Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is the Matter?

William Allen White
Since others have to tolerate my weaknesses, it is only fair that I should tolerate theirs.  --William Allen White
William Allen White came upon the political scene about the time Isaac exited, but it is certain that had someone posed the question, What is the matter with Kansas? to both of them, the two men would have answered quite differently.  In fact, White used that very question for the title of an editorial critical of the Populist Movement.  He blamed the populists for the lack of economic and population growth, writing sarcastically:  "Give the prosperous man the dickens!  Legislate the thriftlessman into ease.  Whack the stuffing out of the creditors...Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle who can't pay his debts on the altar and bow down to worship him."  In short, White believed that populist politicians had scared businessman and investors away from Kansas with their policies and their rhetoric. 
At the time White wrote those words, he was not yet thirty, and he was the editor of a little-known small-town newspaper.  The editorial "What's the Matter with Kansas?" brought national prominence to White and his newspaper, The Emporia Gazette, gaining particular attention because it was written by a Kansan attacking the Populist Movement in the region of the country where the movement was strongest.  (To read the full text of the editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" go to's_the_matter_with_kansas.html.)
I have never been bored an hour in my life.  I get up every morning wondering what new strange glamorous thing is going to happen and it happens at fairly regular intervals.  ---William Allen White
White's Emporia Home
William Allen White was born in Emporia, KS in 1868, but his family soon moved to El Dorado.  His newspaper credentials began when he was still a teenager, working as a press apprentice before attending the College of Emporia and the University of Kansas.  He worked as an editorial writer for the Kansas City Star and married before moving to Emporia and buying the Emporia Gazette, still operated by the fourth generation of his family.  Located at 517 Merchant Street, the family business maintains a small museum with old newspaper equipment, photographs of which you can see at
A little learning is not a dangerous thing to one who does not mistake it for a great deal.  --William Allen White
It is said that on his way to work the morning he wrote "What's the Matter with Kansas?" he suffered some unpleasantness with a loafer spouting populist rhetoric.  Still bristling from that encounter, White wrote the editorial without time for his emotions to cool.  Whether the incident actually happened, the editorial is more confrontational than his other writings often were, especially in later years.  He won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for his editorial in support of free speech titled "To an Anxious Friend."  He wrote:  " can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people...This state today is in more danger from suppression than from violence, because, in the end, suppression leads to violence.  Violence, indeed, is the child of suppression.  Whoever pleads for justice helps to keep the peace; and whoever tramples on the plea for justice temperately made in the name of peace only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man which God put there when we got our manhood.  When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line."  (Full text at
White's car with GAZETTE license plate
White died before I was born, and my first encounter with his writing was as a student reading the heartbreaking eulogy written to his daughter who died from injuries sustained in a riding accident.  Titled simply with his 16-year-old daughter's name, "Mary White," he described her with these words:  "She was mischievous without malice, as full of faults as an old shoe."  The eulogy is still widely read, and you can find the full text at
In 1924 White ran unsuccessfully for Kansas governor on an anti-Klan platform, and although he was not elected his effort probably contributed to Kansas becoming the first state to outlaw the Klan.  In 1940 he served as chairman of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, but what he was best known for was his gift of championing small-town values with humor and wisdom.  Late in his life he was sometimes referred to as an "old progressive," quite a change from the young author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?"
He died in 1944 in Emporia, where he was working on his autobiography.  His son, William Lindsay completed the unfinished manuscript, and it won another Pulitzer Prize for White.  The William Allen White House in Emporia is open limited hours to the public.
Reason has never failed men.  Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.  --William Allen White

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

I am glad he lived long enough to learn more of the world than he displayed in his editorial tirade against the poor.