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Picture of E. B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web (also E.B. White, EB White); essayist, poet, and novelist; twentieth century American Literature


 
October 1, 1985
E. B. White   (1899 - 1985)
 
E. B. White On Writing
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1985 E. B. White died at the age of eighty-six. Beyond the specific fame -- his "Notes and Comments" for The New Yorker; his "One Man's Meat" essays for Harper's; his children's books Stuart Little, Charlottte's Web and Trumpet of the Swan -- White is revered for his straight-talking and clear-saying, and his loathing of show-off prose. Not for nothing is Charlotte's ultimate web -- tribute to Wilbur, "Humble," nor is it chance that White was commissioned to edit several editions of William Strunk Jr.'s classic, The Elements of Style. Strunk used his book in his classes for sixteen years before it was published in 1935; White was one of his students, and one of the best at taking his advice: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." And speaking of drawing, White has one other link to fame: it was he who convinced The New Yorker that the drawings by his friend and office-mate, James Thurber, should be going in the magazine instead of filling up White's waste basket.

Though connected to both the city and the magazine for much of his writing life, White's ambivalence towards being a New Yorker started early. In his late 20s he was buying into a summer camp in northern Ontario; by 1933 he and his wife Katharine Angell had purchased the forty-acre farm in North Brooklin, Maine that would become their summer and then full-time home, as they both became part-time writer-editors. White's often-quoted Here is New York "love letter" was published in the late 40s, but a decade earlier he had made his reasons for leaving the place clear, and more convincing:
    A certain timbre of journalism and the stepping up of news, with the implication that the first duty of man is to discover everything that has just happened everywhere in the world.... The acceptance, by individual and state, of the ideal of publicity, as though the sheer condition of being noticed were the ultimate good.... It is a little hard to get on paper, but I smell something that doesn't smell good. There is a decivilizing bug somewhere at work; unconsciously persons of stern worth, by not resenting and resisting the small indignities of the times, are preparing themselves for the eventual acceptance of what they themselves know they don't want.
Interviewed at the farm on his 70th birthday, White said he was only writing a little, and when he did "I wish instead I were doing what my dog is doing at this moment, rolling in something ripe he has found on the beach in order to take on its smell. His is such an easy, simple way to increase one's stature and enlarge one's personality." When asked what he cherished most in life, White replied: "When my wife's Aunt Caroline was in her nineties, she lived with us, and she once remarked: 'Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.' I cherish the remembrance of the beauty I have seen. I cherish the grave, compulsive word."

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