Sunday, August 12, 2007

E.B. White

Plain spoken but artful, natively sophisticated but unpretentious, opinionated but not patronizing, E.B. White was a gift of a writer to America. His range of writing was narrower than some but his style connected with people in the fashion of a conversation rather than a lecture. His essays, for which he is perhaps most widely admired and appreciated, were spare meditations on common-place items and issues, delivered in such nominally plain prose that his readers could flatter themselves that his expressions captured their thoughts. These many decades later, even though the minutiae of daily life has changed so drastically, his thoughts and reflections still charm and entertain though that of which he spoke may have passed from our experience, rotary dial phones, nightly cocktail parties, transom windows, and the like.

Born July 11, 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, the youngest of six siblings, Elwyn Brooks White had a comfortable upbringing in a well-off home afforded by his father (a piano manufacturer) and his mother.

An amateur writer from an early age, he attended Cornell University in 1917-21, there meeting a professor with whose name his would be inextricably linked down through the years, William Strunk, Jr., the author in 1919 of a little guidebook on writing style which E.B. White many years later updated and formalized and published as The Elements of Style in 1959.

His literary accomplishments are anchored on his reputation as an essayist, his authorship of three children's stories (Charlotte's Web , Stuart Little , and Trumpet of the Swan ), his revised edition of what became so well known to generations of college students, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style , and particularly his early involvement in the establishment of the New Yorker magazine and his on-going association with a whole generation of gifted writers, wits and bon-vivants, such as James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woolcott of the Algonquin table.

After graduating from Cornell in 1921, White traveled with a friend out west in an old Model T till he reached Seattle where he worked for a year as a reporter. He later recounted these travel adventures in Farewell to Model T , which makes fascinating reading of a time before highways and interstates. A trans-continental trip of this sort was a physically arduous exercise of navigating endless rutted dirt county roads, interspersed periodically with the relief of a paved Main Street through some small town or city.

He bounced around between a number of jobs over the next three or four years, usually in some way related to writing, as a journalist, copy-writer, etc. In 1925 he had his first piece accepted by the recently founded New Yorker thus beginning a life-long association with that storied magazine so filled with distinctive and eccentric personalities. White's early and close friend at the magazine, James Thurber, in a book called The Years with Ross , wrote a charming recounting of those early years when its' unique voice and style were being established through the contributions of Thurber, White, Ross, Angell, and others. By 1927 White was a full-time employee of the magazine initially as a staff-writer but later in a range of roles sometimes more and frequently less suited to his talents until he settled into an unusual position of basically writer in residence, writing to his own schedule and proclivities.

In 1929 he married Katherine Angell, also of the New Yorker. Despite being born and raised in New York, urban, crowded living took a toll on White and in 1938 they moved to North Brookline, Maine, living year-round on a farm they had purchased a number of years earlier.

Stuart Little , the first of his three children's books, came out in 1945. Apparently the idea originally came to him in the 1920's, he developed a number of episodes and adventures for a niece in the late 1930's and then wrote it over a number of years before its publication in 1945. Stuart Little is the story of the life and adventures of a mouse adopted by a New York family. Adopted, not in the sense of adopting a pet, but adopted as a son. Though strongly counseled against publishing the story by Anne Carroll Moore, one of the most influential people in children's book publishing at the time, White proceeded simply because the story appealed to him. And as soon as it was published, it was quickly apparent that it appealed to many others as well.

Despite White shying away from awards, honors, and certainly the accolade of "classic", Stuart Little along with Charlotte's Web published seven years later in 1952, have both become classics, easily meeting the criteria set by White. When his publishers released Stuart Little in 1945, they described Stuart Little in their catalogue as "a classic figure", to which description White objected on the grounds that "nothing is a classic until generations of readers have proved it to be one." Now, 62 years later with children still routinely reading and falling in love with Stuart, Charlotte, and Wilbur, I think it is fair to say that it is accurate to call both books classics.

Lesser known but equally appealing and equally deserving of the same appellation is White's third children's book, Trumpet of the Swan the tale of a Swan without a voice whose father helps him overcome this handicap by stealing a trumpet for his calls.

All three books are available on CD. White lived into his eighties and late in life recorded his reading of all three books though currently only Charlotte's Web and Trumpet of the Swan are available by him. All three of our children read all three books and loved them as literature. On a long road trip, we purchased Trumpet of the Swan read by White to listen to and all of us fell in love with that as well. White has a distinctive, gravelly grandfatherly voice that brings an additional quality to the story that is hard to put a finger on but is valued none the less.

These are the only children's books that White wrote but he was batting 1000. All three are indeed classics.

Appropriate for older readers, are a handful of E.B. White books that are masterpiece examples of the art of the short essay. White's second published book was a satire he wrote with James Thurber in 1929 Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. Despite it's titillating title, it is actually a satirical take down on the habit, courtesy of Freud, of self-indulgently over-analyzing one's emotion's as if one were overturning Copernicus and putting oneself at the center of the universe. It has dated a little but it is startling just how contemporary it can also sound.

As I mentioned above, Farewell to Model T is a marvelous snapshot back to a time in America's history that most children wrestle with comprehending. Collections of his essays that are still in print include One Man's Meat, Here is New York (another snapshot, in this instance, the heyday of New York in the 30's - 50's), and finally Essays of E.B. White. Essays of E.B. White.

Independent Readers

Charlottes Web by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams

Stuart Little by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White and illustrated by Fred Marcellino

Young Adults

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

Farewell to Model T by E.B. White

Here is New York by E.B. White

Is Sex Necessary? by E.B. White and James Thurber

One Man's Meat by E.B. White

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976 by E.B. White

No comments:

Post a Comment