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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2499
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 face of its threat, bent on enjoying it to the hilt. The other half of the time we are the fusspot moralist, suspicious of all progress, resentful of change, determined to right wrongs, correct injustices, and save the world even if we have to blow it to pieces in the process.
For White declared that "our goods accumulate, but not our well-being." He deplored the fact that "there is a great deal of electrically transmitted joy, but very little spontaneous joy." (p. 40)
White was well aware of the dictum of Mark Twain which holds that a humorous writer who wishes to live must both preach and teach though he must not do so professedly. White replied to this dictum, saying that he didn't think that humor needed to preach in order to live; rather, "it need only speak the truth."
Some of White's truth speaking has a cutting edge, though seldom is it as sharp as is his comment on the Christmas bonus, which he describes as "the annual salve applied to the conscience of the rich and the wounds of the poor." In the same connection he sees with dazzling clarity the trouble with the profit system—that it has always been highly unprofitable to most people, as "the profits went to the few, the work went to the many."
To use Robert Frost's memorable words, White too has had "a lover's quarrel with the world." He is no pessimist. His ideals may be labeled romantic or idealistic, as one prefers, but his vision is whole and realistic. The angelic hospital nurse who took his temperature "in the awful hour of a day born prematurely … personified the beauty and lunacy of which life is so subtly blended." In the Foreword to his 1962 volume, The Points of My Compass, he reiterates his love for the world and fervently declares, "I love it as passionately as though I were young."
It is clear from his writings that E. B. White is a religious man, though he falters when he tackles the subjects of his own beliefs and practices. In his first book of verse, the entirely negligible 1929 volume called The Lady is Cold, there are brief references to God and to St. Christopher. In view of the Vatican's 1969 consignment of St. Christopher to outer or at least dubious space, White's prayer to "the God I half believe in" might better have been directed to the lost patron of travelers. (p. 41)
Without question, the single piece of White's that is the richest embodiment of his ideas and temperament is the pseudo-science fictional story "The Morning of the Day They Did It," included in The Second Tree from the Corner (1954). He has pointed out elsewhere that "today's fantasy is tomorrow's news event." More than one phase of the story is no longer fantasy, especially that of electronic communication from a space vehicle to earth. But White has projected into this work so much of today's directional potential that the story's prophetic element should be fascinating for scores of years ahead.
"The Morning of the Day They Did It" is a first person parable carrying the now commonplace theme that science and its impact on human nature gravely forebode the destruction of the world. (p. 42)
Despite a pervasive irony, the narrator pays honest tribute to this country's "great heart and matchless ingenuity." Managing somehow to land, and survive, on another planet, he says that life there is more leisurely than it was on earth. "I like the apples here better than those on earth. They are often wormy, but with a wonderful flavor…. But I would be lying if I said I didn't miss that other life, I loved it so."
Objectively the events of "The Morning of the Day They Did It" are grim and the story ends in nostalgic pathos. But the tone is amiable and relaxed, reflecting the new peace which the narrator finds on his "inferior planet." The considerable irony is often light, and a good deal of humor emerges. (pp. 42-3)
White wrote no novels and only a few pieces that fall within the genre of the short story. Though he wrote a small number of other enchanting parables and prophecies, "The Morning of the Day They Did It" must stand as his finest achievement in fiction.
In an essay entitled "Poetry," White confessed that he would rather be a poet "than anything." We may readily concede him the title, but while his poetry is respectable, it is undistinguished and is greatly surpassed by his prose. Morris Bishop declared, in 1950, that E. B. White and a few others are creating a new mid-form between Light Verse and Heavy Verse. Contrary to wide current practice, they avoid pretentious obscurity, says Bishop, and aim at lucidity. That much is true of White's verse, which is ordinarily entertaining and competent, occasionally expert, but rarely of the stuff that draws the reader back to it again and again. In discussing his art, it will therefore be most useful to concentrate on his prose.
"To achieve style, begin by affecting none," White wrote in the chapter he supplied for … The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. Further, as a writer becomes proficient in the use of langage, "his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge."
White's unselfconscious honesty shows in the statement just quoted. For in his work there is almost wholly lacking any special device, mannerism, or meretricious maneuver. "Words that are not used orally are seldom the ones to put on paper," he also cautioned. "Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition." And: "The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself … an audience of one."
With the help of these precepts of style enunciated by White, we may see that, in the light of him as a person, his style is transparent and unobtrusive. With him, more than with most writers, the style is the man: careful, steady, sure, resourceful, concrete without flourish, capable of fun and even surrealistic fancy, and as often as not, expressing a deadly seriousness that may be richly compounded with humor. (pp. 43-4)
Most of his commentary on humor is unexceptionally perceptive. "Humorists fatten on trouble…. There is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying…. Humor, like poetry … plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth." Usually (he asserts wisely and for the most part contrary to his own practice) "the most widely appreciated humorists are those who create characters and tell tales." And "the subtleties of satire and burleque and nonsense and parody and criticism are not to the general taste." In writing of Marquis's archy and mehitabel he maintained that "to interpret humor is as futile as explaining a spider's web in terms of geometry." That essay, entitled "Don Marquis," is not without its measure of interpretation. Or is it that White's position, as stated, is hyperbolic and he does not intend a literal reading of his contention that essentially humor is a complete mystery? But he has also written: "The truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty … and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood."
The fact that White writes by ear, and writes superlatively well, helps to explain the high quality of parody and burlesque of which he is capable. Any Whitman enthusiast (except Walt himself were he still hearing America singing) would be ecstatic over "A Classic Waits for Me," a satire on book club membership. (p. 44)
The New Yorker paragraphs, or mini-essays, are the twentieth century's distillation of absorbing personal experience and are justly a part of White's literary fame. They open without introduction, going forward with directness, concreteness, scrupulous economy, and ease. Often they occupy less than a single page, though they may run to several pages. The tone is quietly objective and curious, blending close and unstressed, unrhetorical observation with a wryly distinctive reaction of the writer, sometimes expressed, sometimes only implied. Excellent examples abound in both One Man's Meal and The Second Tree from the Corner, as well as in the earlier (1934) collection, Every Day Is Saturday.
White confesses that, in his early days, he was a graduate of the University of Mencken and Lewis, and admits to having been under the spell of Sandburg. Faint traces of the first two may be found in his work—the critical satire of Mencken (though rarely if ever holier-than-thou), and the clinical observation of Sinclair Lewis. More relevant, however, is his underlying kinship in political commentary with Finley Peter Dunne; his temperamental tendency to whimsy and oblique criticism of society as found in Don Marquis; and a frame of mind very often like that behind his all but worshiped Walden, product of that solid romantic, Henry David Thoreau. These are well deserved literary kinfolk, we conclude—good enough for any writer who rises above being a mere humorist. (p. 45)
Louis Hasley, "The Talk of the Town and the Country: E. B. White," in The Connecticut Review (© Board of Trustees for the Connecticut State College, 1971), October, 1971, pp. 37-45.
Edward C. Sampson
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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 stillness"); his vivid language, with his liking for the simple, natural figures of speech ("the boat would leap ahead, charging bullfashion at the dock"); his love for people, for his son, and his sense of identity with the young (which made him such a good writer, later on, of children's stories); and the everpresent sense of death that with White was sometimes whimsical [and sometimes intensely serious]. (p. 76)
Written over a period of three years, the editorials in The Wild Flag are White's only book-length discussion of a single topic. They form some of his best writing; because of the subject, however, they must be judged on somewhat different grounds from that of his other work—and judging them today is not easy. If the book seems naïve, the reader must remember the context—World War II—and the often naïve hopes many people had for world peace. If it is repetitious, he must remember that originally the editorials appeared at uneven intervals over an extended period of time. (p. 90)
Perhaps more serious than White's lack of historical perspective is the absence of any reference to the psychological and sociological aspects of war. (p. 91)
In "Across the Street and into the Grill," one of his best spoofs, White parodies Hemingway's novel Across the River and into the Trees. White chose his subject well; the novel, probably Hemingway's worst, deserves parody. White, I am sure, would grant that Hemingway's style at its best is beyond parody, but in a style like Hemingway's there is a thin dividing line between effectiveness and affectation—like the thin line between sentiment and sentimentality in much of Charles Dickens.
One of the functions of the parodist is to discover these fine lines and, by crossing them, to show the dangers and vulnerability of the style. With devastating skill White does precisely this, concentrating on chapters XI and XII of Hemingway's novel. His technique is to select certain words and phrases Hemingway used; placing them in a slightly different context, he pinpoints the foolishness of the original. (p. 124)
[It] is not in the specific word echoes that the greatest success of "Across the Street and into the Grill" lies, but rather in White's dead-pan parody of the fatuous, trivial tone of the whole scene in the novel. It is the posed and phony heroism, the pseudo-realistic, irrelevant details that White singles out for ridicule. (p. 125)
The essays in The Points of My Compass fall into what are now familiar patterns for White: national and international affairs, the idea of progress, the urban and rural scenes and, in two notable essays, the circularity of time—a theme in much of White's writing and one present by implication in a number of these last essays. In fact, the whole collection, ending as it does with an autobiographical essay that goes back to White's days in Seattle and Alaska, suggests the idea of circularity. Also, to many of these essays White has written postscripts containing "after-thoughts and later information." They add to the feeling of circularity.
We find also a curious sort of geographical circularity in the collection…. This "geographical distortion," as he calls it, seems to broaden the dimensions of the work; but it also underlines the importance of New York City to White. It was for him a microcosm, a center, and the four corners of the world could almost be contained within its emotional if not geographical limits. Geography was to White something of an emotional matter…. Without being pompous about it, we could say that the essays represent the culmination of White's experience, the farthest point of navigation—not quite to the heart of darkness, perhaps, but certainly to the heart of his message to his readers. (p. 132)
All of his reports of the past may not be in yet, all the points of his compass not yet revealed, but I suspect that his major themes have been stated; The Points of My Compass, in its subject and structure, is a fitting and impressive summation. In space, it is a microcosm of his world; in time, a symbol of the unity and coherence of human experience, where youth and age, city and country, past and present, come together. The book is ultimately White's plea for a vital life where the means do not become ends, where gadgets do not create more problems than they solve, where the "advances" of science do not destroy all possibility of real advance because they have destroyed life itself. (p. 148)
White's style … developed freely as an expression of himself and of all those forces, impossible ever to understand fully, that make a man a writer….
If it is not easy to account for White's style, it is also not easy to describe it, though that must be my concern now. Certainly one key to its perfection is his choice of words. (p. 155)
Unlike some writers, White has few words or expressions that he keeps using. It is remarkable, for example, that for over a twenty-year period, while he was writing substantial parts of "Notes and Comment," there were only two or three instances when he opened a comment with the same word or phrase. And even those expressions or words of which he appears to be fond are used so rarely as to be scarcely noticed.
What is striking about White's use of words is not so much the individual choice but the context in which the choice appears—his brilliant use of contrast, his use of the specific word to make a generalization or an abstraction clear, his figures of speech drawn from clear observation of nature or daily life. (pp. 155-56)
[Over] the long stretch of White's work, the combination of seriousness and whimsy, or of the minute and the momentous, is effective, and at times profoundly true. Because human experience itself is a curious mixture of shifting tones and moods there is a basic honesty and wisdom in White's writing; he reveals himself as a man unafraid of surface contradictions or of simple and natural responses. (p. 158)
[It] must be admitted at the outset that White has not written great poems, great novels, great plays, or great short stories. As these are the genres most talked about and admired by today's critics, we might wonder what there was left for White to be. (p. 160)
Few admirers of E. B. White, however, would be content to let his significance rest on his connection with The New Yorker; or on his worth as a stylist; or as a writer of sketches, short stories, or children's books. He is equally important as the spokesman of our times for the right of privacy, a right threatened by the population explosion, by devices for snooping, and by repressive measures instituted through the fear of violence in our society….
White is, in E. M. Forster's sense of the word, an aristocrat—one of the aristocracy of "the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky"—and he speaks for those like himself. (p. 163)
White speaks for those who have taken, like himself, the often lonely role of the true individualist. He gives strength to those who find the role difficult, who find it hard to resist putting on a badge or acquiring a label, but who do resist. Surely such a spokesman has a significant part to play in a society in which pressures to conform are great and in which even non-conformity turns upon itself and produces often the ultimate conformist. Although White may sometimes hold a middle position, his role is not that of the defender of compromise. But, unlike the professional liberal, or the professional conservative, he doesn't scorn the middle position; and, when he sees cause, he is not afraid to abandon whatever position he has taken. He embodies tolerance without condescension, understanding without oversimplification, individualism without eccentricity. (p. 164)
Edward C. Sampson, in his E. B. White (copyright 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1974.
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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 serious test with perfect solemnity, even though they have no serious theories behind them and no serious clichés to push them forward. (pp. 42-3)
But the heart of the collection is the picture it presents of country life. A humorous undertow is running all the time, and the combination of this and the rural material is bound to startle the foreigner who depends not only on the press for his picture of America but on American writers who are first-class citizens with a vengeance….
There are a few other things to be said in favor of White. In his old-fashioned way, he omits needless words and avoids a succession of loose sentences. He continues the old tradition which has made humor America's best ambassador. Though only an essayist, he makes definite assertions and says shortly what others say at length. He will never win the Nobel Prize and will certainly never approach a Great Work; but he will always make sense, which is an achievement too. To conclude that he should be ranked among serious writers would only give offense to those who are…. (p. 43)
Nigel Dennis, "Smilin' Through," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), October 27, 1977, pp. 42-3.