E. B. White White, E(lwyn) B(rooks) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Louis Hasley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Nations in San Francisco, as well as subsequently in New York. In these writings, however, the humorist is not strongly in evidence but appears only in the vital personal flavor that eases the underlying didacticism without destroying the objective validity of his argument. In his commitment to freedom and his belief in the necessity of world federation, White is persuasive and convincing. He is likely to leave the reader feeling that the only hope for survival of the human race is a 'one world' government, though like every other political architect he cannot furnish a practical blueprint for overcoming the stumbling block of nationalism.

It is principally in the genre of the personal essay that the humorist in White comes to the fore…. There must be little question that he is our best living personal essayist. His temperament is at once serious and funloving. His interests are broad—nothing, it seems, that is human is alien to him. His eye and his intelligence see what lies beneath the surface. His judgment about affairs of great moment is judicious, even when his expression is enlivened by the arresting metaphor or touched by zaniness. (p. 37)

The prose pieces of White show a remarkable range in both sensibility and subject matter. They run the gamut from the trivial and funny to the deeply serious and humorous. White's first book was a collaboration with James Thurber, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), to which the two writers contributed alternate humorous chapters. The resultant performance is a smooth job of dovetailing, and the book's overall quality is no drag on the humorous reputations that both writers went on to build.

Of the early work by White, readers will find Quo Vadimus? or the Case for the Bicycle the most diverting collection. The book contains no mention of a bicycle; yet there is point to the subtitle. We see White as a cautious critic of progress, fearing the loss of the precious sense for basic things. Science, technology, and business feel the edge of his satire, particularly because of the excessive complications they introduce in life. For example, in "Irtnog," he gives us a clever reductio ad absurdum, telling how, first the digests, then the digests of digests, heroically attempt to cope with the inundating tides of print that come from the presses. Finally, "Distillate came along, a superdigest which condensed a Hemingway novel to the single word 'Bang!' and reduced a long Scribner's article on the problem of the unruly child to the two words, 'Hit him.'" (pp. 38-9)

The most varied, the most imaginative collection by White is The Second Tree from the Corner (1954). Ultimately it contributes most to his bid for greatness. The shadow of World War II, which had hung over One Man's Meat, had somewhat dissipated, and while there is awareness of the "bomb shadow," the spirit here is less immediately constricted and more exuberant.

In The Second Tree there are excellent examples of all important genres that figure in White's literary reputation; personal experiences ("Time Past"); pseudo-science stories ("Time Future"); notes on our times ("Time Present"); parodies and commentary on literary subjects; fifteen pages of verse; and experiences in the city and on the land.

The book is so richly varied that it defies any systematic attack in brief space. A random mention of the most outstanding pieces, however, with some indication of content, may be made preliminary to closer analysis of White's work for ideas and appraisal.

Here, then, is "A Weekend with the Angels," a charming account of White's experience of nurses while spending a wartime weekend in the hospital. "Farewell, My Lovely!" gives an animated portrait, nostalgia par excellence, of the oldtime Model T Ford. In "The Hour of Letdown" we meet, amidst foreboding humor, a machine that talks, drinks whiskey, corrects the bartender's English, drives a car, plays chess, and cheats. "Mrs. Wienckus" is an idea-profile, a laconic paragraph describing a modern, urban Thoreauvean woman who simplified her life by sleeping in empty cartons in a hallway despite possessing a healthy bank account. (pp. 39-40)

Like most men of balance, White is ambivalent about our civilization. Using the editorial we (which White once said was a device "to protect writers from the fumes of their own work") he stated his position.

Half the time we feel blissfully wedded to the modern scene, in love with its every mood, amused by its every joke, imperturbable in...

(The entire section is 2499 words.)

Edward C. Sampson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 of Peapack] and those in the earlier one is that many in this begin with a newspaper comment and develop from it. This approach may tend to produce limited and topical poems but it also suggests that White was moving closer to his material. The Fox of Peapack has fewer lyrical poems, fewer bits of whimsy; it has, on the other hand, stronger and more vigorous statements. (p. 41)

White's poetry cannot be seen aside from White. If his real significance lies in his point of view,… then the ultimate significance of his poetry lies in how it helps to define what he represents. Since his prose defines that position far better than his poetry, his poetry must take a secondary role in any final assessment. (pp. 47-8)

White has been the great spokesman for what might be considered a mid-form, but a mid-form of ideas, of human warmth—the viewing of life not with cosmic seriousness but with tolerant affection. White speaks for this mid-form, not the mid-form of poetry. (p. 48)

[Almost] everything White wrote from 1927 to 1938 had some connection with The New Yorker and showed the spirit and attitude that he brought with him to the magazine, or developed while he was working for it. (p. 49)

[It] was Is Sex Necessary?, not [The New Yorker's] "Notes and Comment," that first made White's name well-known…. The book was very much a part of the 1920's, and very much a part of White's early New Yorker days. In fact, we might say that the book, light-hearted spoof that it is, represents the maturity of White's first period of intellectual growth—if that is not too pretentious a way of talking about him. It is a humorous book, yet beneath its humor it makes a serious point, more serious than almost anything that White had said in The New Yorker up to that time. (pp. 50-1)

White, then, began as a poet and as a humorist, and it was as a humorist that he first attracted much attention. Although he never lost his humorous touch, a retrospective view of White suggests that humor is not his enduring quality. Serious themes emerge, and humor becomes more and more a means to an end, not an end in itself. (p. 53)

White was well on his way to becoming the spokesman for a literate, cultured minority. He could see the seriousness of the Depression; the follies and pretensions of politicians, ministers, and scientists; the growing threat to civilization posed by an impending second world war—he could see these things, and yet not lose his sense of humor, and not be drawn into a dogmatic or doctrinaire position. (p. 63)

The reader coming from Quo Vadimus? and Every Day Is Saturday to One Man's Meat is struck by White's greater sureness of material and expression, by his clearer thinking on many topics, and above all by his more penetrating moral purpose and his deeper conviction in attitudes and feelings. (p. 67)

Two topics run through many of the essays: often stated, often implied, they exist as a unifying pattern for One Man's Meat. One concerns war and internationalism, and the other domestic social and political problems. (p. 68)

The best essay in One Man's Meat, "Once More to the Lake," combines in rare form White's stylistic economy, which is essentially the stuff of poetry, with his skillful use of details, his gift for the evocation of the past and his feeling of the circularity of time; and, finally, his haunting awareness of the transient quality of life, the imminence of death. (p. 74)

We find in this essay much of the credo of E. B. White. Here is his simple love of nature; his nostalgia for the past, and along with that his inclination (never quite given in to) to reject the present (the tarred road, the outboard motors) in favor of the past; his preference for doing rather than thinking (the walking, the fishing, the boating); his feeling for the mystery outside the church, not inside it ("this holy spot," "cathedral...

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Nigel Dennis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)