Walter Hines Page (1855-1918)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Born in Cary, North Carolina in 1855, Walter Hines Page profoundly influenced American culture in the early twentieth century during his tenure at several national periodicals, most notably the Atlantic. After rising to prominence as a journalist, Page entered public service, serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Great War.

Page’s father, Allison Francis “Frank” Page, was a businessman whose chief interests lay in construction and logging. Before the Civil War, the elder Page made a small fortune by building commercial structures in Raleigh, and he founded the towns of Cary and Aberdeen. Frank did not own a plantation and, according to several sources, opposed slavery. He had been a member of the Whig party in the 1850s and did not believe that Lincoln’s election warranted secession. Nevertheless, he owned slaves. Historian Burton J. Hendrick, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, asserts that Frank Page exerted a more profound influence on Walter than any other figure; indeed, Frank Page’s unusual relationship with Southern culture closely resembled his son’s.

Shortly before his death, Walter Page wrote about his memory of Sherman’s army marching past his family’s Cary home in 1865. A colonel in the army seized a part of the family house, which he used as his quarters, and other soldiers plundered the family’s land. Though Confederate soldiers had acted similarly earlier in the war, Page’s papers indicate that the conduct of Sherman’s army indelibly affected his view of the North. After the war, Page’s enrollment in the Bingham School, a North Carolina military academy instilled a sense of Southern honor. After building a strong academic record at Bingham, Page enrolled at Trinity College (now Duke University) in 1871, only to leave for Randolph-Macon College of Virginia after the autumn of 1872. While at Randolph-Macon, Page excelled in mathematics, Latin, and, most of all, Greek.

His achievements at Randolph-Macon led to his selection as one of the first twenty graduate students of Johns Hopkins University in 1876. He earned a fellowship in Greek. At Hopkins, Page developed a close relationship with renowned American classicist Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, but by late 1877 had become bored by the specialized foci of his studies.    

Soon dropping out of Hopkins, Page briefly taught school in Kentucky and wrote for the Age, a Louisville periodical whose creators sought to replicate the format of The Nation in the South. The Age failed, and Page found himself unable to find work in journalism in the East. He consequently moved to Missouri, where he wrote for the Gazette of St. Joseph and rose to editor. Tiring of life in St. Joseph, Page returned to the South, where he planned to record his observations and publish them in Northern papers. On the trip, he met figures such as Jefferson Davis and the young Woodrow Wilson.

This trip led to a stint on the New York World, which was then a paper of literary merit. When the World was purchased by Joseph Pulitzer, the entire writing staff of the paper resigned in protest. Page returned to North Carolina, founding a paper called the State Chronicle in Raleigh. Page used the Chronicle to champion education and industrialization in North Carolina.

Though the paper caused a stir in North Carolina, and became widely known outside the South, it was a commercial failure, and Page returned north in 1885. He spent two years at the Evening Post before moving to the Forum, whose founders aimed to serve Americans with a monthly of high journalistic and literary quality. Page began writing for the Forum in 1887 and soon became its editor.

At the Forum, Page adopted a style of editing that proved revolutionary in journalism. Instead of following the tradition of merely reading and revising contributions, Page was proactive, effectively planning the content of each issue of the Forum. Under his leadership, the monthly became financially successful, and when the owners of the journal made clear that Page would not be rewarded monetarily for the success of the magazine, he resigned.

In 1898, Page took over what was arguably the most prestigious journal published in the United States, the Atlantic Monthly. At the Atlantic, Page turned around a magazine whose fortunes had been slumping under hidebound editors. Circulation increased drastically under Page, as did the literary quality of the magazine.

Though serving as editor of the Atlantic made Page nationally well-known, he did not stay there long. After developing a business relationship with Frank Doubleday, who had been trying to take over the struggling Harper publishing house, Page left the Atlantic to form a new publishing house with Doubleday. At the new firm, called Doubleday, Page, and Company, Page formed a new magazine called World’s Work. The content of the new journal was mostly journalistic, in contrast to the Forum and the Atlantic, both of which had been characterized by a mixture of journalism, literature, and criticism. In World’s Work, Page championed education, particularly for Southerners both black and white, who, Page felt, were falling behind their Northern compatriots. Moreover, he resisted yellow journalism and muckraking, both of which he regarded as tasteless and sensational.

Having established a national reputation, Page was asked by President Theodore Roosevelt to evaluate living conditions in the South. After supporting Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign in 1912, Page lobbied him for a position in the new administration, and Wilson responded by naming Page ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1913. Some historians have criticized Page’s performance in the Court of St. James’s. They contend that his affection for Britain compromised his judgment in the early years of the Great War and led him to promote policies contrary to the U.S. national interest. Page’s North Carolina heritage and Bingham education appear to have shaped his romantic view of Great Britain and of England in particular. This inclination diminished his clout in the Wilson Administration. He died in Britain in 1918.

Page earned a tablet in Westminster Abbey, but his home country never furnished him with an award of equal significance.

Along with editing and writing articles, Page wrote three books including, The Rebuilding of Old Commonwealths (1902), A Publisher’s Confession (1905) and The Southerner (1909).