E. B. White: an appreciation. The self-depreciating stylist has left a legacy well worth remembering
The recent passing of essayist and New Yorker writer E. B. White has produced an outpouring of affectionate tribute that seems at first glance disproportionate to the achievement of a writer who seems so resolutely ``minor.'' Mr. White's most successful full-length books were his beloved children's stories ``Stuart Little,'' ``Charlotte's Web'' and, to a lesser extent, their later successor, ``The Trumpet of the Swan.'' His longtime affiliation with a magazine that embodies urban sophi stication and has routinely been accused, over the years, of encouraging an artificial style that bespeaks intellectual eliteness would seem a further limitation. Indeed, White's favorite tune seems to have been self-depreciation. He expressed wonderment at discovering ``that the world would pay a man for setting down a simple, legible account of his own misfortunes.'' The world has done rather more than that: White's honors include the National Medal for Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, membership in the (genuinely elite) American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, in 1978, a special Pulitzer Prize acknowledging his life's work.
He was born Elwyn Brooks White in 1899 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., into a semi-genteel family that made vacation escapes to Maine whenever possible. ``Andy'' (which he preferred to the unwelcome ``Elwyn'') was educated at Cornell University, where he became a highly successful collegiate journalist. After graduation, he traveled about the country, took assorted reporter jobs, and was working in advertising when he hooked up with the newly established (1925) New Yorker magazine, as an all-purpose contri butor and, later, member of the editorial staff.
In 1929, White married Katharine Angell, also an editor there. (A likely literary byproduct of this union, her son and his stepson, would grow up to be Roger Angell, the world's best writer on the subject of baseball.) That same year saw the publication of White's inspired collaboration with James Thurber, ``Is Sex Necessary?'' a deft parody of the sexologists' writing then in vogue that has lost little of its impish freshness.
In 1938, the Whites packed up and moved to North Brooklin, Maine. This life-change wouldn't last because The New Yorker's persuasive editor, Harold Ross, lured them back a few years later to work full time and help pull the magazine out of some severe financial doldrums. White's collections of writings began appearing at about this time: ``One Man's Meat'' (1942), probably the best of them, includes the essays he produced for a column so titled in Harper's magazine, White's only sinecure of any consequence away from The New Yorker. ``The Second Tree From the Corner'' (1954), and ``The Points of My Compass'' (1962) followed later, after ``Stuart Little'' and ``Charlotte's Web'' had proved the virtually universal appeal of White's down-to-earth prose.
Andy White attempted some serious commentary on international relations and tensions during World War II; it's as if he felt his minor-key mastery wasn't enough, that he had to step forth, and speak forth. (Similarly, one wonders when browsing through ``Stuart Little,'' whether this odd tale of a boy exactly resembling a mouse who's born to human parents hadn't something to do with Andy White's regret that he was judged too small for military service during World War I.) In 1953, he was (in the words of
his biographer, Scott Elledge) ``one of the first to editorialize against testing hydrogen bombs,'' and years later he wrote ``bulletins tracing man's progress in making the planet uninhabitable.''
Admirable, and unarguable, as these missives are, they're uncharacteristic White. The melancholy that convincingly deepens his delicately written pieces is a function of White's love of the simple life and championing of individual liberty and privacy, and of the fear, never far below the surface, that these ``givens'' may somehow be taken from us. These constant emphases are seen in such memorable White essays as ``A Slight Sound at Evening,'' his elegy on Thoreau and Walden Pond, and ``Once More to th e Lake,'' which describes, with much feeling, White's return in later life, accompanied by his son, to a favorite place of his childhood.
Many other essays are consensus classics; perhaps specific mention should be made of ``Farewell, My Lovely!'' his nostalgic valentine to the Model T Ford, and ``Here Is New York,'' a complex love letter of an essay that makes us understand White's mixed feelings about the metropolis (his final, conclusive retreat to North Brooklin was accomplished in 1957).
There is surprisingly much more. White's contributions to The New Yorker's ``Notes and Comment'' section (he wrote the majority of these for more than 20 years) were wonderfully varied and lively (and remain -- scholars take note! -- largely uncollected). His poetry, especially his light verse, is often charming and is always skillfully fashioned.
``The Subtreasury of American Humor'' (1941), which he and his wife edited together, holds up marvelously well, and includes a valuable prefatory essay on humor. White's ``Letters,'' published in 1976, offers an endearingly rich and funny look at the literary life he shared in, and helped create.
Last but scarcely least, ``The Elements of Style,'' a textbook originally authored by his Cornell teacher William Strunk Jr., as revised and expanded by White (1959), has become the definitive guide to those writer's virtues E. B. White has come to personify: directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, clarity. They're a fine legacy; an achievement indeed, and more than reason enough to remember him fondly, and well, and for a long time to come.