White’s first burst of fame, coming to him as spokesman for plutocracy and reaction, gained review attention and initial sales for The Real Issue when it was published in November, 1896. But as the book then made its own way, it impressed readers with qualities notably different from those most evident in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”— qualities of human kindness, generosity, and compassionate understanding. Quickly it ran through four sizable printings.
By late spring of 1897, the young Emporian was well launched on a journalistic and literary career of national import. His books of fiction and nonfiction would thereafter be bought by a large public. His editorials began to be reprinted for the edification of millions. His articles and stories were eagerly sought by high-paying national magazines. Soon he was able to pay off his debts, expand the Gazette ’s plant as its circulation grew to more than two thousand, and invest in real estate, laying foundations for what ultimately became a fortune of a half-million or so.
Simultaneously, and consequently to a considerable degree, came a shrinkage (“decay,” he always called it) of White’s conservatism. “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” brought him an invitation to speak at a McKinley victory banquet in Zanesville, Ohio. There he met Mark Hanna, whom he liked but found crude, ignorant, vulgar; and President-elect McKinley, whom he could not like, McKinley being a “cold fish.” A few months later, in Washington on political business resulting from his famous editorial, he met the young assistant secretary of the Navy in McKinley’s administration, Theodore Roosevelt. T.R., having admired The Real Issue and asked to meet its author, overwhelmed White with a warmth, charm, and force of personality greater by far than the young journalist had ever before encountered. Joined to it was a shocking “vocal eloquence and… rage” against what McKinley-Hanna represented and what White himself had theretofore subscribed to, namely, the “damnable alliance between business and politics for the good of business!” The experience was almost religious for White. T.R. “poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had,” to quote White’s posthumously published Autobiography . “After that I was his man.”