E. Jay Jernigan. William Lindsay White, 1900-1973: In the Shadow of His Father. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. xiv + 346 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-2902-0.
Reviewed by Dane S. Claussen (Point Park University)
Published on Jhistory (September, 2006)
E. Jay Jernigan is a native of Emporia, Kansas, and was an English professor at Eastern Michigan University, so it was perhaps natural that Jernigan would write a biography of Emporia's most famous resident, William Allen White (1983), and then later, the Sage of Emporia's much less famous son, William Lindsay White.
Readers might expect a rather predictable book on a second-rate journalist, and, in fact, the book is rather predictable in most ways. Ostensibly a more important angle comes from Jernigan's attempts--without resorting to psychological or sociological research--to make this book as much or more about what it is like to grow up with a father who was nationally famous and influential, even before his son was born in 1900, until he died in 1944. In fact, Jernigan claims that William Lindsay White was still called "Young Bill" until his own death in 1973 at the age of seventy-three.
Young Bill's story has not been previously told, and when one shines a spotlight on his career, it was notable, arguably stellar at a few moments, in its own right, something like an actor who was in scores of movies and whose face one recognizes, but whose name one never can quite remember and whose obituary makes the long acting career appear, for the first time, significant and interesting. Jernigan gives Bill White a little bit of the obituary treatment himself, with an epilogue followed by endnotes and a list of White's thirteen books (including a few bestsellers) and ninety-two major articles in national magazines. (A complete list of works would have included many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of newspaper articles, editorials, and columns, some syndicated.)
William Lindsay White grew up in Emporia, went to the nearby University of Kansas, and then transferred to and graduated from Harvard University. His younger sister died after a horse-riding accident at sixteen, and so the family's eyes (and everyone else's) were even more intensely focused on him. He worked at the family Emporia Gazette from 1924 to 1934, then worked largely on the East Coast from 1934 until 1954. (That stint included the last nine years basically running the family newspaper by long distance, as William Gordon Bennett Jr., William Randolph Hearst, E. W. Scripps, and a few others had before him). After 1954, White lived in Emporia while continuing to travel and write articles and books for national audiences. (His last book appeared in 1969.)
White should be a fascinating subject for a book, between his long journalism career and the difficulties of following a famous and influential father in the same profession. (See George W. Bush, Albert Gore Jr., and others.) White was a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1948 until 1956, when the ACLU was accused of being sympathetic to communists. Moreover, he had leftist friends in New York, but in hindsight he does not appear to have ever been an idealistic liberal himself. In fact, the longest business relationship in his career, other than with the Emporia Gazette, was with the then-right-wing Reader's Digest. White relished traditional war reporting and "travel letter" articles; he was a good old-fashioned coin collector; and he passed on opportunities to buy the local radio station. Yet he was also a pioneer in both cable television and modern newspaper design/layout (the latter of which won him many national awards). White repeatedly quit or was essentially fired from various jobs and contracts, yet these events never seemed to have badly damaged his career. And White could be highly productive and creative, despite--or perhaps because of--periodic nervous or physical breakdowns and long-term psychological counseling.
Despite having access to the White family papers (which provided disproportionately extensive details on illnesses, vacations, and other travels), Jernigan never quite brings Young Bill to life. The book is weak on anecdotes from people who knew White (many of whom were still living when this book was published). It is also weak on White's own words in letters, conversations, diaries, business records, and other documents that were not published. By the book's end, one still cannot really put one's finger on William Lindsay White's personality.
Most significantly, it is not clear whether White did or did not fulfill his professional potential, despite his psychological problems. With respect solely to the quality of White's work, Jernigan characterizes some of it as excellent, some as good, and some as not very good. (Negative reviews, low sales, and so on help, or push, Jernigan toward the latter observation.) In other words, Jernigan portrays the quality of White's work as having been hit or miss, something like White's relationships with various employers. But it would be just as easy for a reader, such as this reviewer, to conclude that little or none of White's work was excellent. The longest piece of White's writing quoted, at length, by Jernigan is a 1948 Gazette editorial entitled "Kansas Grouches." Jernigan introduces it by saying that "to read that editorial in full is to appreciate W. L. W. as a local editor" (p. 209). Yet there is nothing extraordinary about the editorial, even by 1940s small-town standards, other than White obviously trying too hard to be folksy and that it is too long.
Ultimately, this book tells us little about community journalism, only a little bit more about U.S. journalism generally during White's lifetime, and not quite enough about William Lindsay White himself.
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Dane S. Claussen. Review of Jernigan, E. Jay, William Lindsay White, 1900-1973: In the Shadow of His Father.
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