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E(lwyn) B(rooks) White (1899-1985)

 

Leading American essayist and literary stylist of his time. White was known for his crisp, graceful, relaxed style. "No one can write a sentence like White," James Thurber once stated. White's stories ranged from satire to children's fiction. While he often wrote from the perspective of slightly ironic onlooker, he also was a sensitive spokesman for the freedom of the individual. Among his most enduring essays is 'Once More to the Lake.'

"I am the holder of a quit-claim deed recorded in Book 682, Page 501, in the country where I live. I hold Fire Insurance Policy Number 424747, continuing until the 23 day of October in the year nineteen hundred forty-five, at noon, and it is important that the written portions of all policies covering the same property read exactly alike." (from 'About Myself', 1945)

Elwyn Brooks White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, the son of Samuel White, a prosperous piano manufacturer, and Jessie (Hart) White; she was forty-one and Samuel was forty-five. Elwyn was the youngest child of a large family, where parents really loved children. On Elwyn's twelfth birthday his father wrote to him: "You are the object of the affectionate solicitude of your mother and father. Then you have been born a Christian. When you reflect that the great majority of men are born in heathen lands in dense ignorance and superstition it is something to be thankful for that you have the light that giveth life."

White once said, that he was a busy writer long before he went into long pants. After graduating from Cornell University in 1921, White worked in some miscellaneous jobs, such as reporter for United Press, American Legion News Service, and the Seattle Times, from which he was dismissed. The dismissal was no reflection on his ability, but his style and devotion to writing simply did not suit the paper. "I was a literary man in the highest sense of the term, a poet who met every train," he said in his journal.

In 1923 White returned to New York. For a period he worked as a production assistant and advertising copywriter before joining the newly established New Yorker. There he met his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell, who was the magazine's literary editor. They married in 1929. John Updike once said that she was "gifted with that terrible clear vision some women have (the difference between a good and bad story loomed like a canyon in her vision), yet not burdened by it, rather rejoicing in it and modest and humortous in her firmness." White's 'Child's Play,' which appeared in the last issue of 1925, marked the emergence of a new and original voice in the world of media. Charlie Chaplin called it "one of the best humor things he had read." In the story a waitress in a crowded restaurant spills a glass of buttermilk on the suit of the author, who refuses to be embarrassed but comforts the tearful waitress. For 11 years White wrote for the magazine editorial essays and contributed verse and other pieces. Among the other journalists with whom White and his wife become close friends were Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and Stephen Leacock.

"Walden is the only book I own, although there are some others unclaimed on my shelves. Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine. It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest, and I keep it about me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief – for relief in moments of defluxion or despair." (White in The New Yorker, May 23, 1953)

From 1929 White employed The New Yorker's weekly magazine, remaining in its staff for the rest of his career. Though he wanted to be read, he did not seek the approval of the "literary" world and was not interested in the leading members of the avant-garde of his generation. A few doors down the street on which he lived in the Greenwich Village, was the office of the Dial, edited by Marianne Moore, who published the poems of T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and others. However, though modernist aestheticism was not the source of inspiration for White's work, he probably read E.E. Cummings's humorous pieces from Vanity Fair.

White's favorite subjects were the complexities of modern society, failures of technological progress, the pleasures of urban and rural life, war, and internationalism. He was skeptical about organized religion, and advocated a respect for nature and simple living. White's early collections of poetry, The Lady Is Cold (1929) and The Fox of Peapack and Other Poems (1928), reflected his interest in "the small things of the day" and "the trivial matters of the heart." From 1938 to 1943 he wrote and edited a column called 'One Man's Meat' for Harper's magazine. These collected essays, featuring White's rural experiences, were published in 1942. Critics hailed this as White's best book to date, but he first gained wide fame with the publication of Is Sex Necessary?, which he wrote with his friend and colleague James Thurber. With Katherine Sergeant Angell he published A Subtreasury of American Humour (1941). One Man's Meat, which came out in 1942, and was reissued two years later in expanded form, had a nonstop run of 55 years in print. It was compiled of White's columns for Harper's with three essays from The New Yorker.

In 1939 White moved to a farm in North Brooklin, Maine, and continued his writing career without the responsibilities of a regular job. He never stopped loving New York, calling it "a riddle in steel and stone," but he also prophetically saw the vulnerability of the city: "A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions... Of all targets New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm." (from Here is New York, 1949) The barn near White's Maine home inspired many of the characters in his stories for children.

After World War II White became an enthusiastic editorial supporter of internationalism and the United Nations, publishing an collection of essays under the title The Wild Flag  (1946). In the essay 'The Ring of Time' (1956) he dealt with segregation. He tells how he explained to his cook, who was from Finland, that in the American Southland she should sit in one of the front seats – the seats in back are reserved for colored people. "Oh, I know – isn't it silly," was her reply and White concludes: "The Supreme Court said nothing about silliness, but I suspect it may play more of a role than one might suppose. People are, if anything, more touchy about being thought silly than they are about being thought unjust. . . . Probably the first slave ship, with Negroes lying in chains on its decks, seemed commonsensical to the owners who operated it and to the planters who patronized it. But such a vessel would not be in the realm of common sense today. The only sense that is common, in the long run, is the sense of change – and we all instinctively avoid it, and object to the passage of time, and would rather have none of it."

In 1959 White published a standard style manual for writing, The Elements of Style, which became a mainstay of high-school and college English courses in the U.S. The work was based on Prof. William Strunk Jr.'s privately printed book, Little Book, which had gone out of print. White, who had been Strunk's student at Cornell, revised the original adding a chapter and expanding some of the other content. Later Strunk & White's The Elements of Style was revised several times. The famous manual, with its timeless observations, is still considered an exemplar of the principles it explains. "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary part." White's essay ´'Will Strunk', published in The New Yorker, now serves as the intro to the book.

Between writing columns, White also published children's books. Stuart Little (1945) depicted an independent and adventurous child, the size of mouse, who is born into a human family. After various adventures Stuart goes in search of a bird whose life he had previously saved. Charlotte's Web (1952) was about the friendship between a young pig, Wilbur, and a spider, Charlotte A. Cavitica. She craftily saves him from the butcher's knife through the message, ''Some Pig,'' she weaves in her web – only to die alone. In The Trumpet of the Swan  (1970) a mute swan learns to trumpet and becomes a celebrity. In these works White explored such themes as loyalty, tolerance, and rural living. They have become for many young readers unforgettable guides into the world of fiction.

E.B. White died of Alzheimer disease on October 1, 1985 in North Brooklin, Maine. He was awarded the gold medal for essays and criticism of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 1978. He held honorary degrees from seven American colleges and universities and was a member of the American Academy.

For further reading: Meet E.B. White by S. Ward (2001); E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist by Robert L., Jr. Root (1999); E.B. White: The Children's Books by Lucien L. Agosta (1995); E.B. White The Elements of a Writer by Janice Tingum (1995); Critical Essays on E.B. White, ed. by R.L. Root (1994); Stuart Little: A Full-Length Musical Based Upon the Book by E.B. White by Ronna Frank (1993); E.B. White: Some Writer! by Beverly Gherman (1992); To the Point: A Story About E.B. White by David R. Collins, Amy Johnson (1989); E.B. White: A Biography by S. Elledge (1984); Hugging the Shore by J. Updike (1983); E.B. White by E. Sampson (1974)

Selected works:

  • The Lady is Cold, 1928
  • Is Sex Necessary?, 1929 (collaboration with James Thurber)
  • Ho Hum: Newsbreaks from the New Yorker, 1931 ( illustrations by O. Soglow)
  • Another Ho-Hum: More Newsbreaks from "The New Yorker", 1932
  • Alice Through the Cellophane, 1933
  • Every Day is Saturday, 1934
  • The Fox of Peapack, and Other Poems, 1938
  • Quo Vadimus?, 1939
  • A Subtreasury of American Humor, 1941 (ed. with Katherine Sergeant Angell)
  • One Man's Meat, 1942
  • Stuart Little, 1945 (pictures by Garth Williams)
    - Stuart Little (suom. Päivi Heininen, 2000)
    - film 1999, dir. by Rob Minkoff, starring Geena Davis, Jeffey Jones, Julia Sweeney; voices: Michael J. Fox, Nathan Lane, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly, Bruno Kirby, David Allan Grier, Steve Zahn.
  • The Wild Flag, 1946
  • Here Is New York, 1949
  • Charlotte's Web, 1952 (pictures by Garth Williams)
    - Lotta ystäväni (suom. Leena Härmä, 1954; Tarja Kontro, 2007)
    - animated feature in 1973, dir. by Charles A. Nichols, Iwao Takamoto. Voices: Debbie Reynolds, Henry Gibson, Paul Lynde, Agnes Moorehead, Charles Nelson Reilly. Narrated by Rex Allen.
  • The Second Tree From The Corner, 1954
  • The Elements of Style, 1959 (with William Strunk, Jr.; 50th-anniversary edition in 2009)
  • The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South, 1962
  • An E.B. White Reader, 1966 (edited with commentary and questions by William W. Watt and Robert W. Bradford)
  • The Trumpet of the Swan, 1970 - animation in 2001, dir. by Richard Rich, Terry L. Noss, screenplay by Judy Rothman Rofe, E.B. White
  • Letters of E.B. White, 1976 (collected and edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth)
  • Essays of E.B. White, 1977
  • Poems and Sketches of E.B. White, 1981
  • Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976, 1990 (edited by Rebecca M. Dale)
  • Salutations!: Wit and Wisdom from Charlotte’s Web, 1999 (pictures by Garth Williams)
  • Letters of E.B. White, 2007 (originally ed. by D. L. Guth, rev. by Martha White)
  • In the Words of E. B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers, 2011 (edited by Martha White)


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