Tuesday, June 17, 2014

WIlliam Allen White and Walter Johnson

DAY SEVENTEEN: Today I have been reading William Allen White's America, a biography of the early 20th century, Republican editor of the Topeka, KS Gazette who became a national figure through his feisty editorials, his numerous articles in all major magazines of the day, his published stories about life in small-town Kansas, and his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt. I would never have thought to read a biography of W. A. White if I hadn't become involved with writing about Ellen's father, Frederick B. Tolles, and his unfinished MS of a history of Colonial America, and that is because the editor of the series Tolles was writing for, to have been published by Alfred A. Knopf, was University of Chicago historian, Walter Johnson. Johnson wrote William Allen White's America, and I have become interested in him as a person after reading extensively the correspondence between him as an editor, and Knopf as a publisher. And so I got one of his books through Inter-Library Loan, and I am enjoying reading it. One of the reasons I'm reading this book is that I want to find out first hand what kind of writer Walter Johnson was. And that's because when Walter Johnson - who was both editor of the series, and the author of what would be Vol. V in the series - submitted his own MS of Vol V.  to Alfred A. Knopf, Knopf was scathing in his criticism of Johnson's writing. But then, Knopf was scathing in his criticism of  the writing of several of the historians whom Johnson had recruited for this series (and for another series that was in the works at the same time). Knopf never got to read Frederick Tolles MS of Vol. I, so we don't know what his assessment of Tolles' writing would have been, but my guess is that he would have liked it.

Johnson himself was both an historian and a liberal political activist. He was an avid supporter of Adlai Stevenson in his 1952 bid for the presidency, and wrote How We Drafted Adlai Stevenson, a movement within the Democratic Convention of 1952, in which Johnson was a leader. He was also involved in the city-level politics of Chicago and ran for the City Council as a reformist. It is somewhat ironic that he wrote a biography of W. A. White because White was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. However, White became a strong supporter of Theo. Roosevelt's Progressive agenda within the Republican Party, an agenda which was passionately opposed to the power of money in politics. I have no doubt that if White were alive today, he would vehemently oppose the Tea Party - even though he might agree with some of its principles - with the same colorful invective with which he opposed the Kansas Populists of his own time, as demagogues and crazies. It is the paradox of White himself that in his earlier years he opposed Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the Populist effort to regulate the railroads and big business, whereas ten years later he supported Roosevelt's efforts to do the same thing. The difference, in his mind, was that the Populists - even though they might be right in some of their understanding of the problem - could not be trusted as persons holding office to do the sensible thing; whereas he felt that Roosevelt could be trusted. I'm sure he would feel the same about today's Republican Tea Party. White famously said that it would be better to commit the Republican Party to hell than to vote for it against the good of the people. Where is that voice today?

William Allen White

Walter Johnson, in 1953

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