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  • Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White by Charles Delgadillo
  • Walter Nugent
Charles Delgadillo, Crusader for Democracy: The Political Life of William Allen White. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 328 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

William Allen White's name is almost certainly unfamiliar to Americans today, unless they live in Emporia, Kansas. But from the mid-1890s through the 1940s, he was a household name. How did White (1868–1944) rise from the obscurity of editing a small-town newspaper, the Emporia Gazette, to become the guest and confidant of senators and presidents? How did a man who never held public offi ce, and who ran for offi ce only once (as the anti-KKK candidate for governor of Kansas in 1924), become sought-after for his political views and become influential at important times? Charles Delgadillo does not raise or answer these questions directly in his clear, straightforward narrative, but he provides many clues.

Delgadillo's clear and succinct introduction explains why White was "a phenomenon. He established a national reputation as the voice of the midwestern middle class through his nationally syndicated journalism, his short stories, and the novels he penned. … The small-town image White projected was a real part of his personality, but he was also a sophisticated, well-traveled, and well-connected member of America's elite" (1). In 1935, he received an honorary degree from Harvard, along with Albert Einstein. He was a lifelong Republican, but a liberal and progressive one, at least after the 1890s. In 1896, at age 28, he wrote and published his famous anti-Populist editorial "What's the Matter with Kansas," which the Chicago [End Page 185] Times- Herald and soon other papers picked up and reprinted. Presidential candidate William McKinley's manager, Mark Hanna, had a million copies printed and distributed, and White was on his way to national prominence. He was still an acolyte of Kansas's Republican boss, Cyrus Leland, with whom he stayed close for several more years, but he was soon captivated by Theodore Roosevelt. White remained a progressive throughout his life. Roosevelt and many others began to think of and depend upon White as an authentic voice of "the Midwest." To them, he became a down-to-earth representative of the white Protestant Anglo-Saxon "majority" that no longer dominated the largest cities, but which Republican leaders and some important media outlets such as the Saturday Evening Post liked to think was still the true America. White's fame also spread through articles and essays he wrote for popular magazines like Collier's and McClure's, for which he was well paid. He also wrote novels. His first, A Certain Rich Man (1909), told the story of how (as White put it, quoted by Delgadillo) "'a prodigal son of predatory wealth and power' discovered 'that he can do more good by personal service … than he can by getting money greedily'" (75). With this happily progressive and Christian message, and garnering praise from Mark Twain and others, the book eventually sold over 250,000 copies, Delgadillo reports. It has not become part of the American literary canon like the novels of White's almost exact contemporary and Nebraska neighbor, Willa Cather (1873–1947), but it rode the progressive crest of its time.

Delgadillo takes the reader on a straightforward narrative path through White's life. The first chapter moves quickly through White's family's arrival in Kansas, his childhood, his brief years at the University of Kansas (where he met the future Idaho senator William Borah and other later contacts), and his becoming editor of the Emporia Gazette, his lifelong base. The second chapter, covering 1898 to 1908, traces his evolution from a local GOP operative to a Rooseveltian progressive, both in Kansas politics and nationally. Chapter 3 begins with William Howard Taft's presidential administration and continues through Woodrow Wilson's presidency and America's involvement in the Great War. White, in early 1912, supported Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette for the Republican presidential nomination. When La Follette's candidacy imploded in February, however, White swung toward Theodore Roosevelt. It was too late for the new...