Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette

By Sally Foreman Griffith | Go to book overview
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The Education of a "Somebody"

There is another man in town they call Pap. He wears a stove pipe hat and carries a cane, and weighs (since the event) eight hundred pounds. He talks of sending the "young man" down on "Warnut" to take charge of the branch store. 1

Thus did the Emporia News take notice of the birth of a son to Mary Hatten and Allen White on February 10, 1868. To a modern reader this birth announcement seems strangely lacking--it mentions no names, reports none of the vital statistics, and overlooks the child's mother entirely. Yet it is a revealing introduction to the world into which William Allen White, the son in question, had been born and in which he would grow to manhood. The men and women in this world would be young Will's models of how to act and what to believe.

The United States had just begun the most dramatic stage of its transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. By 1900 the American economy would be dominated by giant national corporations, its people increasingly clustered in large cities. But in 1868 most Americans lived on farms or in small towns like Emporia, a community of five hundred inhabited by small-scale businessmen, artisans, and farmers. This world was founded on personal, face-to-face relationships. In such a world, personal identity was in many ways a public product. Just as the News could indicate the man, Dr. Allen White, merely by describing his customary attire, the individual self was defined by how one looked and behaved to others. Identity was the product of countless encounters with and judgments by friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. It was far from the world of autonomous, self- willed individuals posited by some social theorists and historians as characteristic of nineteenth-century America. 2

In such a world people learned the really important local news by word of mouth. Because the News, a weekly paper, came out several days after the birth in the White family, the facts would already have been widely known. Consequently, the paper provided commentary instead. It jocularly underlined the meaning of the event for the community: "Doc" White, in becoming a father, had moved to a new stage in life-hence the reference to his even greater than usual "weigh[t]" under new responsibilities and his solemn plans for the future.

The small-town newspaper in the nineteenth cenutry followed few of the


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