- El Paso’s Muckraker: The Life of Owen Payne White by Garna L. Christian
The strength of Garna L. Christian’s biography of Owen Payne White is its deft placement of the journalist-historian amid the tumult of his time. The story begins in 1879 in the raucous, violent frontier town of El Paso, Texas, where, as Christian notes, “In one isolated village one might find as many of the seven sins in such combination as one could afford” (p. 27). It ends with White’s death in post–World War II New York, a city far removed from the legendary West he celebrated in numerous histories and memoirs. White’s life and career spanned wars, the rise of industrialism and urbanization, and the lingering reform efforts of the Progressive era. His work for some of the early twentieth century’s most influential magazines put him in the center of movements that shaped modern America.
Christian has rescued from obscurity the story of a muckraking journalist who wrote prolifically between the world wars. White has not been celebrated historically alongside muckrakers like Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, yet he is worth remembering—not just for the quality of his journalism, but also for how the story of his career takes us behind the scenes in a golden era of reportage. White wrote about topics as wide-ranging as the Texas Rangers, Prohibition, corruption in the oil industry, and government scandal. He once narrowly escaped arrest after purchasing machine guns to show how easy they were to obtain, a fact that surprised even the police.
Discovered by American Mercury editor H. L. Mencken and known as “Rattlesnake Pete,” White was successful because of his knack for humor, his thorough research, his clean writing style, and his interesting story ideas. He was at once surprisingly progressive and also a man of his era. A libertarian idealist, he opposed the Ku Klux Klan and Prohibition yet was criticized for seeing the history of Texas and Mexico through an Anglo-American prism. He wrote about the West with an advantage over other writers, according to Christian, because he had lived there.
El Paso’s Muckraker: The Life of Owen Payne White is organized chronologically and includes rich context about both journalism and American history. Christian mined archival materials at the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Texas at Austin, and the El Paso Public Library. He also included materials from the Congressional Record, the United States census, and newspapers and magazines from the era, as well as White’s papers, published articles, and books. El Paso’s Muckraker is well grounded in primary sources and is a pleasure to read. It will be of interest to media historians because of the insight it offers about the relationship between writers and editors at a critical time in the history of investigative and “saleable” journalism. Others will find White’s involvement in a myriad of [End Page 706] important early-twentieth-century issues fascinating and will enjoy this colorful account of a popular journalist and writer.