Biography of E.B. White (1899-1985)
Elwyn Brooks “E.B.” White was born on 11th July 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. He was the sixth and youngest child of middle class parents Samuel White - a prosperous piano manufacturer - and Jessie (Hart) White. On his twelfth birthday his father wrote to him: “You are the object of the affectionate solicitude of your mother and father. Then you have been born a Christian. When you reflect that the great majority of men are born in heathen lands in dense ignorance and superstition it is something to be thankful for that you have the light that giveth life.”
According to White, he began writing as soon as he learnt to spell and by his own admission, he was “lucky”. In 1921, he graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. While at Cornell, he was the editor of The Cornell Daily Sun with his classmate Allison Danzig who later became a sportswriter for The New York Times. After graduating, White worked in some miscellaneous jobs such as reporter for United Press, American Legion News Service, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before returning to New York in 1924.
In February 1925, White bought a copy of Harold Ross’s New Yorker in Grand Central Station and was immediately attracted to its apparent penchant for short stories. He published his first article in The New Yorker magazine in 1925 and joined the staff in 1927. He continued to work for six decades and through time became one of the magazine’s most important contributors at a time when The New Yorker was arguably America’s best literary magazine. He is best known for his essays and unsigned “Notes and Comment” pieces. He met Katherine Sergeant Angell who was the magazine’s literary editor while at work there and married her in 1929. He wrote for the magazine for eleven years, contributing editorial essays, verse and other pieces and also served as a columnist for Harper’s Magazine from 1938 to 1943.
White’s favourite subjects were the complexities of modern society, failures of technological progress, the pleasures of urban and rural life, war, and internationalism. Generally, White was skeptical about organized religion, and advocated a respect for nature and simple living. White’s early collection of poetry, The Lady is Cold (1929) and The Fox of Peapack and other poems (1928) reflect his interest in what he expresses succinctly to his brother in a letter :"I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace...Not till The New Yorker came along did I ever find any means of expressing these impertinences and irrelevancies."
White is known for his graceful and relaxed style. “No one can write a sentence like White,” James Thurber once stated. White took great pride in his writing and never engaged in the activity just for the sake of writing. Indeed, he continually nurtured his talent and trusted his instincts. In the spring of 1927, he wrote to Katherine Angell in an explanation to take a year off from all avoidable commitments: “A person afflicted with poetic longings of one sort or another searches for a kind of intellectual and spiritual privacy in which to indulge his strange excesses...I intend...merely to inform you of a new allegiance – to a routine of my own spirit rather than to a fixed household and office routine.” When his mother suggested that he write a sequel to Stuart Little, he wrote: ‘There is no sequel...A lot of children seem to want one but there isn’t any. I think many readers find the end inconclusive but I have always found life inconclusive, and I guess it shows up in my work.’
White always loved farm life and in 1939 moved to a farm in North Brooklin, Maine, and continued his writing career without the responsibilities of a regular job. In the late 1930s, White turned his hand to children’s fiction on behalf of a niece, Janice Hart White. His first child’s book, Stuart Little, was published in 1945, and Charlotte’s Web appeared in 1952. The barn near White’s Maine home inspired many of the characters in his stories for children. Although Stuart Little received a lukewarm welcome from the literary community at first, both went on to receive high acclaim and in 1970 jointly won the Laura Ingalls Wilder medal. That year, he also published his third children’s novel, The Trumpet of the Swan.
In 1959 White published a standard manual for writing The Elements of Style which became a mainstay of high-school and college English courses in the U.S. It was based on Prof. William Strunk Jr.’s privately printed book, Little Book, which had gone out of print. In the preface to this guidebook, he wrote: "The truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty, and seldom with any exact knowledge of what is taking place under the hood". Even though he might not have known how he wrote, he certainly knew why he wrote as he explains in a letter written to an older brother, written when he was 47: "...even now, at this late date, a blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement there is for me...It holds all the hope there is, all fears. I can remember, really quite distinctly, looking a sheet of paper square in the eyes when I was seven or eight-years-old and thinking 'This is where I belong, this is it."
White died of Alzheimer disease on October 1st 1985 in North Brooklin Maine. When White died, Alice Steinbach wrote: "It's going to be difficult to get used to the idea that the man who gave us Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and a collection of near perfect essays won't be around to remind us, in his wry, optimistic way, that the small, commonplace moment often illuminates the larger, valuable truth." During his lifetime he was awarded the gold medal for essays and criticism of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 1978. He held honorary degrees from seven American colleges and universities and was member of the American Academy. Over fifty years after its publication, Charlotte's Web remains one of the best-loved and most perfectly crafted children's books of all times. Like its famous protagonist, Charlotte, the book is in a class by itself.