E. B. White
E. B. White
E. B. White (1899-1985) was one of the most influential modern American essayists, largely through his work for The New Yorker magazine. He also wrote two children's classics and revised Strunk's The Elements of Style, widely used in college English courses.
He was offered a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, but turned it down because his goal was to become a writer. He worked for the United Press International and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922 and then became a reporter for the Seattle Times in 1922 and 1923. As he put it, he found that he was ill-suited for daily journalism, and his city editor had already reached the same conclusion, so they came to an amicable parting of the ways.
White then worked for two years with the Frank Seaman advertising agency as a production assistant and copywriter. During this time he had poems published in "The Conning Tower" of Franklin P. Adams, the newspaper columnist who helped so many talented young people achieve prominence during the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1925 he published the article "Defense of the Bronx River" in The New Yorker magazine, his first piece in that publication. It led to his being named a contributing editor in 1927, an association which continued until his death in 1985.
From the time of its origin, The New Yorker was one of the most prestigious periodicals in the nation. It featured such celebrities as Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and George S. Kaufman as contributors, so White was in the company of the best when he was added to the staff.
At some time he became the principal contributor to the magazine's column "Notes and Comment" and set the tone of informed, intelligent, tolerant, faintly amused urbanity in observations on the passing scene, a feature which continued after his death. A typical example is this brief note, "Barred from Barnard, " written in 1929:
April 20. Our failure to attend the Greek games in the Barnard College gymnasium last Saturday was a bitter disappointment. The fact is, we wrote the dean of the college and she replied that she couldn't send us tickets because "through long experience we have found that it is much better not to have the games written up by visitors who do not understand them." We regard the dean's attitude as hardly Greek. Our public reply is that we do understand Greek games, that simplicity is our watchword, and that Demeter and Persephone are our favorite goddesses. Further, we think that Miss Gildersleeve ought to know that, as a result of being kept out of the games, we moped around all Saturday afternoon and in the evening went to a night club owned by a couple of Greeks.
That same year White published a poetry collection, The Lady Is Cold, and then joined fellow New Yorker writer James Thurber in Is Sex Necessary? Freudian psychology had been enormously influential in America in the 1920s, giving rise to a spate of volumes analyzing or presenting advice on the subject. The time was ripe for a parody of such books, and these two came up with a witty, low-key work featuring passages like this:
The sexual revolution began with Man's discovery that he was not attractive to Woman, as such. …His masculine appearance not only failed to excite Woman, but in many cases it only served to bore her. The result was that Man found it necessary to develop attractive personal traits to offset his dull appearance. He learned to say funny things. He learned to smoke, and blow smoke rings. He learned to earn money. This would have been a solution to his difficulty, but in the course of making himself attractive to Woman by developing himself mentally, he had inadvertently become so intelligent an animal that he saw how comical the whole situation was.
Also in 1929, White married New Yorker editor Katharine Sergeant Angell; the marriage produced one son.
He published Ho Hum in 1931, Another Ho Hum in 1932, Every Day Is Saturday in 1934, and in 1936, in the New Yorker, under the pseudonym Lee Strout White, the essay "Farewell My Lovely!" One of his best-known pieces, it was suggested to him by a manuscript submitted by Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor. It served as the basis for the book Farewell to the Model T, published later that same year.
White's next work was a poetry collection, The Fox of Peapack (1938), the same year that he began the monthly column "One Man's Meat" for Harper's magazine, a column which lasted five years. There followed the essay collection Quo Vadimus? in 1939; an editing job with his wife, The Subtreasury of American Humor, in 1941; and One Man's Meat, an anthology of his Harper's columns, in 1942.
In 1945 he entered a new field with great success, writing Stuart Little for children. The story of a mouse born to normal human parents was clearly intended to console young people who thought themselves different or odd, and it carried the message that Stuart's parents never batted an eye when their son turned out to be a mouse and that the hero, debonair, even jaunty, could build himself a good life.
After The Wild Flag in 1946 and Here Is New York in 1949, White returned to children's literature with his most popular book in the genre, Charlotte's Web, in 1952. The story of the bond between the young pig Wilbur and the clever spider who saves his life is a paean to the power of friendship and a reminder to young readers that death is a part of life.
The Second Tree from the Corner came in 1954. Three years later White and his wife gave up their New York apartment and moved permanently to North Brooklin, Maine.
While an undergraduate at Cornell, White had taken a course with Professor William S. Strunk, Jr. Strunk used a text he had written and published at his own expense, a thin volume titled The Elements of Style. White edited it, revised it, and added the chapter "An Approach to style, " offering such advice as "Place yourself in the background; do not explain too much; prefer the standard to the offbeat." The book sold widely and became a college campus fixture for the next 20 years in several editions (1959, 1972, 1979).
Honors began to pour in on the author. He won the Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his children's books in 1970, and the National Medal for Literature in 1971. In 1973 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He published The Points of My Compass in 1962; The Trumpet of the Swan, another children's book, in 1970; and collections of his letters (1976), essays (1977), and poems and sketches (1981).
E. B. White's influence was profound, particularly in the popular essay. His poetry is not exceptional and his sketches tend to the precious, but his essays served as models for two generations of readers. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, The New Yorker was judged by critics to be a model of elegant yet simple style in non-fiction, and White was in no small measure responsible for that reputation. He died October 1, 1985.
An early biography is E. B. White by Edward C. Sampson (1974). There are accounts of him in several books, such as Dale Kramer's Ross and the New Yorker (1951). A good discussion of his life and influence is Scott Elledge's E. B. White: A Biography (1985). □
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White, E. B.
E. B. White was one of the most influential modern American essayists, largely through his work for the New Yorker magazine. He also wrote two children's classics and revised William S. Strunk's The Elements of Style, widely used in college English courses.
Becoming a writer
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, New York, the son of a piano manufacturer, Samuel Tilly White, and Jessie Hart. The family was comfortably well off, but not wealthy. Raised with two brothers and three sisters, White attended local public schools in Mount Vernon. He went on to attend Cornell University, graduating in 1921.
White was offered a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, but turned it down because his goal was to become a writer. He worked for the United Press International and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922 and then became a reporter for the Seattle Times in 1922 and 1923. White then worked for two years with the Frank Seaman advertising agency as a production assistant and copywriter. During this time he had poems published in "The Conning Tower" of Franklin P. Adams, the newspaper columnist who helped several talented young people achieve success during the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1925 White published the article "Defense of the Bronx River" in the New Yorker magazine, his first piece in this publication. It led to his being named a contributing editor in 1927, an association which continued until his death in 1985.
From the time of its origin, The New Yorker was one of the most well-received periodicals in the nation. It featured such celebrities as Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker (1893–1967), Robert Benchley (1889–1945), and George S. Kaufman (1889–1961) as contributors, so White was in the company of the best when he was added to the staff.
At some time White became the principal contributor to the magazine's column "Notes and Comment" and set the tone of informed, intelligent, tolerant, faintly amused city life in observations on the passing scene, a feature that continued after his death.
A name for himself
In 1929 White published a poetry collection, The Lady Is Cold, and then joined fellow New Yorker writer James Thurber (1894–1961) in Is Sex Necessary? Freudian psychology, or the study of the subconscious, had been enormously influential in America in the 1920s, giving rise to many volumes analyzing or presenting advice on the subject. The time was ripe for a parody (a literary or artistic work that copies the style of an existing subject in order to make fun of it) of such books, and these two came up with a witty, low key work featuring passages like this: "The sexual revolution began with Man's discovery that he was not attractive to Woman, as such.… His masculine appearance not only failed to excite Woman, but in many cases it only served to bore her. The result was that Man found it necessary to develop attractive personal traits to offset his dull appearance. He learned to say funny things. He learned to smoke, and blow smoke rings. He learned to earn money. This would have been a solution to his difficulty, but in the course of making himself attractive to Woman by developing himself mentally, he had inadvertently [unintentionally] become so intelligent an animal that he saw how comical the whole situation was."
Also in 1929, White married New Yorker editor Katharine Sergeant Angell; the marriage produced one son. He published Ho Hum in 1931, Another Ho Hum in 1932, Every Day Is Saturday in 1934, and in 1936, in the New Yorker, under the pseudonym (pen name) Lee Strout White, the essay "Farewell My Lovely!" One of his best-known pieces, it was suggested to him by a manuscript submitted by Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor. It served as the basis for the book Farewell to the Model T, published later that same year.
White's next work was a poetry collection, The Fox of Peapack (1938), the same year that he began the monthly column "One Man's Meat" for Harper's magazine, a column which lasted five years. There followed the essay collection Quo Vadimus? in 1939; an editing job with his wife, The Subtreasury of American Humor, in 1941; and One Man's Meat, a collection of his Harper's columns, in 1942.
In 1945 White entered a new field with great success, writing Stuart Little for children. The story of a mouse born to normal human parents was clearly intended to console young people who thought themselves different or odd, and it carried the message that Stuart's parents never batted an eye when their son turned out to be a mouse and that the hero could build himself a good life.
After The Wild Flag in 1946 and Here Is New York in 1949, White returned to children's literature with his most popular book in the genre (category), Charlotte's Web, in 1952. The story of the bond between the young pig Wilbur and the clever spider who saves his life is a look at the power of friendship and a reminder to young readers that death is a part of life. The Second Tree from the Corner came in 1954. Three years later White and his wife gave up their New York City apartment and moved permanently to North Brooklin, Maine.
Elements of Style
While an undergraduate at Cornell, White had taken a course with Professor William S. Strunk Jr. Strunk used a text he had written and published at his own expense, a thin volume titled The Elements of Style. White edited it, revised it, and added the chapter "An Approach to Style," offering such advice as "Place yourself in the background; do not explain too much; prefer the standard to the offbeat." The book sold widely and became a college campus fixture for the next twenty years in several editions.
Honors began to pour in for White. He won the Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his children's books in 1970, and the National Medal for Literature in 1971. In 1973 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
E. B. White's influence was great, particularly in his popular essays, which served as models for two generations of readers. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the New Yorker was judged by critics to be a model of elegant yet simple style in nonfiction, and White was in no small measure responsible for this reputation. He died on October 1, 1985, in North Brooklin, Maine.
For More Information
Craats, Rennay. E. B. White. Mankato, MN: Weigl Publishers, 2002.
Elledge, Scott. E. B. White: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1984.
Gherman, Beverly. E. B. White: Some Writer! New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Sampson, Edward C. E. B. White. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Tingum, Janice. E. B. White: The Elements of a Writer. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1995.
"White, E. B.." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/white-e-b
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Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
White, E. B.
E. B. White: (Elwyn Brooks White), 1899–1985, American writer, b. Mt. Vernon, N.Y., grad. Cornell, 1921. A witty, satiric observer of contemporary society, White was a member of the staff of the early New Yorker; some of his
"Talk of the Town"
columns were collected in The Wild Flag (1946). In addition to this work and much light, graceful, and humorous verse, he wrote Is Sex Necessary? (with James Thurber, 1929), Quo Vadimus? (1939), One Man's Meat (1942), Here Is New York (1949), and The Points of My Compass (1962). He also penned three delightful stories for children, Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). A superb literary stylist himself, White undertook a noted revision of The Elements of Style (1959) by William Strunk, Jr., and with his wife, Katherine, he edited A Subtreasury of American Humor (1941).
See his selected essays (1977); letters, ed. by D. L. Guth (1976, 1989; rev. ed. also ed. by M. White, 2007); biography by S. Elledge (1984); study by E. C. Sampson (1974).
"White, E. B.." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/white-e-b
"White, E. B.." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/white-e-b
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
White, E. B.
Born July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, NY; died after suffering from Alzheimer's disease, October 1, 1985, in North Brooklin, ME; son of Samuel Tilly (a piano manufacturer) and Jessie (Hart) White; married Katharine Sergeant Angell (a New Yorker editor), November 13, 1929 (died July 20, 1977); children: Joel McCoun; (stepchildren) Nancy Angell Stable-ford, Roger Angell. Education: Cornell University, A.B., 1921.
Reporter with United Press and American Legion News Service, 1921; Seattle Times, Seattle, WA, reporter, 1922-23; copywriter with Frank Seaman, Inc., and Newmark, Inc., New York, NY, 1924-25; New Yorker, New York, NY, writer and contributing editor, beginning 1926. Military service: U.S. Army, 1918.
Limited Editions Club gold medal, 1945, for One Man's Meat; Litt.D., Dartmouth College, University of Maine, and Yale University, all 1948, Bowdoin College, 1950, Hamilton College, 1952, and Harvard University, 1954; Newbery Honor Book, 1953, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1958, George C. Stone Center for Children's Books Recognition of Merit Award, 1970, and New England Round Table of Children's Libraries Award, 1973, all for Charlotte's Web; Page One Award, New York Newspaper Guild, 1954, and National Association of Independent Schools Award, 1955, both for The Second Tree from the Corner; L.H. D., Colby College, 1954; National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal, 1960, for contribution to literature; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1963; Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, American Library Association, 1970, for lasting contribution to children's literature; National Medal for Literature, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971; National Book Award nomination, 1971, International Board on Books for Young People Honor List citation, 1972, Children's Book Award, William Allen White Library, and Sequoyah Children's Book Award, Oklahoma Library Association, both 1973, Sue Hefley Award, Louisiana Association of School Librarians, 1974, and Young Hoosier Award, Indiana School Librarians Association, 1975, all for The Trumpet of the Swan; Pulitzer Prize special citation, 1978, for body of work.
The Lady Is Cold (poems), Harper (New York, NY), 1929.
(Author of introduction) James Thurber, The Owl in the Attic, Harper (New York, NY), 1931.
(Editor) Ho-Hum: Newsbreaks from the "New Yorker," Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1931.
(Editor) Another Ho-Hum: More Newsbreaks from the "New Yorker," Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1932.
Alice through the Cellophane (pamphlet), John Day (New York, NY), 1933.
Every Day Is Saturday, Harper (New York, NY), 1934.
Farewell to Model T, Putnam (New York, NY), 1936, bound with From Sea to Shining Sea by R. L. Strout, Little Bookroom (New York, NY), 2003.
The Fox of Peapack and Other Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1938.
Quo Vadimus?; or, The Case for the Bicycle, Harper (New York, NY), 1939.
(Editor with wife, Katharine Sergeant White, and author of introduction) A Subtreasury of American Humor, Coward (New York, NY), 1941, reprinted, Capricorn Books, 1962.
One Man's Meat (also see below; essays previously published in Harper's), Harper (New York, NY), 1942, enlarged edition, 1944, with new introduction, 1982.
(Author of introduction) Roy E. Jones, A Basic Chicken Guide for the Small Flock Owner, Morrow (New York, NY), 1944.
World Government and Peace: Selected Notes and Comment, 1943-1945, F. R. Publishing, 1945.
Stuart Little (also see below; juvenile), illustrated by Garth Williams, Harper (New York, NY), 1945, sixtieth anniversary edition, with watercolors of Garth Williams's artwork by Rosemary Wells, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
The Wild Flag: Editorials from the "New Yorker" on Federal World Government and Other Matters, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1946.
Here Is New York, Harper (New York, NY), 1949, with introduction by Roger Angell, Little Bookroom (New York, NY), 1999.
(Author of introduction) Don Marquis, the lives and times of archy and mehitabel, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1950.
Charlotte's Web (also see below; juvenile), illustrated by Garth Williams, Harper (New York, NY), 1952, fiftieth anniversary edition, Garth Williams's artwork enhanced by Rosemary Wells, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002, portions published as Salutations! Wit and Wisdom from Charlotte's Web, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
The Second Tree from the Corner, Harper (New York, NY), 1954, with new introduction, 1984.
(With William Strunk, Jr.; and editorial supervisor) The Elements of Style, Macmillan (New York, NY), 2nd edition (White not associated with previous edition), 1959, 4th edition, 1999.
The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South, Harper (New York, NY), 1962.
An E. B. White Reader, edited by William W. Watt and Robert W. Bradford, Harper (New York, NY), 1966.
Topics: Our New Countryman at the U.N. (pamphlet), Congressional Press, 1968.
The Trumpet of the Swan (also see below; juvenile), Harper (New York, NY), 1970, with illustrations by Fred Marcellino, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
E. B. White Boxed Set (contains Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan), Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
Letters of E. B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth, Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
Essays of E. B. White, Harper (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Perennial (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) Katherine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979, with an afterword by Jamaica Kincaid, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2002.
Poems and Sketches of E. B. White, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
(With others) A Gift from Maine, Guy Gannett (Portland, ME), 1984.
Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
Author of column, "One Man's Meat," Harper's, 1938-43. Contributor to periodicals.
Stuart Little, Dell (New York, NY), 1973.
Charlotte's Web, RCA, 1976.
Stuart Little was televised by the National Broadcasting Company, 1966, adapted as a stage musical by Joseph Robinette and Ronna Frank, Dramatic Publishing (Woodstock, IL), 1993, and adapted as a motion picture directed by Rob Minkoff, 1999; Charlotte's Web was adapted as an animated film by Paramount, 1972, and as a filmstrip by Stephen Bosustow Productions, 1974, by Films Incorporated, 1976, and as a stage musical by Charles Strouse, Dramatic Publishing, 1989; the short story "The Family That Dwelt Apart" was adapted as an animated film by Learning Corporation of America, 1974; The Trumpet of the Swan was adapted as a film by Judy Rothman Rofé, 2001, and the screenplay novelized by Lin Oliver, Avon Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Few writers have achieved recognition in as many fields as did American author E. B. White. Regarded as one of the finest essayists of the twentieth century, White was also the author of two classics of children's literature, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little; and his extensive contributions to the New Yorker were instrumental in making that magazine a success.
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, New York. His father, Samuel White, was a successful piano manufacturer, and the family enjoyed financial security, often taking summer vacations in the Maine woods. The youngest of six children, White sometimes felt neglected in such a large family and turned to writing to combat his loneliness. He was also self-conscious; he greatly feared public speaking and was bashful around girls. As a teenager, he once asked a young woman to a tea dance in New York City. White became so caught up in the preparations for the event that he forgot one essential item: he had never learned how to dance. According to Barbara J. Rogers in American Writers, "It was this pattern of expectation and disappointment that became the mark of White's self-deprecating anecdotes for the New Yorker."
White began his professional writing career in 1921 after graduating from Cornell University, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. He worked for a time as a reporter with two news services in New York City, then drove a Ford Model T cross country with his friend Howard Cushman. "When they ran out of money," James Thurber recounted in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature, "they played for their supper—and their gasoline—on a fascinating musical instrument that White had made out of some pieces of wire and an old shoe or something." Ending up in Seattle, White took a job as a reporter for the Seattle Times, but lasted less than a year. White explained in The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South: "As a newspaper reporter I was almost useless." He worked for a short time as a mess boy on a ship bound for Alaska but soon returned to New York, where he spent two years as an advertising copywriter.
Joins New Yorker
It was while working as a copywriter that White began to submit short pieces to the fledgling New Yorker magazine, which was barely a few months old at the time. Editor Harold Ross "was so taken by the pieces White submitted to The New Yorker," John Ciardi later wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "that he hired White to write the 'Talk of the Town' section with which the magazine still opens." Both Ross and Katharine Angell, the magazine's literary editor and the woman who would later become White's wife, found White's style ideal for the New Yorker. They "were not slow to perceive that here were the perfect eye and ear, the authentic voice and accent for their struggling magazine," Thurber stated. Over the next forty years, White contributed poems, essays, sketches, stories, and even photo captions to the New Yorker, and he wrote the "Talk of the Town" section for eleven years. For many years, too, he wrote the "Newsbreak" fillers, short items taken from magazines and newspapers and reprinted with a humorous comment. White, Thurber explained, "had a hand in everything: he even painted a cover and wrote a few advertisements."
Russell Maloney, in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature, credited White with "setting The New Yorker's editorial style" in his "Talk of the Town" section. This style, Maloney went on, is "modest, sly, elliptical, allusive, prim, slightly countrified, wistful, and (God help us) whimsical." Thurber credited White with changing the New Yorker. "It is not too much to say that … White was the most valuable person on the magazine," Thurber wrote. "His delicate tinkering with the works of The New Yorker caused it to move with a new ease and grace." Another "one of E. B. White's great contributions to The New Yorker," Maloney believed, "was his insistence, against almost overwhelming opposition, that Thurber was a funny artist whose pictures should appear in the magazine." Thurber had long been a staff writer for the New Yorker, having attained the position after White arranged an interview for him. To amuse his coworkers, Thurber sketched humorous cartoons at the office. White urged him to submit these cartoons to the magazine, but Thurber had little faith in them and refused to try. One day White collected some of Thurber's pencil drawings from his wastebasket, inked them in, and submitted them to the New Yorker's art editor. They were accepted. Thurber went on to become a very popular cartoonist as well as writer.
In 1929 White collaborated with Thurber on Is Sex Necessary?; or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, a spoof of sex manuals. The book made "both White and Thurber well known," according to Edward C. Sampson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The two authors, Sampson explained, "parody the serious writers on the subject, making light of complexities, taking a mock-serious attitude toward the obvious, delighting in reducing the case-history technique to an absurdity, and making fun of those writers who proceeded by definition." They expound on such crucial topics as "Osculatory Justification," "Schmalhausen Trouble" (when couples live in small apartments), and "The Nature of the American Male: A Study of Pedestalism." Will Cuppy, writing in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, called Is Sex Necessary? "a minor classic—and one uses the term 'minor' only because it is gorgeously funny and not quite ponderous enough to be major. Let's compromise and just call it a classic." Thurber's drawings, turned out in a few hours, illustrate the book, which has gone through more than twenty-five printings since it first appeared. White's share of the royalties enabled him to marry Katharine Angell on November 13, 1929.
Over the years, it was White's essays for the New Yorker—many of which were collected in 1977's Essays of E. B. White—that did the most to build his literary reputation. White's essays are personal and informal, seem to happen upon their subject as they ramble along, and have a gentle humor about them. New York City, where the New Yorker has its offices, and the Maine countryside, where White owned a farm, are the two most common settings. White often began with a small incident in his own life and then extrapolated larger implications from it. One of his first pieces for the New Yorker, for example, was a recounting of an accident at a Manhattan restaurant in which a glass of buttermilk was spilled on his suit. The waitress, White related, "was a little girl, so I let her blot me. In my ear she whispered a million apologies, hopelessly garbled, infinitely forlorn. And I whispered that the suit was four years old, and that I hated dark clothes anyway. One has, in life, so few chances to lie heroically." In other pieces, noted Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, White arrives "at the subject of disarmament by way of Mary Martin's furniture, or at the prospects of American democracy by the route of a dachshund named Fred." This idea is echoed by Joseph Wood Krutch, writing in the Saturday Review, who maintained that White is "generally concerned less with the Queen than with the little mouse under her chair." William Howarth, reviewing Essays of E. B. White for the Washington Post Book World, argued that, for White, "connecting small moments to big issues is a literary impulse." Howarth went on to say that White "can capture moments of rare evanescence—a small tree, second from the corner and backlit by the sun, 'each gilt-edged leaf perfectly drunk with excellence and delicacy.'"
A Gifted Essayist
In all of his essays, White's style was clear, personal, and unaffected. It is, Louis Hasley wrote in the Connecticut Review, "transparent and unobtrusive. With him, more than with most writers, the style is the man: careful, steady, sure, resourceful, concrete without flourish, capable of fun and even surrealistic fancy, and as often as not, expressing a deadly seriousness that may be richly compounded with humor." Similarly, Webster Schott wrote in the New Republic that "White has such a subtly-developed literary technique it's almost impossible to know when the words are running the writing, when Mr. White's head is in command, or when the central nervous system has taken over to pick up subliminal signals. That's style for you: marriage of idea, language, sensibility."
Although White's essays cover a wide range of topics—from observations of nature to the problems of city living and from political commentary to literary parody—they invariably display a gentle humor. White saw humor as a necessary counterbalance to everyday life. As he stated in his introduction to A Subtreasury of American Humor, "there is a deep vein of melancholy running through everyone's life and … a humorist, perhaps more sensible of it than some others, compensates for it actively and positively." In the early days of his career, Sampson wrote, White was "considered to be primarily a humorist." An example of White's humor can be found in one of the essays collected in One Man's Meat in which White speaks of his dog. "For a number of years," he wrote, "I have been agreeably encumbered by a very large and dissolute dachshund named Fred. Of all the dogs whom I have served I've never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do. And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up."
When White turned his attention to political matters, he often focused on the arms race and the tensions between the world's nations. His approach to politics was typically oblique. In one essay published in The Second Tree from the Corner, for example, White tells of participating in a routine air raid drill in his office building. As his elevator passes the thirteenth floor on its way to the basement, he notices that it is numbered "14." Nuclear scientists had successfully looked "into the core of the sun," White observed, "but it might have been a good idea if they had waited to do that until the rest of us could look the number 13 square in the face. Such is the true nature of our peculiar dilemma." White was known as a forceful advocate of world government, which he recommended for democratic nations only, and as a defender of individual privacy.
A concern for the environment, inspired by Henry David Thoreau's Walden, was also evident in White's life and work. White described Thoreau, in one of the essays collected in The Points of My Compass, as being the companion and chider for the "fellows who hate compromise and have compromised, fellows who love wildness and have lived tamely," and as the man "who long ago gave corroboration to impulses they perceived were right and issued warnings against things they instinctively knew to be their enemies." In common with Thoreau, White was skeptical about the benefits of material progress and suspected that perhaps what has been left behind is more valuable than what has replaced it. He was, Hasley commented, "a cautious critic of progress, fearing the loss of the precious sense for basic things." Following the example of Thoreau, who lived close to the land, White in 1934 bought a salt water farm in North Brooklin, Maine. He and his wife moved there permanently in 1938 and took to raising geese, chickens, and sheep. The essays collected in One Man's Meat, originally written as monthly columns for Harper's magazine, are set on White's farm and chronicle his daily life in the country.
Most critics praise White for his work as an essayist. Lehmann-Haupt called him "an essayist's essayist," while New York Times contributor Irwin Edman dubbed White "the finest essayist in the United States. He says wise things gracefully; he is the master of an idiom at once exact and suggestive, distinguished yet familiar." According to Sampson, White remains "generally recognized as one of the best essayists of the twentieth century."
Classics of Children's Literature
Although White's essays won him overwhelming critical acclaim during his lifetime, he remains more popularly known as the author of Charlotte's Web
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and Stuart Little, two classics of American children's literature. White wrote only three books for children in all, but many observers rank him with such notables in the field as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Sampson acknowledged that Charlotte's Web "may well turn out to be the longest remembered of his works." "What makes White's three books outstanding," Sampson continued, "is that he has written them in the classical tradition of children's stories.… What the child [learns from White's books]—and what children learn from the other fine children's books—is a great deal about loyalty, honesty, love, sadness, and happiness."
Inspired by a vivid dream, White began in 1939 to write a children's story about a small, mouse-like character. Whenever one of his eighteen nieces and nephews wanted to be told a story, White improvised new adventures for his hero, whom he named Stuart Little. In 1945, he gathered these adventures together into a book-length manuscript which he sent to Harper & Row for consideration. Children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom found it "marvelously well-written, and funny, and touching," as she recalled in an article for the New York Times Book Review, and accepted Stuart Little for publication.
White worked closely with artist Garth Williams on the illustrations for the book. Williams brought his drawings to Nordstrom's office in New York, she mailed them to White in Maine, and White wrote down his suggestions and ideas and mailed them back to her along with the original drawings. In this way the illustrations for Stuart Little were completed to the satisfaction of both author and artist. Williams's illustrations, John Gillespie and Diana Lembo wrote in Introducing Books: A Guide for the Middle Grades, "complement the text beautifully."
Publication of Stuart Little met with opposition from Anne Carroll Moore, head of children's literature at the New York Public Library and the most influential person in juvenile publishing at the time. After reading the book in galleys, Moore thought it "was nonaffirmative, inconclusive, unfit for children, and she felt that it would harm its author if published," Nordstrom related. Nonetheless, Harper went ahead with publication, convinced that Stuart Little showed merit. "It is unnerving," Nordstrom quoted White as saying, "to be told you're bad for children; but I detected in Miss Moore's letter an assumption that there are rules governing the writing of juvenile literature.… And this I was not sure of. I had followed my instincts in writing about Stuart, and following one's instincts seemed to be the way a writer should operate."
The book tells the story of the Little family's second child, Stuart, who happens to be two inches tall and looks like a mouse, although the Littles themselves are normal-sized and human. Because of his modest stature and adventurous nature, Stuart finds himself in a series of wild situations: he is hoisted aloft by a window shade, attacked by a house cat, dropped into a bathtub drain to retrieve a lost ring, and even put into a piano to free some stuck keys. Stuart's "somewhat random adventures show him to be brave, ingenious, enterprising, and of romantic inclination," Peter M. Neumeyer wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Neumeyer also believed that White "has imaginatively extrapolated [Stuart's adventures] with all the ingenuity of Jonathan Swift plotting Gulliver's stay in Lilliput."
When Stuart's newfound love, Margalo, a bird, flies away to escape the Littles' house cat, Stuart follows. The remainder of the book concerns his unsuccessful quest for her. "Like any knight errant," Neumeyer wrote, "Stuart is tempted and distracted during this pursuit." These distractions include wooing a girl during a canoe ride and teaching a class of fifth-graders when their regular teacher is sick. But the book ends with Stuart driving away in his toy car, continuing his search for Margalo. Calling Stuart Little "a lively and, at times, tender book that is a delight to both the imagination and the emotions," Gillespie and Lembo nevertheless found that "the rather inconclusive ending has somewhat marred its appeal for a few readers." Speaking of the book's ending in his Letters of E. B. White, White revealed: "Quite a number of children have written me to ask about Stuart. They want to know whether he got back home and whether he found Margalo. They are good questions, but I did not answer them in the book because, in a way, Stuart's journey symbolizes the continuing journey that everybody takes—in search of what is perfect and unattainable. This is perhaps too elusive an idea to put into a book for children, but I put it in anyway." John Rowe Townsend, in his Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature, mused that "perhaps the ending is right; Stuart's is a quest for freedom and beauty, and such a quest is never completed."
Several reviewers believed that Stuart Little has the same wide appeal as do other modern classics of children's literature. Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, R. C. Benet believed that readers of all ages will enjoy the book. "The exact number of years of the reader," he stated, "won't matter here any more than it does with 'Alice in Wonderland,' … 'The Wind in the Willows,' some of [A. A.] Milne, or indeed the work of Walt Disney, who created that other popular mouse." A Springfield Republican critic agreed, finding that "readers of [Ernest] Hemingway as well as six-year-olds will find the book worth their while, much as grown-up readers of 'Alice in Wonderland' … find that classic. 'Stuart Little,' indeed, is in the school of 'Alice,' though by no means an imitation." It is a "memorable Wanderjahr for children," Timothy Foote wrote in Time, "loaded with longing and nostalgia." Foote went on to note that Stuart Little "still sells and sells." On its way to becoming "one of the classics of American children's literature," as Neumeyer described it, Stuart Little has sold more than two million copies in English and has been translated into twenty other languages.
White's next children's book, Charlotte's Web, was published in 1952. Without fanfare, or even a previous mention that he was working on another children's book, White dropped by his publisher's office with the manuscript, taking Nordstrom by surprise. "He gave me the only copy in existence of 'Charlotte's Web,'" she remembered, "got back on the elevator and left." Nordstrom read only a few chapters before deciding to publish the book. "I couldn't believe that it was so good!" she commented.
Called by Roger Sale in his Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White "probably the classic American children's book of the last thirty years," Charlotte's Web is set on a farm much like the one White owned in Maine. The story "seems to have developed," Neumeyer observed, "directly and exclusively out of White's joy in his own rural existence." As the author once explained to Lee Bennett Hopkins in More Books by More People: "I like animals and my barn is a very pleasant place to be.… One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig's
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life. I had been watching a big, gray spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story, … a story of friendship and salvation on a farm." Sale noted that White referred to Charlotte's Web as a "hymn to the barn." "It is the word 'hymn,'" Sale wrote, "and the sense of celebration and praise, that is important here.… The essential celebration is of the beautiful things change brings or can bring."
Charlotte's Web tells the story of Wilbur, a small pig destined for slaughter who is saved by his friend Charlotte, a spider, when she weaves the words "Some Pig" into a web above Wilbur's pen. People who see this miraculous message are so impressed by it that Wilbur is spared and even put on display at the local fair. But during their stay at the fair, Charlotte dies. In the final lines of the book, Wilbur remembers her as being "in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." David Rees, writing in The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, called Charlotte's Web "the one great modern classic about death." Speaking of the book's closing lines, Rees believed them to be "comforting, not depressing. White is telling the child that he is allowed to mourn; that he is allowed to remember with a certain sadness." "The profound themes of selfless love and acceptance of death are found in this story," Gillespie and Lembo wrote, "and are significantly although delicately explored."
Charlotte's death is shown to be a natural part of the cycle of existence. It is "made bearable," Townsend believed, "by the continuance of life through her offspring." Rees pointed out that immediately following the passage about Charlotte's death comes another passage about the birth of her children and of small animals on the farm. White's idea "that death is an inevitable and necessary part of the whole scheme of things," Rees stated, "is made acceptable by the emphasis he puts, after Charlotte dies, on the joy and happiness of birth." Townsend, too, saw that "the passage of seasons, the round of nature, are unobtrusively indicated" throughout the story.
One indication of this cycle is to be found in the passage of the young girl Fern from childhood. Fern was responsible for saving Wilbur when he was the runt of the litter. She later nursed him until he reached a healthy size, and she visited him in his barn as well. But as she grows older, Fern is less attentive to Wilbur and the other animals. Her attention instead centers on the upcoming fair and a certain boy who will be there. Fern begins the book as
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one of the central characters, but ends by being only peripheral to the story. "Fern has begun the saving of Wilbur," Townsend noted, "but by the end she has forgotten him; that is life, too. Childhood ends."
Charlotte's Web is written in a style that reminded Neumeyer of "an eighteenth-century definition of poetry: 'proper words in proper places'—the mot juste." This quality was also noted by Eleanor Cameron in her study The Green and Burning Bush: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books. "The artistry of [Charlotte's Web]," Cameron wrote, "lies not at all in the use of unusual words but, as in all of Mr. White's prose for adults and children alike, in the way he combines words, creates intimations." In A Critical History of Children's Literature, Ruth Hill Viguers argued that the storyline in Charlotte's Web is thin and nonsensical, but that White, partly through his style, manages to overcome this weakness. "White has triumphed," Viguers stated. "The style and wit of his writing, his wisdom and his remembrance of a child's rapt concern with the things he loves strengthened the slender thread of story."
Critical evaluation of Charlotte's Web has placed it among the very best of its genre. It is considered "outstanding among post-war American children's fiction," Townsend maintained. "As a piece of work," Eudora Welty wrote in the New York Times, "[Charlotte's Web] is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done." A reviewer for the Chicago Sunday Tribune judged the book to be a "rare story of a beautiful friendship," as well as "witty and wise, lively and tender." Since its initial publication in 1952, Charlotte's Web has become a classic of American children's literature and has sold well over three million copies. Among books for children, Neumeyer summed up, Charlotte's Web "must surely be one of the most widely read and best beloved of [the twentieth] … century."
In 1999, sixty years after White began writing Stuart Little, a commemorative edition of that work appeared. The original black-and-white drawings by Garth Williams were colorized by award-winning illustrator Rosemary Wells. A fiftieth anniversary edition of Charlotte's Web was published in 2002, and it also featured Wells's colorized versions of William's art. In Reading Today, Matt Freeman stated that fifty years after its original publication, "Charlotte's Web has a distinction that no medal or review can give. It has joined the pantheon of masterpieces that are honored by critics as much as they are loved by readers. And it has come to epitomize the power a few special books have to move their readers, to remain in their memories, to leave them feeling wiser, kinder, a little more human."
It was not until 1970 that White published his next children's book, The Trumpet of the Swan. Despite the gap in years, the work has much in common with White's earlier efforts. As in Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, the characters in The Trumpet of the Swan are animals who participate in the human world and overcome great obstacles to achieve their desires. And like the previous two books, The Trumpet of the Swan grew out of an experience in White's own life. His fascination with the trumpeter swans at the Philadelphia Zoo, initiated by a story in the New York Times, led White to tell the story of Louis, a voiceless trumpeter swan. Because he cannot speak, his human friend Sam Beaver takes Louis to school with him to learn to read and write. Thereafter, Louis carries a chalkboard and chalk with him to write out his messages. Louis's father, wanting
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him to be able to communicate with other swans as well, steals a trumpet for the younger swan to play. Soon Louis's trumpet playing leads to nightclub work and to a meeting with Serena, a female swan with whom he falls in love.
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, John Up-dike expressed his opinion that The Trumpet of the Swan joins Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web "on the shelf of classics." Although it differs from the previous books, Updike found that the more recent book "has superior qualities of its own; it is the most spacious and serene of the three, the one most imbued with the author's sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature, … yet [the book] does not lack the inimitable tone of the two earlier works—the simplicity that never condescends, the straight and earnest telling that happens upon, rather than veers into, comedy." Neumeyer believed that although it does not compare favorably with Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan "is adventurous, imaginative, and it has some touching moments."
Recipient of Many Honors
White received the National Medal for Literature in 1971 for his total contribution to American letters, and two years later he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1978, he received a special Pulitzer Prize for his body of work, and he was also honored with honorary degrees from several colleges and universities. After a long and productive life, White died on October 1, 1985. In an obituary in Time, Paul Gray noted, "By the time he was thirty, White had earned a reputation as a master of luminous prose, and over a career that spanned more than fifty years, he never let his standards or his audience down. He insisted that words, his own and others', should communicate rather than confuse: 'When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.'" Herbert Mitgang, writing in the New York Times, stated that White's "strength as a writer was rooted in his respect for his audiences—children, adolescents and adults—regardless of what the pollsters and market surveys declared as scientific truth, 'No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence,' he said. 'Television has taken a big bite out of the written word. But words still count with me.'" According to a contributor in the Nation, "Better than anyone, White mixed visions of nature with aspects of culture to produce a uniquely humane text which was his life as much as his work."
White once told Justin Wintle and Emma Fisher in The Pied Pipers: Interviews with the Influential Creators of Children's Literature the difference he saw between writing for children and writing for adults. "In my experience, the only difference (save for a very slight modification of vocabulary) is in one's state of mind," he explained. "Children are a wonderful audience—they are so eager, so receptive, so quick. I have great respect for their powers of observation and reasoning. But like any good writer, I write to amuse myself, not some imaginary audience."
Critical evaluations of White's career show that although he may have written only to amuse himself, in the process he entertained many others as well. Hasley defined White as "a kind of national housekeeper and caretaker. He has gone on steadily and quietly, looking around and ahead, poking into public and domestic corners, … and hardly any literate American has not benefitted from his humor, his nonsense, his creativity, and his engaging wisdom." Calling him "the humble, kindly senior guru of delicate American humor," Jay Scriba pointed out in the Milwaukee Journal that White, "a master wordsmith, … is probably in more college literary anthologies than any other" writer. "The pleasures of reading White's prose," Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, "are many and great." Speaking of One Man's Meat, a collection of White's magazine columns, Yardley cited White as "one of the few writers … who has succeeded in transforming the ephemera of journalism into something that demands to be called literature." Edward Hoagland, writing in the New York Times Book Review, mused that "there are times, reading an E. B. White book of essays, when you think he must be the most likable man of letters alive. This is as it should be in a collection of personal pieces; and if you are some kind of writer yourself, you probably want to imitate him."
Upon receiving the National Medal for Literature, White wrote an article for Publishers Weekly in which he thanked the National Institute of Arts and Letters for the award. In his article he defined the role of the writer. "I have always felt," White stated, "that the first duty of a writer was to ascend—to make flights, carrying others along if he could manage it. To do this takes courage.… Today, with so much of earth damaged and endangered, with so much of life dispiriting or joyless, a writer's courage can easily fail him. I feel this daily.… But despair is not good—for the writer, for anyone. Only hope can carry us aloft.… Only hope, and a certain faith.… This faith is a writer's faith, for writing itself is an act of faith, nothing else. And it must be the writer, above all others, who keeps it alive—choked with laughter, or with pain."
If you enjoy the works of E. B. White
you may also want to check out the following books:
Beverly Cleary, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 1965.
Dick King-Smith, Babe: The Gallant Pig, 1983.
Tor Seidler, Mean Margaret, 1997.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Agosta, Lucien L., E. B. White: The Children's Books, Twayne (New York, NY), 1995.
American Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1979.
Anderson, A. J., E. B. White: A Bibliography, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1978.
Aronson, Deb, E. B. White, Rosen Publishing (New York, NY), 2005.
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Benet, Laura, Famous English and American Essayists, Dodd (New York, NY), 1966.
Berg, Julie, E. B. White, Abdo & Daughters (Edina, MN), 1994.
Bernard, Catherine, E. B. White: Spinner of Webs and Tales, Enslow, 2005.
Cameron, Eleanor, The Green and Burning Bush: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books, Atlantic-Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1969.
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Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
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Elledge, Scott, E. B. White: A Biography, Norton (New York, NY), 1984.
Fadiman, Clifton, Party of One, World Publishing (Cleveland, OH), 1955.
Georgiou, Constantine, Children and Their Literature, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1969.
Gherman, Beverly, E. B. White: Some Writer!, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1992.
Hall, Katherine Romans, E. B. White: A Bibliographic Catalogue of Printed Materials in the Department of Rare Books, Cornell University Library, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1979.
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Rogers, Barbara J., E. B. White, Scribner (New York, NY), 1979.
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Unger, Leonard, editor, American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Volume 4, Scribner (New York, NY), 1974.
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Ward, S., Meet E. B. White, PowerKids Books (New York, NY), 2001.
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"White, E. B.." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 14, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/white-e-b
"White, E. B.." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. . Retrieved June 14, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/white-e-b