Download E. B. White Study Guide

Subscribe Now

E. B. White

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,386 words.)