Letters of E. B. White
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2197
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 Canyon in Utah at sunrise, with a printed description of it as “an inspiring sight never to be forgotten.” Under this White had scribbled, “I wasn’t up.”
Much of White’s humor in his letters, as in his earlier published writings, relates to various pets the Whites have owned. Of these the chief was Fred, a dachshund, one of the funniest dogs in literature. When Fred was aging, the Whites got a younger companion for him, Minnie, and later White reported to Stanley White, “Minnie is in heat and Fred is trying to adjust the demands of passion to the limitations of arthritis.” Wild animals, as well as tame ones, have entertained and amused White for many years—the protagonists of his three children’s books are a mouse-boy, a spider, and a trumpeter swan. In a letter to a friend White tells of his mistaking a rolled-up little porcupine for an old bird’s nest, and he quotes the warning the mother porcupine had earlier given: “If White should come along, simply quit eating your apple and roll yourself into a ball, tucking your feet under you and also your tail, and stay still and don’t talk.” And this, writes White, “is just what he had done.”
In Here at the New Yorker (1975) Brendan Gill remarks about E. B. and Katharine White that when, during their marriage of over forty years, they were separated, White’s conversation was “so likely to center on his wife that she becomes all the more present for being absent.” White’s many letters and occasional interoffice memos variously addressed to “K,” “Kay,” and (jokingly) “Mrs. White,” and the hundreds of references to Mrs. White in letters to other correspondents make clear the happiness and love in a marriage marked by many short separations and a long list of illnesses and physical infirmities of husband and wife: White’s hay fever, stomach troubles, broken toe, shingles, ulcer, arrhythmia labyrinthitis; Mrs. White’s flu, mumps, blocked carotid artery, broken back, shingles, neuritis, osteoporosis, heart attack. Though White often makes wry jokes about his own troubles—“. . . my heart . . . has lost its rhythm and now goes one two three four hello-there-everybody! One two three four”—he is serious and lovingly concerned when he mentions Mrs. White’s illnesses to many correspondents. After Mrs. White’s congestive heart failure in November, 1975, White wrote to her in the hospital:Tomorrow is our 46th, and it is a particularly important one for me because of your having strayed so far away, and then been brought back, and this made me realize more than anything else ever has how much I love you and how little life would mean to me were you not here. Welcome back, and do not ever leave me.
As America sank into the Depression of the 1930’s and the world became enmeshed in the horrors of war in the 1940’s, White’s writing developed a deeper seriousness than it had shown before. He became increasingly interested in international relations, he envisioned a future world federation of nations, he wrote his parable “The Wild Flag,” and then he became disillusioned when he was in San Francisco at the founding of the United Nations. Many of his letters during this period and later reflect his views. Writing to Ross in 1944 he anticipates the national struggles after the fighting stops: “I hate to see millions of kids getting their guts blown out because . . . trade . . . air routes and airfields . . . insular possessions . . . are made the prizes of nationality.” A long letter to his niece Janice White in 1952 states his failed belief in the possibility of a world government because of this fiercely competitive nationalism. “I think,” he writes, “that the most precious thing in the world is not the concept of federation but the concept of justice . . . as it has developed in the western world.” By the end of 1964 he has become skeptical about a world government ever developing out of the United Nations as long as it keeps its present charter. “The charter,” he says, “affirms and extends national sovereignty in almost every clause. . . . It is . . . impossible to contain capitalism and communism under one political roof. . . .”
White’s firm belief in the concept of justice led him in 1947 to write to the New York Herald Tribune after the newspaper had supported the blacklisting of the “Hollywood Ten” in connection with the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of Communists and disloyal beliefs. Declaring himself a party of one, White argued against congressional ignoring or defying of the First Amendment and he announced: “I hold that it would be improper for any committee or any employer to examine my conscience. They wouldn’t know how to get into it, they wouldn’t know what to do when they got in there, and I wouldn’t let them in anyway.” White had believed in and had often written about a man’s right to privacy. He was outraged at the government’s attempts to invade one’s privacy of thought.
In 1957 the Whites left the pressures of office and the pace of life in New York and moved to their farm home in Maine. They both sent occasional writings to the New Yorker, but they now had more opportunity to pursue their personal interests. White tended to his farm chores, went out in his sailboat, and stayed busy with other matters. He edited, and added a chapter to, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., a little composition book he had studied at Cornell. He published The Points of My Compass (1962) and his third children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), and he continued his correspondence with many old friends and attempted to answer a few of the many letters which came to him from readers of his books. Writing to the humorist and New Yorker writer Frank Sullivan about donating letters and other manuscripts to the Cornell library, White described what happened when Harold Ross discovered that someone in his advertising department had donated nine years of New Yorker manuscripts to a wartime paper drive: “When Ross learned of this he blew all seven gaskets, and . . . goddammed for three days without letup.” The Dirksen amendment on voluntary prayer in the public schools elicited a letter to Senator Margaret Chase Smith expressing White’s opposition. “It should be the concern of our democracy,” he said, “that no child shall feel uncomfortable because of belief.” To a doctor friend he wrote regretting the failing of his creative abilities, “I’m in the moult and my spirit begins to droop.” To Howard Cushman, who had traveled west with him when they were both young men, he sent a long letter about writers and writing, stating his uneasiness about modern writing “not because of its being experimental but because of its abandonment of the responsibility of good taste and its acceptance of the inevitability of complete disclosure.” He thanked Richard Nixon on July 15, 1969, for a friendly greeting on White’s seventieth birthday. He answered a young girl’s question in 1974 about Stuart Little, which ends with Stuart still searching for Margalo: “As you grow older you will realize that many of us . . . go through life looking for something that seems beautiful and good. . . . [Stuart] was searching for the bird Margalo, who was his ideal of beauty and goodness.”
Near the end of the book, White remarks to the young woman who will edit the book for his publisher, “A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist—nothing shields him from the world’s gaze except his bare skin.” Finishing this fine volume of letters, one can only be thankful to White for agreeing to shed his protective covering, and wish him good fortune in continuing his search for “something that seems beautiful and good.”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
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.