White, E(lwyn) B(rooks)
White, E(lwyn) B(rooks) 1899–
White is an American essayist, poet, humorist, and author of books for children. His essays, characterized by witty and graceful prose, have appeared regularly in The New Yorker and Harper's for many years. He is well known for his children's literature, notably, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. White collaborated with James Thurber on a volume of essays entitled Is Sex Necessary? (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
White has been a kind of national housekeeper and caretaker. He has gone on steadily and quietly, looking around and ahead, poking into public and domestic corners, defusing bombs, and brushing down cobwebs, caretaking whether anybody else cared or not (thousands cared that he cared); and hardly any literate American has not benefited from his humor, his nonsense, his creativity, and his engaging wisdom. White's readers can glean the astute observations and experiences of a dedicated denizen of megalopolis as well as of a sensible, serious dirt farmer living by an arm of the Atlantic Ocean down in Maine. White has managed to divide his time fruitfully between these two places, Manhattan and Maine. His concerns, however, are not merely tactile and local but ultimately transcendental. For the critical side of him is engaged with assessing the quality of life open to us in our time. He thus merits the title of philosopher although in no academic sense of the word.
Apart from his own unfaltering sophistication, White as critic of our national life can be seen as a logical descendant of a whole line of nineteenth century American humorists, beginning with Maine's Seba Smith, whose character Major Jack Downing reported the doings, first, of the state legislature and then of the Congress in Washington. White, in no sense clowning his coverage, did hover over and provide enlightening political analysis during the painful birthing of the United...
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Edward C. Sampson
Although most of White's poetry is light verse, his best poems are not always his humorous poems, and his humorous ones often have an ironic twist or comment that gives them a serious tone. Those poems where humor is the chief or sole effect are apt to be too topical or too insubstantial to be effective; some, however, are successful. (p. 38)
By and large, we cannot claim a great deal for the poems in [The Lady Is Cold]; White is too restrained, and at times there is too much distance between the poet and the scene he describes; in most of these poems, he comments quietly on the daily routine of city life, its minor conflicts, its tensions. He describes late evening and early morning rambles, the chance appearance of a pretty face, and the brief contact with people that brings a transient sense of unity; taking a half-whimsical look at himself, he celebrates his minor victories, and is amused by his weaknesses.
A modest quality, as well as restraint, exists in many of these poems, almost as if White were afraid of being too serious, too involved—or perhaps too conscious of the danger of destroying his sensitive perception of life by putting it into words…. (pp. 39-40)
White experimented with a wide variety of poetic forms in The Lady Is Cold, but a kind of caution also appears; he is ultimately conventional. (p. 40)
One difference between the poems in [The Fox...
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One of the many interesting pieces in Essays of E. B. White is called "Some Remarks on Humor" and was originally the preface to an anthology of humor assembled by White and his wife and published in 1941. In it, White does his duty to the publishers like a man and talks about the essence of humor—why funny is so funny, what temperature the oven should be, and so on—but his heart is not in this unhappy duty; no man knows better that a dissertation on humor is bound to be worthless as information and painful as reading matter. So, he moves on smartly to the infinitely fascinating question, which nobody has managed to answer, of why Americans believe "that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious."…
White shows that American humorists have accepted their secondary place in the scale of seriousness for many years. The greatest of them, Mark Twain, asserted that "Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration"; he himself was essentially a preacher, he said (how strange for a man to think that essence and fragrance are separable!). (p. 42)
Still the question remains: what seriousness can be expected of a man who can only write essays and is inclined to smile? White has smoothed out this question somewhat by the selection he has made for this book: there are a number of pieces, mostly about civil liberties, which would meet the...
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