Letters of E. B. White

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Letters of E. B. White, White’s eighteenth book, took more than sixty years to write. Naturally, it was not planned, in the usual sense—like Topsy it just, grew, and it is one of the best books of letters ever written. The volume was published as a result of a suggestion made in 1972 by Ursula Nordstrom, who edited White’s three children’s books and who had a number of letters to contribute to the volume. In an author’s note, White thanks the three women who brought the book into being: his goddaughter Dorothy Guth, who collected the letters and edited the volume; Corona Machemer, his Harper editor, who aided in editing and organizing the material; and Katharine White, his wife, who “gazed steadily and skeptically at the whole mess with a patience born of her long years of dealing with unruly writers and untidy manuscripts.”

Letters of E. B. White is a model of editing and ordering a varied mass of manuscript. Guth’s brief biographical note on Elwin Brooks White is followed by White’s own account of his early life and the introduction of the members of his large family. The rest of the book consists of the letters and such miscellaneous correspondence as postcards and interoffice memos, with short editorial introductions to the thirteen remaining major divisions and special notes or background explanations concerning particular letters. In some of these notes White himself supplies comment. Footnotes identify many people mentioned in the letters and sometimes supply other pertinent information. There are a number of photographs of various Whites and a few friends, including dogs. The correspondence is arranged chronologically. An excellent index with many cross references, lists not only names and literary titles but also such topics as “Animals on farm,” “Birds,” “Dogs and cats (owned by Whites),” and “Education.”

Writing in 1929 to an older brother, E. B. White commented on his ability and limitations as a writer: “I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace.” White was a few months short of thirty at the time. He had briefly tried several jobs in advertising and journalism and given them up, realizing how unsuited he was for such work. In 1925 the New Yorker published a few short prose pieces and poems which White had submitted, and Harold Ross urged White to join the staff of his new magazine. It was White’s good fortune, and that of the magazine, that he accepted the offer, since most of the writing he was to publish for the next fifty years, with the exception of his Harper’s column “One Man’s Meat” and his three children’s books, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan, first appeared in the New Yorker’s pages.

The New Yorker provided an ideal outlet for the short kinds of writing which White was temperamentally inclined toward: cartoon captions, comic or satiric tag-lines under newsbreaks used to fill in unfinished columns, paragraphs of comment on topics of the day, poems, parables, humorous or satiric prose pieces, and short stories. Beginning in 1955, after White and his wife Katharine had retired from regular work at the New Yorker, his “Letters from the East” series (written from his Maine farm home) offered White an opportunity to comment occasionally and informally in the magazine on a wide variety of topics.

The chronological arrangement of this volume provides a loose kind of biography and, because so many of the letters are concerned with White’s writing, enables the reader to follow his development as an author. In addition, since White writes about people as well as to them, one becomes acquainted with many of White’s relatives and friends, both those associated with him as a writer and others with whom he maintained friendships lasting many years. Many interesting letters, answering questions or complaints about his writings, were written to adults and children whom he never met.

Humor has been an ingredient in White’s writing from the beginning, and it often appears in his correspondence. The humor is not easy to define. Sometimes there is an element of the absurd. Writing to Harold Ross in 1928 while on a European trip, White mentioned the brazenness of Parisian prostitutes. Approached by three of them soliciting him from an automobile, White sent them away “pouting,” he told the irreverent Ross, with the words, “No man is lonely who has Jesus on his side.” The humorous effect comes often from an unexpected phrase or other detail. After he had worked at the New Yorker for some years until he felt he was exhausting himself, White planned to tell Ross he needed a year’s vacation. He wrote his brother Stanley: “I want to see what it feels like, again, to let a week pass by without having an editorial bowel movement.” Some weeks after having started his vacation he sent Ross a postcard with the message: “Enjoyed working in your shop very much. Will always remember it.” The card pictured (and described) some of the beauties of Florida; it was mailed from Maine. Another postcard, mailed from San Francisco to Gus Lobrano, showed Bryce...

(The entire section is 2197 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXVI, May 7, 1977, p. 430.

American Scholar. XLVI, Spring, 1977, p. 237.

Book World. November 21, 1976, p. E1.

National Observer. December 18, 1976, p. 19.

New York Times Book Review. November 21, 1976, p. 1.

Sewanee Review. LXXXV, April, 1977, p. R59.

Time. CVIII, December 20, 1976, p. 74.