E. B. White (1899-1985) was one of the most influential modern American essayists, largely through his work for The New Yorker magazine. He also wrote two children's classics and revised Strunk's The Elements of Style, widely used in college English courses.
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, at Mount Vernon, New York, the son of a piano manufacturer who was comfortably well off, but not wealthy. He attended Cornell, graduating in 1921.
He was offered a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, but turned it down because his goal was to become a writer. He worked for the United Press International and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922 and then became a reporter for the Seattle Times in 1922 and 1923. As he put it, he found that he was ill-suited for daily journalism, and his city editor had already reached the same conclusion, so they came to an amicable parting of the ways.
White then worked for two years with the Frank Seaman advertising agency as a production assistant and copywriter. During this time he had poems published in "The Conning Tower" of Franklin P. Adams, the newspaper columnist who helped so many talented young people achieve prominence during the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1925 he published the article "Defense of the Bronx River" in The New Yorker magazine, his first piece in that publication. It led to his being named a contributing editor in 1927, an association which continued until his death in 1985.
From the time of its origin, The New Yorker was one of the most prestigious periodicals in the nation. It featured such celebrities as Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and George S. Kaufman as contributors, so White was in the company of the best when he was added to the staff.
At some time he became the principal contributor to the magazine's column "Notes and Comment" and set the tone of informed, intelligent, tolerant, faintly amused urbanity in observations on the passing scene, a feature which continued after his death. A typical example is this brief note, "Barred from Barnard, " written in 1929:
April 20. Our failure to attend the Greek games in the Barnard College gymnasium last Saturday was a bitter disappointment. The fact is, we wrote the dean of the college and she replied that she couldn't send us tickets because "through long experience we have found that it is much better not to have the games written up by visitors who do not understand them." We regard the dean's attitude as hardly Greek. Our public reply is that we do understand Greek games, that simplicity is our watchword, and that Demeter and Persephone are our favorite goddesses. Further, we think that Miss Gildersleeve ought to know that, as a result of being kept out of the games, we moped around all Saturday afternoon and in the evening went to a night club owned by a couple of Greeks.
That same year White published a poetry collection, The Lady Is Cold, and then joined fellow New Yorker writer James Thurber in Is Sex Necessary? Freudian psychology had been enormously influential in America in the 1920s, giving rise to a spate of volumes analyzing or presenting advice on the subject. The time was ripe for a parody of such books, and these two came up with a witty, low-key work featuring passages like this:
The sexual revolution began with Man's discovery that he was not attractive to Woman, as such. …His masculine appearance not only failed to excite Woman, but in many cases it only served to bore her. The result was that Man found it necessary to develop attractive personal traits to offset his dull appearance. He learned to say funny things. He learned to smoke, and blow smoke rings. He learned to earn money. This would have been a solution to his difficulty, but in the course of making himself attractive to Woman by developing himself mentally, he had inadvertently become so intelligent an animal that he saw how comical the whole situation was.
Also in 1929, White married New Yorker editor Katharine Sergeant Angell; the marriage produced one son.
He published Ho Hum in 1931, Another Ho Hum in 1932, Every Day Is Saturday in 1934, and in 1936, in the New Yorker, under the pseudonym Lee Strout White, the essay "Farewell My Lovely!" One of his best-known pieces, it was suggested to him by a manuscript submitted by Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor. It served as the basis for the book Farewell to the Model T, published later that same year.
White's next work was a poetry collection, The Fox of Peapack (1938), the same year that he began the monthly column "One Man's Meat" for Harper's magazine, a column which lasted five years. There followed the essay collection Quo Vadimus? in 1939; an editing job with his wife, The Subtreasury of American Humor, in 1941; and One Man's Meat, an anthology of his Harper's columns, in 1942.
In 1945 he entered a new field with great success, writing Stuart Little for children. The story of a mouse born to normal human parents was clearly intended to console young people who thought themselves different or odd, and it carried the message that Stuart's parents never batted an eye when their son turned out to be a mouse and that the hero, debonair, even jaunty, could build himself a good life.
After The Wild Flag in 1946 and Here Is New York in 1949, White returned to children's literature with his most popular book in the genre, Charlotte's Web, in 1952. The story of the bond between the young pig Wilbur and the clever spider who saves his life is a paean to the power of friendship and a reminder to young readers that death is a part of life.
The Second Tree from the Corner came in 1954. Three years later White and his wife gave up their New York apartment and moved permanently to North Brooklin, Maine.
While an undergraduate at Cornell, White had taken a course with Professor William S. Strunk, Jr. Strunk used a text he had written and published at his own expense, a thin volume titled The Elements of Style. White edited it, revised it, and added the chapter "An Approach to style, " offering such advice as "Place yourself in the background; do not explain too much; prefer the standard to the offbeat." The book sold widely and became a college campus fixture for the next 20 years in several editions (1959, 1972, 1979).
Honors began to pour in on the author. He won the Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his children's books in 1970, and the National Medal for Literature in 1971. In 1973 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He published The Points of My Compass in 1962; The Trumpet of the Swan, another children's book, in 1970; and collections of his letters (1976), essays (1977), and poems and sketches (1981).
E. B. White's influence was profound, particularly in the popular essay. His poetry is not exceptional and his sketches tend to the precious, but his essays served as models for two generations of readers. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, The New Yorker was judged by critics to be a model of elegant yet simple style in non-fiction, and White was in no small measure responsible for that reputation. He died October 1, 1985.
An early biography is E. B. White by Edward C. Sampson (1974). There are accounts of him in several books, such as Dale Kramer's Ross and the New Yorker (1951). A good discussion of his life and influence is Scott Elledge's E. B. White: A Biography (1985). □