Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette

Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette

Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette

Home Town News: William Allen White and the Emporia Gazette


In 1895, a 27-year-old journalist named William Allen White returned to his home town of Emporia, Kansas, to edit a little down-at-the-heels newspaper he had just purchased for $3,000. "The new editor," he wrote in his first editorial, "hopes to live here until he is the old editor, until some of the visions which rise before him as he dreams shall have come true." White did become "the old editor," remaining with the Emporia Gazette until his death 50 years later. During his long tenure he gained nation-wide fame as an author, political leader, and social commentator. But more than anything else, he became the national embodiment of the small-town newspaperman and all the treasured virtues that small towns represented in the minds of Americans. Home Town News is both a fascinating biography and a compelling social history. As Sally Foreman Griffith shows, White's popular image--kindly yet crusading, fiercely independent yet deeply rooted in his community--doesn't do justice to the man's complexity. Shrewdly carving out a position of leadership in a faction-torn town, White carefully shaped his paper's vision of its community to promote local economic growth, Republican political control, and social harmony. With his emergence as a leader among Midwestern progressives, he carefully adapted the ideas and rhetoric of small-town boosterism to changing economic realities. The book uses White's career to help us understand the role of journalism--and the journalist--in turn-of-the-century American culture. Far from being a simple chronicler of daily events, the small-town newspaperman carried considerable weight in his community. He was a leading force in local business, a galvanizing influence in civic life, and a key political activist. As giant corporations came to dominate the national economy, the newspaperman played a pivotal yet ambivalent role in the resulting social transformation: he sought to preserve local autonomy even as his paper introduced his readers to mass-produced consumer goods. Home Town News also tells the story of Emporia, Kansas, during this period of social change. Its richly textured descriptions of small-town life take us beyond abstractions like "modernization," "progressivism," and "boosterism." As we observe the Emporia Street Fair of 1899, the heated controversy over the morality of a local doctor in 1902, and the elaborate campaign to build a Y.M.C.A. in 1914, we gain new insights into the processes that have shaped modern America.


William Allen White did not become a reformer as an isolated individual, but as a citizen of Emporia and the publisher of the Gazette. Although he was part of a widening national network of reformers, he continued to make his livelihood, live most of his days, and gain much of his sense of identity and accomplishment within his home town. For White, being a progressive was a matter as much of concrete public actions as of ideology. His new identity was not merely reflected by, but was embodied in, a series of reform movements that he spearheaded in Emporia.

No one person creates a social movement. White was a member of a shifting coalition of Emporians interested in a range of causes such as moral reform, civic improvement, economic regulation, and municipal reorganization. All of these concerns have been identified with a national wave of reforms that is commonly labeled progressivism, and, surveying the history of Emporia in the first decades of the twentieth century, one senses a spirit of civic activism that is in keeping with the national ethos. Yet if one looks more closely at each cause, it becomes harder to detect a single unifying concern among them all. No one of the simple explanations favored by historians suits all cases. Certainly, Emporia did not experience industrialization, rapid urban growth, or an influx of immigrants in this period. It was not dominated either by a displaced gentry or by a centralizing professional class. Rather, Emporians sought a variety of reforms for a wide range of reasons.

Championing reform had enabled White to claim a leadership role, and it may well have fulfilled similar personal aspirations for others. Some Emporians were determined to impress their visions of morality upon the community. Some middle-class women wanted a greater role in public affairs. Some local businessmen sought government protection against the dominance of national corporations. Some perennial boosters simply wanted Emporia to have whatever was most up-to-date, most "progressive," in urban amenities.

What gives the period unity was not motivation but rhetoric: all the campaigns in Emporia turned for inspiration and justification to the booster ethos. Boosterism balanced economic growth with social order through a set of ethical injunctions that defined morality in middle-class terms and made it inseparable from., and essential to, business success. Ideally, the citizen would advance self and community by placing public duties above . . .

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