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A Last Interview With Emporia’s Sage

March 2023
2min read

It was some fourteen months later, or five months after Pearl Harbor, that my wife and I drove down from our home in Manhattan, Kansas, to spend a weekend with the Whites in Emporia.

My contact with him was through his “literary” side. In that unpropitious season (I was awaiting the draft) I had published a first novel. White, as one of the original four judges of the Bookof-the-Month Club, had read it in galleys, had made a glowing speech about it at the annual meeting of the Kansas Authors Club, and had, he told me, pressed hard though in vain for its book-club selection. Of course we talked a good deal about literature and writing as a profession that weekend—good talk, with White and Sallie expressing judgments of contemporary authors that were both shrewd and sensitively appreciative.

But mostly we listened to White’s salty talk about his life and the many kinds of world he had known. It was a rich experience for my wife and me, and sad in some ways—though there was much laughter, with White’s blue eyes twinkling as he recounted one funny episode after another. He was not well. He hoped to live long enough to complete his autobiography, and seemed to me to be trying to justify his life as he reviewed it—trying to understand himself (no man had been less inclined toward introspection during his active years) and the meaning of what he had been and done and seen.

My most vivid remembrance is of his taking me through the office and plant of the legendary Gazette , remarking unhappily as he did so on the great changes in journalism since his young days. Typically he placed a great deal of blame for these changes upon the wicked performances of certain selfish, grasping, ruthless, power-lustful individuals—William Randolph Hearst and Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune , for example. But he also voiced the opinion that these individuals were but scum on a wave of technological change. He told of buying the Gazette , and of how little it had cost him—how it was still possible, in the 1890’s, for a man possessed of journalistic talent, a printer’s skills, and “a shirttail full of type,” to become a successful countrytown newspaperman. “Now, to buy this, it would cost you—.” And he waved his hand toward the Gazette office ceiling.

“When I took over here,” he went on, “I could personally perform every operation in the place—some of them not well, but I could do them. Now, when I cross this threshold”—he pointed to the metal-sheathed threshold of the door to the composing room—“I’m a stranger in a strange land. Utterly helpless.”

He regretted this, terribly; he hated to see human beings deprived of meaningful economic labor, work through which they could express themselves, and hated to see unique individuals supplanted by organization men. Hateful to him also was the urbanization which was the inevitable accompaniment if not of the essence of this “progress.” And actually tragic, in his view, was the death of scores of magazines and newspapers, several of which had been his own means to fame, simply because they had been rendered unprofitable by the “increased efficiency” of new, expensive technology and by the huge business and labor organizations that this technology implies. We shared, I remember, in that pre-television year, a terrifying vision of a future in which all communications, literary or journalistic, would be at the mercy of a very few big business managers having in their hands control of every means of publication.

Next day, as he lay in a hammock on his front porch after a typically hearty Sunday dinner, he suddenly, apropos of nothing at that moment, vouchsafed his standard justification for his virtually lifelong Republican regularity: “I could do so much more good inside the party than out.” He looked hard at me as he said it. I had then a fleeting, fluid impression—later fixed and somewhat solidified in my mind by my reading of his autobiography—that he knew precisely the kind of judgment a person like me made of him on this score, and that, deep down, he was more inclined than not to agree with it.

By using his very considerable persuasive powers against social ideas and impulses he believed to be right, and this at crucial moments, he had helped prevent a truly intelligent, humane, democratic control of the technology that grew by leaps and bounds through all the years of his life. Such control might have preserved, even enhanced, the kind of civilized community he stood for.

William Allen White died on the morning of Kansas Day, January 29, 1944.

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