reception to the New Deal, supporting measures to regulate the economy and improve the lot of common Americans while repeatedly expressing reservations about concentration of power in the federal government. Yet White was largely consistent to the small-town values that had shaped his ideology. Like many former progressives, he warned that New Deal programs imposed a wasteful and distant bureaucracy upon everyday life. He also expressed misgivings that Roosevelt's charisma and appeals to class interests smacked of the totalitarianism sweeping much of the rest of the world. In 1936 he supported Kansas governor Alfred Landon for president, leading Roosevelt to thank him for his "support for three and a half years out of every four."

White supported Roosevelt's efforts to counter American isolationism in the 1930s. In 1940 White headed the bipartisan Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which argued that military assistance to Britain would help stop German aggression without requiring outright American involvement. The committee's work helped secure the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941. During the last years before his death in 1944, White wrote his autobiography, which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.



Agran, Edward Gale. Too Good a Town: William AllenWhite, Community, and the Emerging Rhetoric of Middle America. 1999.

Griffith, Sally Foreman. Home Town News: William AllenWhite and the Emporia Gazette. 1989.

Jernigan, E. Jay. William Allen White. 1983.

Johnson, Walter. William Allen White's America. 1947.

White, William Allen. The Autobiography of William AllenWhite, 2nd edition, revised and abridged, edited by Sally Foreman Griffith. 1990.

"William Allen White of Emporia: An American Institution is 70." Life, February 28, 1938, 9–13.

Sally F. Griffith

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