Spokesman for Community
In 1910 William Allen White responded to a colleague's request for a photograph by sending two pictures. He explained,
I don't seem to be able to get all my various split-up characters under one canvas. Of the two pictures that I am sending you one is Bill White of the Emporia Gazette who is rather handy in the fourth ward and sometimes does business on the county central committee, a good advertising solicitor and sometimes takes a hand at reporting and is not highly regarded in our best circles. The other picture is the statesman who has terminal facilities at Topeka and traffic agreements in New York.
Now about the author; I have never been able to get him before a camera. He is no friend of mine and I have never seen him. . . . His work, when it is good, surprises me as much as anybody. I should like to have his photograph as well as you, but I have never got it. 1
William Allen White the author may have been an enigma to himself, but it was this persona that was most widely known outside Kansas and that speaks most directly to us today through his novels, essays, and innumerable magazine articles. His career as a nationally recognized author emerged simultaneously with, and drew upon, his roles as a prosperous businessman, defender of local righteousness, and insurgent politician. At first his authorial ambitions were primarily literary, as he emulated the local-color short stories and dialect poetry that were popular in the 1880s. After "What's the Matter with Kansas?" he became known as a spokesman for the Midwest and a knowledgeable observer of political affairs. The middle-class readers of the new popular magazines like McClure's and Collier's appreciated White's skill in translating recent events into familiar and generally reassuring terms. As he became identified with reform causes during the first decade of the new century, these interpretations reflected his conviction that the many campaigns then under way were part of a unified movement, a movement that would later be labeled progressivism.
Just as White adapted booster rhetoric to advocate his local reform causes, his writing for a national audience underwent a parallel transfiguration. In his political reporting, essays, and novels, White's interpretation of turn-of-the-century America can best be understood as a projection upon the national scene of an idealized vision of the small town that had its roots in the booster ethos.