In the preface to Onward and Upward: A Biography of Katharine S. White, author Linda H. Davis acknowledges that undertaking a biography of Katharine S. White (to whom she frequently refers as KSW) was risky, even “assuming, of course, that I [at the time an unpublished graduate student] could pull it off.” Putting in more than six years of research, during which time she exhausted the available primary sources and established a close bond with KSW’s relatives, Davis labored valiantly to produce a palatable book. Although clearly sympathetic to her subject, whose only direct contact with her had been a thank-you reply to a note praising The Letters of E. B. White (1976), Davis is not blind to her weaknesses and eccentricities. As Davis states: “We were strangers, but she had written to me as to a friend. I sensed that she was lonely and feeling useless.”
All in all, Davis accomplishes the first prerequisite of a biographer: making an elusive personality come alive, as well as the social milieu in which she lived. Those already familiar with The New Yorker’s luminous contributions to the literary arts will especially enjoy learning more about this formidable woman, who, next to founder Harold W. Ross, was probably most responsible for its contents during its first thirty-five years. Although slightly hyperbolic, Davis claims that, as a literary editor, Katharine White “exerted a profound influence on American fiction, poetry, and humor—on the quality of English prose itself.”
Especially strong is the first part of the book, ending with thirty-three-year-old White, mired in an unhappy marriage and the mother of two children, going to work in 1925 for the six-month-old magazine. After a brief recounting of KSW’s New England lineage (among her ancestors was a Yale University scholar who ministered to Indians), Davis introduces such influential family members as Annie Shepley (Aunt Poo) and Caroline Sergeant (Aunt Crully), older sisters Rosamond and Elsie, and, most important, White’s father Charles Spencer Sergeant (“Papa,” with the accent on the second syllable). An official for the Boston Elevated Company, White’s father was often confused with Harvard University professor Charles Sprague Sargent, whose mail often turned up at the Sergeant’s elegant Georgian home on Hawthorn Road in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts.
Although White later resented being labeled a proper Bostonian, she was reared in an atmosphere of rectitude and propriety. The telegram penned by her father announcing her birth read simply “But yet a woman.” After White’s mother, Bessie, died in 1899, unmarried Aunt Crully became mistress of the house. She and Papa provided love and security but frowned on emotional displays, such as crying at funerals. The result was somewhat stifling.
One childhood incident remained always vivid in White’s memory. In fact, she later wrote about it in an unpublished story called “The Teacup.” The Christmas after her mother’s death, a distant aunt sent her a piece of china. While Papa and Aunt Crully thought it a stupid gift for a six-year-old, White cherished its rosy complexion, its blue-ribbon pattern, and its graceful curving lines; it was her most prized possession—until her older sister took it away to college without asking for her permission.
Called “Goody” in school, White developed an independent streak that others occasionally found forbidding. In Davis’ words, she could be slow to forgive, sensitive to criticism, prone to worry, and a demanding perfectionist, yet endearing and even inspirational. Above all she was courageous in the mold of Walt Whitman’s “bold swimmer.” Small in height with sad eyes, a big bosom, and uncut hair tied in a bun, she was a hauntingly attractive young woman, earthy yet dignified.
An extraordinary event took place at Hawthorn House in October of 1907, when White was fifteen years old: Aunt Poo married Hyozo Omori, a Japanese student more than twenty years her junior. While the nuptials were the subject of much gossip, White’s immediate family rallied around Aunt Poo. White subsequently developed an aesthetic appreciation of Japanese culture, poetry, and folkways, extending even to the delicate art of flower arrangement.
The most traumatic incident of White’s youth occurred at Lake Chocorua during the summer after her junior year at Bryn Mawr College. She and her fiancé discovered the bodies of two drowning victims and watched in horror as carnivorous turtles ripped away their flesh. Katharine had recurring nightmares about the scene but later recounted the incident to writer Jean Stafford, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of it.
White flowered in the intellectual environment of Bryn Mawr, whose president, M. Carey Thomas, urged her students to eschew early marriages and instead pursue professional careers. White edited the college magazine and annual, wrote poetry and short stories, directed plays, served as a class officer, and shed some of her inhibitions. Graduated in 1914, she spent a year traveling and doing volunteer work before moving to Cleveland with her new husband, Ernest Angell. When he went off to war, White moved back to Boston and resumed her volunteer work. Meanwhile, a messy political...
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