E. B. (Elwyn Brooks) White was born on July 11, 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. He was the youngest child of Jessie Hart White, the daughter of Scottish-American painter William Hart and Samuel Tilly White, the president of a piano firm. If you are like me (by the way, it’s Jeff again) you probably find the name somewhat familiar, but have trouble placing it.“I think he wrote a children’s book or something?” That’s right, he is the author of several of the most beloved children’s books of all time: Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stewart Little! For those of us who are a little older, he was one of the most influential authors published in The New Yorker from when it was started in 1925 until the late seventies. Finally, he revised a small book called “The Elements of Style” in 1959. This book is still required reading in many composition classes in high school and college and I have a copy I still use!
White attended public schools in Mount Vernon growing up and went to Cornell University where picked up the nickname Andy after the school tradition of naming anyone with a last name of White “Andy” after the university’s founder. He graduated in 1921 and was offered a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, but he declined because he wanted to be a writer. After college he worked for United Press International and was a reporter for the Seattle Times for a few years. In 1924 he started working for the Frank Seaman advertising company. He published a number of poems while at the advertising agency and continued to submit articles and essays to magazines. These articles came to the attention of Katharine Angell in 1925 when his article “Defense of the River Bronx” was published. He resisted the offer of contributing editor until 1927 and worked for most of the rest of his career although he did write for Harper’s Magazine from 1938 to 1943.
White married Katharine in 1929 and shortly after that they moved to Maine where he lived until his death. He was a very private person who disliked publicity. It was said he used the fire escape to leave his office to avoid people he did not know.
Most of us, out of a politeness made up of faint curiosity and profound resignation, go out to meet the smiling stranger with a gesture of surrender and a fixed grin, but White has always taken to the fire escape. He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club. His life is his own. He is the only writer of prominence I know of who could walk through the Algonquin lobby or between the tables at Jack and Charlie’s and be recognized only by his friends.
— James Thurber, E. B. W., “Credos and Curios”
By 1959 White was considered by many to be “the most important contributor to The New Yorker at a time when it was arguably the most important American literary magazine.” He was commissioned by Macmillan to rework the 52 page “The Elements of Style” written by William Strunk in 1918 a book he had vaguely remembered using while at Cornell. This new version became known as “Strunk & White” and as I mentioned is required reading for many, many composition classes even today. The first version sold over 2 million copies and the subsequent revisions sold over 10 million copies. Mark Garvey wrote Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style which is a history of the book and a operatic play was also written based on the book.
While “The Elements of Style” is very well known, White is also known for his children’s books. He had a very difficult time writing them as he described: “I really only go at it when I am laid up in bed, sick, and lately I have been enjoying fine health. My fears about writing for children are great—one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness. I don’t trust myself in this treacherous field unless I am running a degree of fever.” His nieces and nephews pushed him to write them stories and after having a dream about a little boy who looks like a mouse while on a train he started writing “Stuart Little”. In addition, he was pushed by Anne Carroll Moore, an extremely influential librarian who defined and started the children’s library movement in the United States. Interestingly, once the book was finished in 1945 Anne hated it and did everything in her power to block its publication and after publication, its inclusion in children’s libraries. A lengthy description of this battle can be found in from “The New Yorker” published in 2008. It is likely that Anne kept “Stewart Little” out of the Newberry Award contention the year it would have been nominated it didn’t even make the top four. White got the last laugh though as it has been extremely popular since it’s publication!
In addition to “Stewart Little” White also wrote one of my favorites, “Charlotte’s Web” (1952) and “The Trumpet of the Swan” (1970). Other books written by him include:
- Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do (1929, with James Thurber )
- Subtreasury of American Humor (1941)
- One Man’s Meat (1942)
- The Wild Flag (1943)
- Here Is New York (1949)
- The Second Tree From The Corner (1954)
- The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.) (1959, republished 1972, 1979, 1999, 2005)
- The Points of My Compass (1962)
- Letters of E.B. White (1976)
- Essays of E.B. White (1977)
- Poems and Sketches of E.B. White (1981)
- Writings from “The New Yorker” (1990)
- In the Words of E. B. White (2011)
White won numerous awards including the 1963 Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Pulitzer Price Special Citation in 1978 for his collected works and essays. At the end of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died on October 1, 1985 at his farm in Maine. This being said, his legacy continues as “Charlotte’s Web” was voted the top children’s novel in a 2012 survey of readers.