E. B. White

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1329

A few years ago, accepting an award for his writing, E(lwyn) B(rooks) White said, “I feel that a writer has an obligation to transmit, as best he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” White transmitted this love and appreciation for more than a half century in...

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A few years ago, accepting an award for his writing, E(lwyn) B(rooks) White said, “I feel that a writer has an obligation to transmit, as best he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” White transmitted this love and appreciation for more than a half century in the pages of The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, in several books of selections from his magazine contributions, and in three children’s books that have become classics.

Scott Elledge’s E. B. White, the first biography of White, is excellent in its portrayal of one of America’s premier essayists and in its appreciative treatment of his work. One often feels, reading the book, that the biographer himself displays, as if by absorption, what he calls the quickness, precision, and grace of mind of his subject.

White began early as a writer, winning at the age of ten a prize from a women’s magazine for a poem about a mouse, and prizes at eleven and fourteen from St. Nicholas Magazine, a magazine for children. At Cornell University, he was editor in chief of the campus newspaper in his junior year. After graduation, there was no question about his trying to make his living as a writer (though his father had hoped he would become a lawyer), but he was to travel some bumpy side roads for several years before he reached the highway to success.

White’s travel was literal after he left Cornell in 1921. The next year, he and a college friend, Howard Cushman, drove from Mount Vernon, New York, to the West Coast in a new Model T Ford, earning expenses by odd jobs along the way. They returned separately by rail, White after an impulsive trip to Alaska, first as a tourist, then as a cabin boy and mess boy after his money gave out. Years later, the long, adventurous journey was to furnish material for White’s most famous essay, “Farewell, My Lovely!” (a loving tribute to the Model T), and scenes in two of his children’s books, Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970).

In 1926, when White took a part-time job writing for a fledgling magazine, The New Yorker, neither he nor the dyspeptic, tempestuous editor, Harold Ross, could know the good fortune each had gained. Ross had found the writer who would set much of the tone of the magazine for several decades, and White would continue as either a part-time or a full-time contributor for more than fifty years.

Fortune favored White in another way too at The New Yorker. He married one of his coworkers, Katharine Angell, after she divorced her husband. The happy marriage lasted forty-eight years until Mrs. White’s death in 1977.

At The New Yorker, White’s contributions included many of the features that distinguished the magazine. He became a master of the paragraph in the anonymous opening section, “Notes and Comment.” He supplied cartoon captions (Mother: “It’s broccoli, dear.” Boy: “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it”). He wrote editor’s comments beneath “newsbreaks,” the brief fillers at the end of pages. He wrote stories, sketches, poems, letters, answers to hard questions (“Q: When a man does not believe in tipping and is eating in a place where tipping is customary, what should he do? A: Tip”). Once, after White had temporarily left The New Yorker to write an essay column for Harper’s Magazine, Harold Ross tried to entice him back and promised no restrictions on what he might write: “You can have any damned thing you want around this place.”

White felt at home—professionally—at The New Yorker, and Mrs. White was happy with her work as fiction editor, but he decided, in 1937, that he needed a year off from the pressure of what he privately called a weekly “editorial bowel movement.” He even left his wife and young son, Joel, for a while, but he returned after a few weeks because he missed them so much. Literarily, he accomplished little during his long leave of absence, and he began to experience a nonachievement depression.

Having tired of New York living, White in 1938 moved with his wife and son to a large farmhouse and a forty-acre farm in Maine. He also then began to write for Harper’s Magazine a signed monthly column of first-person-singular essays, in contrast to the anonymous weekly first-person-plural paragraphs to which he had been confined at The New Yorker. He had some trouble at first in adjusting to the length and mode of the Harper’s Magazine columns, but when they were later collected and published as One Man’s Meat (1942), the book became a best-seller. An Armed Services Edition had a wide distribution, and White received a number of letters from grateful servicemen. Critics praised the essays as among the finest ever written in the United States, and several were later reprinted as model familiar essays in college textbooks.

One of the best of these essays is “Freedom,” in which White develops a theme that recurs many times in his writing. “For as long as I can remember,” he says, sounding a bit like Henry David Thoreau (one of his favorite authors), “I have had a sense of living somewhat freely in a natural world. I traveled with secret papers. My first and greatest love affair was with this thing we call freedom, this lady of infinite allure, this dangerous and beautiful and sublime being who restores and supplies us all.”

According to Elledge, White dislikes being called a humorist, but humor appears in much of his writing, both his prose and such occasional poems as “The Red Cow Is Dead” and “Song of the Queen Bee.” Perhaps it was this aspect of his writing which led a publisher to suggest that White and Mrs. White edit a collection of humorous writings by various authors. The result was A Subtreasury of American Humor (1941), with a preface by White that contains a brief essay on humor. With himself in mind as well as other authors in the book, White writes, “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 his professional writing as well as in his private letters, White’s jesting comments sometimes seem like wan flowers nourished by the dark soil in a slough of melancholy.

The Whites, though they kept their Maine home, established a second one in the Turtle Bay section of New York because Mrs. White enjoyed city living and her New Yorker work. After her resignation from the magazine in 1957, though, they returned to their Maine farmhouse. His loneliness since Mrs. White died is partly relieved by visits from Joel, his wife, and their three children, who live down the road from him. Joel, who since childhood has shared his father’s love of boats, has been building and selling them for some years.

Physical and psychological ills of many kinds from childhood on led to periods of depression for White. At various times, he suffered from gastritis, dizziness, a “nervous crack-up,” hay fever, shingles, throat trouble, an ulcer, and an ulcerated tooth. In his depressed moods, he often felt that he had accomplished much less than he was capable of, though he had received honorary degrees and a number of other awards for his writing. As Elledge shows, however, White’s long career has been marked by many successes. One Man’s Meat; The Second Tree from the Corner (1954), a collection of essays, poems, sketches, and stories; the internationally popular children’s books Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan; Letters of E. B. White (1976); Essays of E. B. White (1977)—the man who wrote these need never have a feeling of inadequate achievement. His niche in the literature of twentieth century America is secure.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Business Week. February 27, 1984, p. 12.

Choice. XXI, June, 1984, p. 1464.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, April 18, 1984, p. 21.

Library Journal. CIX, January, 1984, p. 81.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 19, 1984, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, February 26, 1984, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LX, April 30, 1984, p. 112.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, January 6, 1984, p. 74.

Time. CXXIII, February 13, 1984, p. 69.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, February 24, 1984, p. 30.

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