Theodore H. White helped define twentieth century journalism, and this anthology of his magazine work shows how. First, White—who died in 1986—combined all of the right elements for a dependable journalist: instincts and style, skepticism and zeal. Then, he followed up this foundation with enduring constructions.
From his pieces as a 1940’s war correspondent covering China for LIFE and TIME, to his 1960’s reporting on urban race relations, White seemed to be where the action was. However, he was actually one of a handful of newspeople who helped define what was the action by revealing it to the world.
Edited by former READER’S DIGEST editor Edward T. Thompson, this collection demonstrates that White’s prose at its best mixed legwork and composition, facts and feelings—an approach that David Halberstam continues to pursue effectively. And White did it with a solid writing style underscoring his lifelong appreciation of, and dedication to, the craft he helped elevate to art. (In hindsight, it seems that other commentators on style, such as William Safire, Edwin Newman and James Kilpatrick, only nitpick where White, again, defined.)
Here, the subjects and his treatment of them are somehow both timely and timeless. There’s the background of his news analyses of electoral politics in more than a dozen news features, and there’s his 1985 criticism of Japan’s business practices. There’s his in-depth piece for COLLIER’S about Germany’s place in the postwar West, and his stories about America from its idea and ideal to its new “action-intellectuals, a brotherhood of scholars.”
White himself eventually became a scholar/historian as much as reporter, consistently offering meaningful observations and inspirational prose. But his career wasn’t unblemished, and Thompson shows White’s occasional tendency to avoid attacking the powerful.
In the end, though, White for more than four decades informed and enlivened the national debate, and his work stands up as an enduring example of “history on the run,” as the best journalism has been called. In fact, White defined that, too.