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Letters of E. B. White

E. B. White


  * * *



  Author’s Note

  Editor’s Note


  MOUNT VERNON, 1908–1917








  16 EAST 8TH STREET, 1931–1936


  ONE MAN’S MEAT, 1937–1941


  THE WAR YEARS, 1942–1945


  A PARTY OF ONE, 1946–1949


  TURTLE BAY, 1950–1951


  CHARLOTTE’S WEB, 1952–1954








  IN THE LEE OF THE BARN, 1971–1976




  E.B. WHITE, A BIOGRAPHY, 1982–1985

  Photo Section


  About the Author

  About the Editor


  Also by E. B. White


  About the Publisher


  * * *

  1. Family portrait, 1899.

  2. 101 Summit Avenue, Mount Vernon, New York.

  3. Jessie and Elwyn in Mount Vernon, with Beppo, an Irish Setter.

  4. Samuel Tilly White posing at Rangeley Lake.

  5. Lillian and Elwyn, Clinton Corners, New York.

  6. Elwyn, tending a rabbit.

  7. Samuel and Elwyn.

  8. Lillian and Elwyn, 1906.

  9. Elwyn and mandolin.

  10. Elwyn, in elementary school.

  11. Elwyn, in grammar school.

  12. Elwyn, at Cornell.

  13. The White family men.

  14. Great Pond, North Belgrade, Maine, 1905.

  15. ELWYN. Belgrade, about 1910.

  16. The White family, aboard Jessie.

  17. and 18. White’s Model T, called “Hotspur.”

  19. Becker Café, Hardin, Montana.

  20. August, 1923, on the S. S. Buford, near Nome, Alaska.

  21. Katharine Sergeant Angell, shortly before her marriage to White.

  22. White in his New Yorker office; the dachshund is Minnie.

  Following page 330

  23. Andy and Katharine, around 1930, at Samuel and Jessie White’s golden anniversary party.

  24. Andy and Katharine at work on A Subtreasury of American Humor.

  25. White and James Thurber, Sneden’s Landing, New York about 1929.

  26. Harold Ross.

  27. James Thurber and E. B. White.

  28. Andy with Joel McCoun White, born December 21, 1930.

  29. Katharine with infant Joel in the pram and Daisy on a leash.

  30. Katharine White and her three children, Joel White and Nancy and Roger Angell.

  31. The Whites’ farm in North Brooklin, Maine.

  32. White, 1940s.

  33. Roger Angell and Joel White.

  34. Katharine and Joel on the shore at Walker’s Pond.

  35. The cutter Astrid in Tenant’s Harbor, Maine.

  36. Joel White at Exeter Academy, about 1945.

  37. Dachshund, Fred.

  38. Katharine aboard Astrid, about 1935.

  39. Katharine and Andy and dachshund, Minnie.

  40. Nancy Angell at the helm and her mother, Katharine.

  41. Katharine and Andy, feeding the sheep.

  Following page 458

  42. Joel’s wife, Allene White, in Maine.

  43. Allene, Joel, Steven, and Martha, stationed in Grossenhausen, Germany, 1955.

  44. Katharine White, by Peter Arno.

  45. E. B. White, by James Thurber.

  46. William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style.

  47. White receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Maine’s Senator Edmund Muskie, 1964.

  48. Katharine in her New Yorker office.

  49. Colson Henry Allen.

  50. White with a robin on his shoulder and a cup of worms, 1964.

  51. Joel M. White, in his Brooklin Boat Yard office, early 1990s.

  52. The good sloop Martha.

  53. One of White’s rare speeches, at launch day.

  54. Rowing out to the Martha, Brooklin Boat Yard in the background.

  55. White, feeding the sheep outside the barn.

  56. Katharine and Andy and dog, Susy.

  57. White in his eye patch, early 1984; the dog is Jones.


  * * *

  by John Updike

  The prose of E. B. White, as manifested in his letters, lopes along sensibly and informatively, like many other people’s, until it delivers an unexpected poetic punch. Looking at just the hitherto unpublished letters in this revised collection, we find, apropos of his packing and dispatching the papers of his recently deceased wife:

  The labor has been time-consuming and exhausting as well as melancholy; I now wander about this old house staring into empty shelves and fighting back memories.

  “Fighting back”—the sensation, familiar to all who have grieved, is caught with a rare bluntness and resonance. Some months later, White turns his eye on a dog’s loneliness: “One day while I was away he found a wool shirt of mine in the livingroom and proceeded to take it all to pieces. Whether from anger or from uneasiness I do not know.” Uneasiness was, in old age and youth, White’s element. His writing career began, according to a thinly fictionalized portrait of a “Mr. Volente,” when a waitress in a Childs restaurant spilled a glass of buttermilk on him: “Mr. Volente had written an account of the catastrophe at the time and sold it to a young and inexperienced magazine, thus making for himself the enormously important discovery that the world would pay a man for setting down a simple, legible account of his own misfortunes.” At the opposite end of White’s career, the misfortunes of old age are echoed in the fall of a tree:

  I spent hundreds of dollars trying to save my elm, but it didn’t work. The tree landed on the lawn with a tremendous thuddd. Now they want me to spend a lot of money trying to save my retinas, but that isn’t going to work, either.

  This painfully sensitive and clear-sighted man found the world of artistic enterprise also productive of thuds, as when his children’s classic Charlotte’s Web was made into an animated movie: “After listening to Wilbur sing “I Can Talk, I Can Talk,” in the Hanna-Barbera picture, I can take anything. I wanted to run on my sword but couldn’t find it.”

  Much of White’s correspondence in the last years of his life was directed, with an asperity softened by affection, to Scott Elledge as this Cornell professor labored on White’s biography. Patiently White corrected errors, provided facts, delivered droll demurs:

  I feel the manuscript, even with the cutting you have done, is too long. The horrid truth is, my life is not all that interesting. I kept falling asleep over it, even though it was my life.

  When the manuscript had become a book, its subject expressed “misgivings about the jacket blurb”:

  The blurb calls me “America’s most beloved writer.” That is not only open to question, it isn’t a good pulling idea anyway. I’m an old advertising man, and I know that people would rather buy a book about a writer everybody hates the guts of.

  Some months later, he rather shockingly describes the biography to its author
as “your book about the American author who never quite made it into the big time.” Two years earlier in their collaboration, White both bowed out and bowed in, telling Elledge:

  I would think twice about describing “the vigorous part” I played in your final revisions lest you give readers the idea that I’ve been breathing down your neck and writing my own story. It is, after all, unusual to have a subject of a biography still alive and kicking, and I have felt uneasy in this role and uncertain just how to behave. I have been torn between the strong desire to keep out of it and the equally strong desire to help clarify it.

  White’s collaboration with Dorothy Lobrano Guth, his goddaughter, in the 1976 publication of nearly seven hundred pages of his letters also stirred unease. This invasion of his own privacy, and to an extent that of his correspondents, went against his grain, and probably would not have occurred had not Katharine White’s long and expensive illnesses made it seem necessary. The note he attached to that volume said as much, with typical bounce and reticence:

  Ideally, a book of letters should be published posthumously. The advantages are obvious: the editor enjoys a free hand, and the author enjoys a perfect hiding place—the grave, where he is impervious to embarrassments and beyond the reach of libel. I have failed to cooperate with this ideal arrangement. Through some typical bit of mismanagement, I am still alive, and the book has had to adjust to that awkward fact.

  Living long enough to be a reluctantly coöperative party to his biography and his collected letters was a bother, even something of a plague, for him, but a boon to the multitudes of White lovers, in the many corrections and felicitous refinements he lent to the two tasks. Letters of E. B. White is by far his longest book, and by many measures his most autobiographical. It opens with ten lovely pages, in italics, that he supplied on the subject of his happy childhood in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon. The first letter published, to his brother Albert, was composed when he was nine and shows a flash or two of the compression, crystal clarity, and lightly worn melancholy which would become characteristic:

  It isn’t a very nice day and I’ve got a cold so I didn’t go to school. Mamma brought me a tennis ball and if I be [note the artful subjunctive] very careful can I use your racket? I heard now while I’m writing this letter that Philis Goodwin [a neighbor’s child] died. They wouldn’t have a doctor and so you see.

  His brothers, especially Stanley, were to become correspondents that elicited the young White’s freest self-expression. With rapidly developing literary flourishes, his letters take him through early love and some automotive vagabondage to Cornell, and thence to an advertising job in New York, to which he commuted from his parents’ home in Mount Vernon. In 1925 he moved to the city, sharing an apartment on West Thirteenth Street with three other Cornellians, and tried freelancing, finding acceptances in Franklin P. Adams’s influential newspaper column “The Conning Tower” and the fledgling New Yorker magazine. Harold Ross, the perfectionistic if disheveled editor of the magazine, invited him to join the staff and assigned him the lowliest editorial job: “the newsbreak job—editing the little fillers from other papers and writing punch lines for them.” White proved so good at this, so deft and fancy-free in his touches, that he won Ross’s heart; fifty-six years later he was still at the anonymous newsbreak job, resigning finally in April of 1982 because of the deteriorating eyesight. At The New Yorker he found his livelihood, his lifelong podium, and his wife, the editor Katharine Sergeant Angell, who greeted him at his first appearance in the office: “I noted,” he remembered long afterward, “that she had a lot of back hair [a bun] and the knack of making a young contributor feel at ease. I sat there peacefully gazing at the classic features of my future wife without, as usual, knowing what I was doing.”

  His letters in the fat middle of this collection trace, with unfailing grace and good humor, his relation with the magazine, its readers, and his fellow contributors, including his volatile and uproarious office mate James Thurber; Thurber and White were to collaborate on their first book, a wry spoof called Is Sex Necessary? Along with grace and good humor, his letters hold a restless unease—a desire to look beyond Harold Ross’s magazine, where he enjoyed a singular and cosseted but confining eminence. From Ontario in 1929 he wrote Ross, “On account of the fact that The New Yorker has a tendency to make me morose and surly, the farther I stay away the better. . . . Next to yourself and maybe one or two others, I probably have as tender a feeling for your magazine as anybody. For me it isn’t a complete life, though.” Nervously he nursed, behind an epistolary manner of humorous diffidence, a steely ambition, confessing to Eugene Kinkead in 1981,

  As I recall it, I sometimes signed a pseudonym when I found a piece wanting in merit, or virtue. I wanted the name “E. B. White” to be associated with excellence—literary splendor. It is possible that I once sent in a piece to the NYer signed with a phony name to see if I could get a rejection instead of an acceptance, but I have no clear recollection of having done that. I wouldn’t put it past me, though. I was a fidgety young man, worried about all sorts of real and imaginary failings.

  He hovered between his love for New York and a love for Maine; in 1938 he escaped the city to a saltwater farm in North Brooklin, Maine, recording his life there in monthly columns for Harper’s that, in the end, added up to—if one must be named—his very best book, One Man’s Meat. In a foreword written forty years after its initial publication in 1942, White recollected:

  Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me. . . . I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had the chance to get some of it down on paper.

  In the years afterwards, he ventured into surprising genres: with Katharine he edited A Subtreasury of American Humor; his contributions to the generally apolitical Notes and Comment section of The New Yorker began to plead, as World War II wound down, for a transnational entity that would enforce peace, and he attended the founding of the UN in San Francisco as a reporter; he edited the grammar handbook of his old Cornell professor William Strunk into a best-selling guide to English composition; at the request of his stepson, Roger Angell, he wrote an imperishable evocation of New York City for Holiday magazine; he produced his three remarkable, still popular novels for children. He busied himself all the while, on his farm, with nonliterary projects—nursing animals, shingling roofs, working with his hands. The manual work whereby he made his living, at his manual typewriter, was pursued with relative unease. He did not consider himself much of a letter-writer, telling Stanley, “I avoid writing letters—it resembles too closely writing itself, and gives me a headache.”

  In truth, his shrewd head and aspiring spirit were fragile, prey to migraines and what he describes, in a letter of October 28, 1943, as “a nervous crack-up.” In 1945 he reassured Stanley,

  Don’t worry about my health—I am a lot better and plenty good enough for my purposes. I had two things the matter with me—mice in the subconscious and spurs in the cervical spine. Of the two the spine trouble was less bothersome. It took me eighteen months to . . . get rid of mice. . . . Anyway, here I am, in the clear again and damned thankful to be there. I can work without falling all apart, and can sleep—which is quite refreshing after a year and a half.

  His unease had become a malaise, treated with a psychiatric therapy delicately reflected in his short stories “The Second Tree From the Corner” and “The Door.” In the long list of advisements provided to his persistent biographer, Scott Elledge, in May of 1982, there is this: “My panic fear, as near as I can make out, is not of death. It is an amorphous fear, lacking in form.” This fear, objectified in such exhilarating yet ominous essays as “Death of a Pig” and “Once More to the Lake,” was his deepest topic.

  Now that a sheaf of
communications from his last, spunky years has been added, under his granddaughter’s editorial direction, to his collected letters, the full curve of a sterling career, as traced in these entertaining and at times beautiful by-products, can be seen—a career pursued against the resistance of a crass world, imperfect health, and a certain fastidious modesty. His voice had the natural self-deprecating trick of a humorist, but, unlike Benchley and Perelman and Frank Sullivan, White did not remain purely a humorist; he won for himself the right to be taken seriously, as a major American stylist and a celebrant of life in its full range of moods and aspects. Beginning as (his term) “a ‘short’ writer” of squibs and poems, he persisted in enlarging and purifying his talent, while avoiding the larger forms. His Waste Land–like and fragmentary “Zoo Revisited; or, The Life and Death of Olie Hackstaff” shows the intent to write a major poem; he even took one of his extended holidays to write it, in mid-1937, explaining to his possibly surprised wife, “A person afflicted with poetic longings of one sort or another searches for a kind of intellectual and spiritual privacy [and] does have to forswear certain easy rituals, such as earning a living and running the world’s errands.” He apparently never attempted a novel for adults. His letters give us, though, what a novel scarcely can: the dailiness of a life, its wearing parade of duties and decencies, its endless-seeming fending (though it does end), its accumulating pyramid of, amid errands, carelessly and alertly noted hours, and the frequent if rarely stated discriminations whereby an artist picks his path.