E. B. White’s most important literary influence was Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), the only book White really cared about owning. The influence of Thoreau’s subtle humor and individualistic philosophy can be seen in White’s writing, including his short fiction. Like Thoreau, White believed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” that most people spend their lives getting ready to live but never actually living. White’s short stories usually deal with the quiet desperation of life in the big city, where human beings trapped in an unnatural environment are beset by stress and anxiety, often temporarily alleviated by alcohol, meaningless social activities, and unfulfilling work.
Whereas Thoreau wrote about the joy of living close to nature, White, as a New Yorker contributor, had to deal with the reverse side of the picture—the anomie of life in one of America’s most crowded, most competitive cities. When he managed to effect a Thoreauvian escape from New York to the peace and quiet of Maine, White lost interest in writing short stories.
White, like Thoreau, never lost his sense of humor even when dealing with depressing subjects. Most characteristic of White’s short stories is their strange mixture of humor and emotional distress. In this he resembles his friend and collaborator James Thurber, who defined humor as “emotional chaos remembered in...
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