Forty years ago, one of the most famous and widely admired men in America was William Allen White, editorpublisher of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette . The fact that today his name would evoke little or no response among most of his countrymen is both sad and significant. For White epitomized the smiling, neighborly, small-town, middle-class America—the America of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers—that as recently as 1940 was widely deemed the “real,” the “permanent” America, but must now be recognized as a temporary phenomenon, transitional from the old America of farm and village to the industrialized, urbanized nation of today.
But White, although he typified that older America, at the same time stressed in public performance his qualities as a unique personality. He impressed himself on the public mind as a genial, salty, humorous “character,” full of endearing if sometimes irritating quirks and foibles. He readily admitted that his general sagacity was all too often flawed by damned foolishness, yet he was proud of his reputation as the Sage of Emporia and was only too careful to nurture it.
In several points of personal taste and attitude he differed markedly from those whom in general he represented with great precision. He had, for instance, none of the typical mid-American’s passion for sports, either as spectator or participant—he was, in fact, invincibly sedentary (“the rocking- chair champion of Emporia’s country club,” he dubbed himself)—yet he gave full sway to his formidible capacities as a trencherman.
As a result, he was cherubic of countenance, roly-poly of figure, from his boyhood all through his half-century of national prominence. He poked a good deal of public fun at his own paunchiness in Gazette editorials, recounting episodes in which his considerable aversion to physical exercise was overcome by the need of swift movement for self-preservation. He had once “run like a whitehead,” he declared, when chased by a lady with a horsewhip (“how that fat man did run!”), because of sharp things he had said in print as a young newspaperman. In one editorial, headed “A Fat Man’s Hope,” he entered a plea with Emporia’s tailors for the making of elastic vests.
Very consciously and deliberately he made himself the spokesman for the American country town of his day—the town of one thousand to thirty-thousand population—having decided while on the Kansas City Star that big-city life, big-city journalism was not for him. He once observed that “in the country town we gain in contact with our neighbors. We know people by the score, by the hundred. … Our affairs become common with one another, our joys mutual, and even our sorrows are shared. … It all makes life pleasantly livable.”
Along with his beloved wife, Sallie Lindsay White, he chose Emporia as his home-town in 1895, not just because a newspaper happened to be for sale there at that time but because Emporia was a college town, the home of a state normal school, and was the right size, with approximately ten thousand people. Soon thereafter he and Emporia became so closely identified with each other as to seem to the general public virtually one and the same.
A price was paid for this identification: White’s fame inevitably faded as population and cultural emphasis increasingly were concentrated in urban centers. The language in which he expressed himself, largely determined by his own immediate environment, communicates imperfectly with Americans born and raised in the cities he eschewed. These urban masses have no living experience of the kind of community he personified; and the more sensitive among them, inclining in their circumstances to place the highest value on personal privacy, are likely to recoil in horror from the kind of neighborliness which the country editor glorified.
His story, nevertheless, has meanings relevant to present-day concerns. They are born of irony and paradox. The irony is that White’s giving up of himself to his immediate environment in so wholesale a fashion, his total loving identification with the neighborly small-town “average man” America of his time, was in itself contributory in some degree to the destruction of this environment, the death of this beloved America. The paradox is that this selfdestructive operation was caused by a grave defect in White that was also his greatest virtue and strength, namely, the warmth and responsiveness of his personality, his abnormal need to love and be loved by his fellow man.
Viewed in this way, his story becomes, on several levels, a cautionary tale for Americans.