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WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > Walter H. Page > Chapter II




THE five years from 1878 to 1883 Page spent in various places, engaged, for the larger part of the time, in several kinds of journalistic work. It was his period of struggle and of preparation. Like many American public men he served a brief apprenticeship---in his case, a very brief one---as a pedagogue. In the autumn of 1878 he went to Louisville, Kentucky, and taught English for a year at the Boys' High School. But he presently found an occupation in this progressive city which proved far more absorbing. A few months before his arrival certain energetic spirits had founded a weekly paper, the Age, a journal which, they hoped, would fill the place in the Southern States which the very successful New York Nation, under the editorship of Godkin, was then occupying in the North. Page at once began contributing leading articles on literary and political topics to this publication; the work proved so congenial that he purchased---on notes---a controlling interest in the new venture and became its directing spirit. The Age was in every way a worthy enterprise; in the dignity of its makeup and the high literary standards at which it aimed it imitated the London Spectator. Perhaps Page obtained a thousand dollars' worth of fun out of his investment; if so, that represented his entire profit. He now learned a lesson which was emphasized in his after career as editor and publisher, and that was that the Southern States provided a poor market for books or periodicals. The net result of the proceeding was that, at the age of twenty-three, he found himself out of a job and considerably in debt.

He has himself rapidly sketched his varied activities of the next five years:

"After trying in vain," he writes, "to get work to do on any newspaper in North Carolina, I advertised for a job in journalism---any sort of a job. By a queer accident ---a fortunate one for me---the owner of the St. Joseph, Missouri, Gazelle, answered the advertisement. Why he did it, I never found out. He was in the same sort of desperate need of a newspaper man as I was in desperate need of a job. I knew nothing about him: he knew nothing about me. I knew nothing about newspaper work. I had done nothing since I left the University but teach English in the Louisville, Kentucky, High School for boys one winter and lecture at the summer school at Chapel Hill one summer. I made up my mind to go into journalism. But journalism didn't seem in any hurry to make up its mind to admit me. Not only did all the papers in North Carolina decline my requests for work, but such of them in Baltimore and Louisville as I tried said 'No.' So I borrowed $50 and set out to St. Joe, Missouri, where I didn't know a human being. I became a reporter. At first I reported the price of cattle---went to the stockyards, etc. My salary came near to paying my board and lodging, but it didn't quite do it. But I had a good time in St. Joe for somewhat more than a year. There were interesting people there. I came to know something about Western life. Kansas was across the river. I often went there. I came to know Kansas City, St. Louis---a good deal of the West. After a while I was made editor of the paper. What a rousing political campaign or two we had! Then---I had done that kind of a job as long as I cared to. Every swashbuckling campaign is like every other one. Why do two? Besides, I knew my trade. I had done everything on a daily paper from stockyard reports to political editorials and heavy literary articles. In the meantime I had written several magazine articles and done other such jobs. I got leave of absence for a month or two. I wrote to several of the principal papers in Chicago, New York, and Boston and told them that I was going down South to make political and social studies and that I was going to send them my letters. I hoped they'd publish them.

"That's all I could say. I could make no engagement; they didn't know me. I didn't even ask for an engagement. I told them simply this: that I'd write letters and send them; and I prayed heaven that they'd print them and pay for them. Then off I went with my little money in my pocket---about enough to get to New Orleans. I travelled and I wrote. I went all over the South. I sent letters and letters and letters. All the papers published all that I sent them and I was rolling in wealth I had money in my pocket for the first time in my life. Then I went back to St. Joe and resigned; for the (old) New York World had asked me to go to the Atlanta Exposition as a correspondent. I went. I wrote and kept writing. How kind Henry Grady was to me! But at last the Exposition ended. I was out of a job. I applied to the Constitution. No, they wouldn't have me. I never got a job in my life that I asked for! But all my life better jobs have been given me than I dared ask for. Well---I was at the end of my rope in Atlanta and I was trying to make a living in any honest way I could when one day a telegram came from the New York World (it was the old World, which was one of the best of the dailies in its literary quality) asking me to come to New York. I had never seen a man on the paper---had never been in New York except for a day when I landed there on a return voyage from a European trip that I took during one vacation when I was in the University. Then I went to New York straight and quickly. I had an interesting experience on the old World, writing literary matter chiefly, an editorial now and then, and I was frequently sent as a correspondent on interesting errands. I travelled all over the country with the Tariff Commission. I spent one winter in Washington as a sort of editorial correspondent while the tariff bill was going through Congress. Then, one day, the World was sold to Mr. Pulitzer

and all the staff resigned. The character of the paper changed."

What better training could a journalist ask for than this? Page was only twenty-eight when these five years came to an end; but his life had been a comprehensive education in human contact, in the course of which he had picked up many things that were not included in the routine of Johns Hopkins University. From Athens to St. Joe, from the comedies of Aristophanes to the stockyards and political conventions of Kansas City---the transition may possibly have been an abrupt one, but it is not likely that Page so regarded it. For books and the personal relation both appealed to him, in almost equal proportions, as essentials to the fully rounded man. Merely from the standpoint of geography, Page's achievement had been an important one; how many Americans, at the age of twenty-eight, have such an extensive mileage to their credit? Page had spent his childhood---and his childhood only---in North Carolina; he had passed his youth in Virginia and Maryland; before he was twenty-three he had lived several months in Germany, and, on his return voyage, he had sailed by the white cliffs of England, and, from the deck of his steamer, had caught glimpses of that Isle of Wight which then held his youthful favourite Tennyson. He had added to these experiences a winter in Kentucky and a sojourn of nearly two years in Missouri. His Southern trip, to which Page refers in the above, had taken him through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana; he had visited the West again in 1882, spending a considerable time in all the large cities, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Leadville, Salt Lake, and from the latter point he had travelled extensively through Mormondom. The several months spent in Atlanta had given the young correspondent a glimpse into the new South, for this energetic city embodied a Southern spirit that was several decades removed from the Civil War. After this came nearly two years in New York and Washington, where Page gained his first insight into Federal politics; in particular, as a correspondent attached to the Tariff Commission---an assignment that again started him on his travels to industrial centres---he came into contact, for the first time, with the mechanism of framing the great American tariff. And during this period Page was not only forming a first-hand acquaintance with the passing scene, but also with important actors in it. The mere fact that, on the St. Joseph Gazelle, he succeeded Eugene Field---"a good fellow named Page is going to take my desk," said the careless poet, "I hope he will succeed to my debts too"---always remained a pleasant memory. He entered zealously into the life of this active community; his love of talk and disputation, his interest in politics, his hearty laugh, his vigorous handclasp, his animation of body and of spirit, and his sunny outlook on men and events---these are the traits that his old friends in this town, some of whom still survive, associate with the juvenile editor. In his Southern trip Page called---self invited---upon Jefferson Davis and was cordially received. At Atlanta, as he records above, he made friends with that chivalric champion of a resurrected South, Henry Grady; here also he obtained fugitive glimpses of a struggling and briefless lawyer, who, like Page, was interested more in books and writing than in the humdrum of professional life, and who was then engaged in putting together a brochure on Congressional Government which immediately gave him a national standing. The name of this sympathetic acquaintance was Woodrow Wilson.

Walter H. Page in 1876, when he was a Fellow of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.

Basil L. Gildersleeve, Professor of Greek, Johns Hopkins University, 1876-1915

Another important event had taken place, for, at St. Louis, on November 15, 1880, Page had married Miss Willia Alice Wilson. Miss Wilson was the daughter of a Scotch physician, Dr. William Wilson, who had settled in Michigan, near Detroit, in 1832. When she was a small child she went with her sister's family---her father had died seven years before---to North Carolina, near Cary; and she and Page had been childhood friends and schoolmates. At the time of the wedding, Page was editor of the St. Joseph Gazelle; the fact that he had attained this position, five months after starting at the bottom, sufficiently discloses his aptitude for journalistic work.

Page had now outgrown any Southern particularism with which he may have started life. He no longer found his country exclusively in the area south of the Potomac; he had made his own the West, the North---New York, Chicago, Denver, as well as Atlanta and Raleigh. It is worth while insisting on this fact, for the cultivation of a wide-sweeping Americanism and a profound faith in democracy became the qualities that will loom most largely in his career from this time forward. It is necessary only to read the newspaper letters which he wrote on his Southern trip in 1881 to understand how early his mind seized this new point of view. Many things which now fell under his observant eye in the Southern States greatly irritated him and with his characteristic impulsiveness he pictured these traits in pungent phrase. The atmosphere of shiftlessness that too generally prevailed in some localities; the gangs of tobacco-chewing loafers assembled around railway stations; the listless Negroes that seemed to overhang the whole country like a black cloud; the plantation mansions in a sad state of disrepair; the old unoccupied slave huts overgrown with weeds; the unpainted and broken-down fences; the rich soil that was crudely and wastefully cultivated with a single crop---the youthful social philosopher found himself comparing these vestigia of a half-moribund civilization with the vibrant cities of the North, the beautiful white and green villages of New England, and the fertile prairie farms of the West. "Even the dogs," he said, "look old-fashioned." Oh, for a change in his beloved South---a change of almost any kind! "Even a heresy, if it be bright and fresh, would be a relief. You feel as if you wished to see some kind of an effort put forth, a discussion, a fight, a runaway, anything to make the blood go faster." Wherever Page saw signs of a new spirit---and he saw many---he recorded them with an eagerness which showed his loyalty to the section of his birth. The splitting up of great plantations into small farms he put down as one of the indications of a new day. A growing tendency to educate, not only the white child, but the Negro, inspired a similar tribute. But he rejoiced most over the decreasing bitterness of the masses over the memories of the Civil War, and discovered, with satisfaction, that any remaining ill-feeling was a heritage left not by the Union soldier, but by the carpetbagger.

And one scene is worth preserving, for it illustrates not only the zeal of Page himself for the common country, but the changing attitude of the Southern people. It was enacted, at Martin, Tennessee, on the evening of July 2, 1881. Page was spending a few hours in the village grocery, discussing things in general with the local yeomanry, when the telegraph operator came from the post office with rather more than his usual expedition and excitement. He was frantically waving a yellow slip which bore the news that President Garfield had been shot. Garfield had been an energetic and a successful general in the war and his subsequent course in Congress, where he had joined the radical Republicans, had not caused the South to look upon him as a friend. But these farmers responded to this shock, not like sectionalists, but like Americans. "Every man of them," Page records, "expressed almost a personal sorrow. Little was said of politics or of parties. Mr. Garfield was President of the United States---that was enough. A dozen voices spoke the great gratification that the assassin was not a Southern man. It was an affecting scene to see weather-beaten old countrymen so profoundly agitated---men who yesterday I should have supposed hardly knew and certainly did not seem to care who was President. The great centres of population, of politicians, and of thought may be profoundly agitated to-night, but no more patriotic sorrow and humiliation is felt anywhere by any men than by these old backwoods ex-Confederates."

Page himself was so stirred by the news that he ascended a cracker barrel, and made a speech to the assembled countrymen, preaching to responsive ears the theme of North and South, now reunited in a common sorrow. Thus, by the time he was twenty-six, Page, at any rate in respect to his Americanism, was a full-grown man.



A few years afterward Page had an opportunity of discussing this, his favourite topic, with the American whom he most admired. Perhaps the finest thing in the career of Grover Cleveland was the influence which he exerted upon young men. After the sordid political transactions of the reconstruction period and after the orgy of partisanship which had followed the Civil War, this new figure, acceding to the Presidency in 1885, came as an inspiration to millions of zealous and intelligent young college-bred Americans. One of the first to feel the new spell was Walter Page; Mr. Cleveland was perhaps the most important influence in forming his public ideals. Of everything that Cleveland represented---civil service reform; the cleansing of politics, state and national; the reduction in the tariff; a foreign policy which, without degenerating into truculence, manfully upheld the rights of American citizens; a determination to curb the growing pension evil; the doctrine that the Government was something to be served and not something to be plundered---Page became an active and brilliant journalistic advocate. It was therefore a great day in his life when, on a trip to Washington in the autumn of 1885, he had an hour's private conversation with President Cleveland, and it was entirely characteristic of Page that he should make the conversation take the turn of a discussion of the so-called Southern question.

"In the White House at Washington," Page wrote about this visit, "is an honest, plain, strong man, a man of wonderfully broad information and of most uncommon industry. He has always been a Democrat. He is a distinguished lawyer and a scholar on all public questions. He is as frank and patriotic and sincere as any man that ever won the high place he holds. Within less than a year he has done so well and so wisely that he has disappointed his enemies and won their admiration. He is as unselfish as he is great. He is one of the most industrious men in the world. He rises early and works late and does not waste his time---all because his time is now not his own but the Republic's, whose most honoured servant he is. I count it among the most inspiring experiences in my life that I had the privilege, at the suggestion of one of his personal friends, of talking with him one morning about the complete reuniting of the two great sections of our Republic by his election. I told him, and I know I told him the truth, when I said that every young man in the Southern States who, without an opportunity to share either the glory or the defeat of the late Confederacy, had in spite of himself suffered the disadvantages of the poverty and oppression that followed war, took new hope for the full and speedy realization of a complete union, of unparalleled prosperity and of broad thinking and noble living from his elevation to the Presidency. I told him that the men of North Carolina were not only patriotic but ambitious as well; and that they were Democrats and proud citizens of the State and the Republic not because they wanted offices or favours, but because they loved freedom and wished the land that had been impoverished by war to regain more than it had lost. 'I have not called, Mr. President, to ask for an office for myself or for anybody else,' I remarked; 'but to have the pleasure of expressing my gratification, as a citizen of North Carolina, at the complete change in political methods and morals that I believe will date from your Administration.' He answered that he was glad to see all men who came in such a spirit and did not come to beg---especially young men of the South of to-day; and he talked and encouraged me to talk freely as if he had been as small a man as I am, or I as great a man as he is.

"From that day to this it has been my business to watch every public act that he does, to read every public word he speaks, and it has been a pleasure and a benefit to me (like the benefit that a man gets from reading a great history---for he is making a great history) to study the progress of his Administration; and at every step he seems to me to warrant the trust that the

great Democratic party put in him."

The period to which Page refers in this letter represented the time when he was making a serious and harassing attempt to establish himself in his chosen profession in his native state. He went south for a short visit after resigning his place on the New York World, and several admirers in Raleigh persuaded him to found a new paper, which should devote itself to preaching the Cleveland ideals, and, above all, to exerting an influence on the development of a new Southern spirit. No task could have been more grateful to Page and there was no place in which he would have better liked to undertake it than in the old state which he loved so well. The result was the Stale Chronicle of Raleigh, practically a new paper, which for a year and a half proved to be the most unconventional and refreshing influence that North Carolina had known in many a year. Necessarily Page found himself in conflict with his environment. He had little interest in the things that then chiefly interested the state, and North Carolina apparently had little interest in the things that chiefly occupied the mind of the youthful journalist. Page was interested in Cleveland, in the reform of the civil service; the Democrats of North Carolina little appreciated their great national leader and were especially hostile to his belief that service to a party did not in itself establish a qualification for public office. Page was interested in uplifting the common people, in helping every farmer to own his own acres, and in teaching the most modern and scientific way of cultivating them; he was interested in giving every boy and girl at least an elementary education, and in giving a university training to such as had the aptitude and the ambition to obtain it; he believed in industrial training ---and in these things the North Carolina of those days had little concern. Page even went so far as to take an open stand for the pitiably neglected black man: he insisted that he should be taught to read and write, and instructed in agriculture and the manual trades. A man who advocated such revolutionary things in those days was accused---and Page was so accused---of attempting to promote the "social equality" of the two races. Page also declaimed in favour of developing the state industrially; he called attention to the absurdity of sending Southern cotton to New England spinning mills, and he pointed out the boundless but unworked natural resources of the state, in minerals, forests, waterpower, and lands.

North Carolina, he informed his astonished compatriots, had once been a great manufacturing colony; why could the state not become one again? But the matter in which the buoyant editor and his constituents found themselves most at variance was the spirit that controlled North Carolina life. It was a spirit that found comfort for its present poverty and lack of progress in a backward look at the greatness of the state in the past and the achievements of its sons in the Civil War. Though Page believed that the Confederacy had been a ghastly error, and though he abhorred the institution of slavery and attributed to it all the woes, economic and social, from which his section suffered, he rendered that homage to the soldiers of the South which is the due of brave, self-sacrificing and conscientious men; yet he taught that progress lay in regarding the four dreadful years of the Civil War as the closed chapter of an unhappy and mistaken history and in hastening the day when the South should resume its place as a living part of the great American democracy. All manifestations of a contrary spirit he ridiculed in language which was extremely readable but which at times outraged the good conservative people whom he was attempting to convert. He did not even spare the one figure which was almost a part of the Southerner's religion, the Confederate general, especially that particular type who used his war record as a stepping stone to public office, and whose oratory, colourful and turgid in its celebrations of the past, Page regarded as somewhat unrelated, in style and matter, to the realities of the present. The image-breaking editor even asserted that the Daughters of the Confederacy were not entirely a helpful influence in Southern regeneration; for they, too, were harping always upon the old times and keeping alive sectional antagonisms and hatreds. This he regarded as an unworthy occupation for high-minded Southern women, and he said so, sometimes in language that made him very unpopular in certain circles.

Altogether it was a piquant period in Page's life. He found that he had suddenly become a "traitor " to his country and that his experiences in the North had completely "Yankeeized" him. Even in more mature days, Page's pen had its javelin-like quality; and in 1884, possessed as he was of all the fury of youth, he never hesitated to return every blow that was rained upon his head. As a matter of fact he had a highly enjoyable time. The State Chronicle during his editorship is one of the most cherished recollections of older North Carolinians to-day. Even those who hurled the liveliest epithets in his direction have long since accepted the ideas for which Page was then contending; "the only trouble with him," they now ruefully admit, "was that he was forty years ahead of his time." They recall with satisfaction the satiric accounts which Page used to publish of Democratic Conventions---solemn, long-winded, frock-coated, white-necktied affairs that displayed little concern for the reform of the tariff or of the civil service, but an energetic interest in pensioning Confederate veterans and erecting monuments to the Southern heroes of the Civil War. One editorial is joyfully recalled, in which Page referred to a public officer who was distinguished for his dignity and his family tree, but not noted for any animated administration of his duties, as "Thothmes II." When this bewildered functionary searched the Encyclopaedia and learned that " Thothmes II " was an Egyptian king of the XVII1th dynasty, whose dessicated mummy had recently been disinterred from the hot sands of the desert, he naturally stopped his subscription to the paper. The metaphor apparently tickled Page, for he used it in a series of articles which have become immortal in the political annals of North Carolina. These have always been known as the "Mummy letters." They furnished a vivid but rather aggravating explanation for the existing backwardness and chauvinism of the commonwealth. All the trouble, it seems, was caused by the "mummies." "It is an awfully discouraging business," Page wrote, "to undertake to prove to a mummy that it is a mummy. You go up to it and say, 'Old fellow, the Egyptian dynasties crumbled several thousand years ago: you are a fish out of water. You have by accident or the Providence of God got a long way out of your time. This is America.' The old thing grins that grin. which death set on its solemn features when the world was young; and your task is so pitiful that even the humour of it is gone. Give it up."

Everything great in North Carolina, Page declared, belonged to a vanished generation. "Our great lawyers, great judges, great editors, are all of the past. . . . In the general intelligence of the people, in intellectual force and in cultivation, we are doing nothing. We are not doing or getting more liberal ideas, a broader view of this world. . . . The presumptuous powers of ignorance, heredity, decayed respectability and stagnation that control public action and public expression are absolutely leading us back intellectually."

But Page did more than berate the mummified aristocracy which, he declared, was driving the best talent and initiative from the state; he was not the only man in Raleigh who expressed these unpopular views; at that time, indeed, he was the centre and inspiration of a group of young progressive spirits who held frequent meetings to devise ways of starting the state on the road to a new existence. Page then, as always, exercised a great fascination over young men. The apparently merciless character of his ridicule might at first convey the idea of intolerance; the fact remains, however, that he was the most tolerant of men; he was almost deferential to the opinions of others, even the shallow and the inexperienced; and nothing delighted him more than an animated discussion. His liveliness of spirits, his mental and physical vitality, the constant sparkle of his talk, the sharp edge of his humour, naturally drew the younger men to his side. The result was the organization of the Wautauga Club, a gathering which held monthly meetings for the discussion of ways and means of improving social and educational conditions in North Carolina. The very name gives the key to its mental outlook. The Wautauga colony was one of the last founded in North Carolina---in the extreme west, on a plateau of the Great Smoky Mountains; it was always famous for the energy and independence of its people. The word "Wautauga" therefore suggested the breaker of tradition; and it provided a stimulating name for Page's group of young spiritual and economic pathfinders. The Wautauga Club had a brief existence of a little more than two years, the period practically covering Page's residence in the state; but its influence is an important fact at the present time. It gave the state ideas that afterward caused something like a revolution in its economic and educational status. The noblest monument to its labours is the State College in Raleigh, an institution which now has more than a thousand students, for the most part studying the mechanic arts and scientific agriculture. To this one college most North Carolinians to-day attribute the fact that their state in appreciable measure is realizing its great economic and industrial opportunities. From it in the last thirty years thousands of young men have gone: in all sections of the commonwealth they have caused the almost barren acres to yield fertile and diversified crops; they have planted everywhere new industries; they have unfolded unsuspected resources and everywhere created wealth and spread enlightenment. This institution is a direct outcome of Page's brief sojourn in his native state nearly forty years ago. The idea originated in his brain; the files of the State Chronicle tell the story of his struggle in its behalf; the activities of the Wautauga Club were largely concentrated upon securing its establishment.

The State College was a great victory for Page, but final success did not come until three years after he had left the state. For a year and a half of hard newspaper work convinced Page that North Carolina really had no permanent place for him. The Chronicle was editorially a success: Page's articles were widely quoted, not only in his own state but in New England and other parts of the Union. He succeeded in stirring up North Carolina and the South generally, but popular support for the Chronicle was not forthcoming in sufficient amount to make the paper a commercial possibility. Reluctantly and sadly Page had to forego his hope of playing an active part in rescuing his state from the disasters of the Civil War. Late in the summer of 1885, he again left for the North, which now became his permanent home.

WWI Document Archive > Diaries, Memorials, Personal Reminiscences > Walter H. Page > Chapter II