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Kansas Novelist Sentimentalizes Current Social Issues

May 2024
3min read

Yet even during these happiest of his years, when he most nearly achieved an unflawed integrity of mind and spirit, White remained profoundly selfdivided. The nature of his self-division (so typically American, so of the essence of what a philosophical historian might diagnose as the Middle American malaise) was clearly revealed to critical eyes in a novel he produced during this period.

A Certain Rich Man was published in 1909. It was commercially but not artistically successful. And the root cause of both the success and the failure (given White’s writing talent) was his refusal, perhaps his constitutional inability, to pay the price of basic consistency in dealing with his subject matter. His often brilliant intuitions and flashes of wisdom—psychological, historical, sociological, economic—were in the end merely tantalizing, even irritating, since he invariably drew back from their logical long-run implications whenever these might seriously shock what he conceived to be his immediate audience.

Consider the story of A Certain Rich Man . The novel’s central character, John Barclay, “son of a pioneer Kansas mother,” coming out of the Union army at the close of the Civil War, goes back to the Midwest where, through shrewd practice as corporation lawyer and stock manipulator, he rather more than grows up with the country. John Barclay is a liar, a cheat, a thief on a grand scale. He adulterates the prod- ucts of the companies he controls, he bribes legislators, he waters stock and employs other devices for fleecing the unwary and deceived. In general, he foully pollutes the democratic political process while preying ruthlessly, incessantly, upon his fellow man, thereby amassing one of the great American fortunes.

But what does it all add up to, as “social message,” in the end? Does it mean that a private-profit economy in the machine age is inherently corrupt and corrupting? Does it imply the need for a radical reordering of American economic institutions and procedures if, under the pressure of rapid technological advance, we are to maintain the essential human liberties “guaranteed” by the Bill of Rights? Not in novelist White’s conception. In the book’s closing pages we learn to our surprise that John Barclay, while gaining the whole world, or a goodly hunk of it, has not lost his own soul. He remains at heart a good man, susceptible to the Social Gospel animating the Progressivism of the new century. He has a profound religious experience. Conscience-stricken, he then turns from his evil ways into paths of righteousness, gives up to good causes his ill-gotten gains, and at last gives up his very life in a heroic attempt to save a drowning woman.

The sentimental absurdity of this conclusion contributed mightily to the novel’s commercial success (upwards of three hundred thousand copies of A Certain Rich Man were sold, twenty- five hundred of them in Emporia) in a time when much of the popular culture was cloyingly sentimental; but even in those years it was condemned by some of White’s readers. One, for instance, criticized White in a letter for “not seeing that the system and not the individual had to be changed.” White made a psychologically revealing reply: “I believe that the great combat of the twentieth century is to be between democracy and capital and I am feeling my way slowly into a position on this question.… You must not blame me if I cannot go the full length that you do, but, as the fellow said, ‘It is something to be on the way!’ ”

Obviously, White wrote as if his readers (”average Americans” all) were clustered around his desk, peering over his shoulder—readers he was only too concerned to please and to whose current thought and mood he was only too precisely attuned. He tailored his work to their specifications. And truly creative work simply cannot be done in that way, not even by a Charles Dickens or a Mark Twain, each of whom, though regarding himself as an entertainer, did his best and only truly original work when he forgot his audience altogether as a conditioning force and subordinated to an inward vision his crowdpleasing propensities.

Much the same general kind of judgment must be made of White, I think, in his role as liberal or progressive in politics. The break point for him in this particular respect—his moment of truth as regards consistency and basic integrity in political matters—came in 1917–18.

No man was more profoundly dismayed than he when T.R., out of personal antipathy for Woodrow Wilson and anxiety to involve the United States in war against Germany, stabbed the Bull Moose to death in 1916 by refusing the Progressive presidential nomination. A few hours after his hero’s defection, White phoned Sallie long distance from Chicago and spent, by his own account, “nine dollars and eighty-five cents bawling like a calf into the receiver.” When T.R. narrowly persuaded the Progressive national committee to endorse Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican presidential nominee, a day or so later, White, a committee member, refused to vote. “I was too wrought up to abandon even the remote hope of a Progressive party by joining the Republicans.” It was “the end of a great adventure, politically and emotionally probably the greatest adventure of my life”—and the sadness of it, the regret, remained with him until he died.

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