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Few writers have achieved recognition in as many fields as did E. B. White. He was regarded as one of the finest essayists of the twentieth century; he was the author of two classics of children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1946); and his extensive contributions to The New Yorker were instrumental in making that magazine a success.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Developing a Love of Writing
Elwyn Brooks White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11, 1899, the youngest of six children. The family was well off, White’s father having risen from somewhat humble beginnings to become president of Horace Waters and Company, a New York piano firm. As White has stated, there was nothing exceptionally luxurious about his background. There were pianos and other instruments in the house, though, and lots of music, performed with enthusiasm rather than professional dedication. Although White played the piano, his main love was writing. When he was a teenager, his poems, essays, and short stories were published in the Mount Vernon High School Oracle.
In the fall of 1917, White entered the Liberal Arts College at Cornell University. He made the board of the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, his freshman year and became editor-in-chief at the end of his junior year. In early May of 1920, he won first prize for an editorial submitted to the Convention of Eastern College Newspapers.
White officially began his writing career in 1921 after graduating from Cornell. He worked for a time as a reporter with two news services in New York City, then drove a Model T cross-country with his friend Howard Cushman. Ending up in Seattle, White took a job as a reporter for the Seattle Times, but having trouble adjusting to his new job, he lasted less than a year. White next worked for a short time as a mess boy on a ship bound for Alaska but soon returned to New York, where he spent two years as an advertising copywriter.
Observing the World Around Him
It was while working as a copywriter that White began to submit short pieces to the fledgling magazine, The New Yorker, barely a few months old at the time. Editor Harold Ross was so impressed by these articles that he hired White to write the opening ”Talk of the Town” section for the magazine. Both Ross and Katharine Angell, the magazine’s literary editor who later became White’s wife, found White’s style ideal for The New Yorker. Over the next forty years, White contributed poems, essays, sketches, stories, and even photo captions to the New Yorker and wrote the ”Talk of the Town” section for eleven years.
In 1929 White collaborated with a colleague from The New Yorker, writer and artist James Thurber, on Is Sex Necessary?; or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, a spoof of sex manuals. The book made both White and Thurber well-known. The two authors parody other serious writers on the subject, making light of complexities, taking a mock-serious attitude toward the obvious, delighting in reducing the case-history technique to an absurdity. Thurber’s drawings, turned out in a few hours, illustrate the book, which has gone through more than twenty-five printings since it first appeared. White’s share of the royalties enabled him to marry Katharine Angell on November 13, 1929.
Over the years, it has been White’s essays for The New Yorker—many of which are collected in 1977’s Essays of E. B. White—that have done the most to build his literary reputation. White’s essays are personal and informal, seem to happen upon their subject as they ramble along, and have a gentle humor about them. New York City, where The New Yorker has its offices, and the Maine countryside, where White owned a farm, are the two most common settings of his essays. White often began with a small incident in his own life and then extrapolated larger implications from it. In all of his essays, White’s style is clear, personal, and unaffected. Although they cover a wide range of topics—from observations of nature to the problems of city living, and from political commentary to literary parody—they invariably display a gentle humor, which White saw as a necessary counterbalance to everyday life.
When White turned his attention to political matters, he often focused on the international race for bigger and better weapons and the tensions between the world’s nations. White was known as a forceful advocate of world government, which he recommended for democratic nations only, and as a defender of individual privacy. A concern for the environment, inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s book
Walden (1854) was also evident in White’s life and work. Following the example of Thoreau, who lived close to the land, White bought a saltwater farm in North Brooklin, Maine, in 1934. He and his wife moved there permanently in 1938 and took to raising geese, chickens, and sheep. The essays collected in One Man’s Meat (1942), originally written as monthly columns for Harper’s magazine, are set on White’s farm and chronicle his daily life in the country.
A Master of Children’s Literature
Although most critics praise White for his work as an essayist, he is more popularly known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, two classics of American children’s literature. Inspired by a vivid dream, White began to write a children’s story about a small, mouse-like character in 1939. Whenever one of his eighteen nieces and nephews wanted to be told a story, White improvised new adventures for his hero, whom he named Stuart Little. In 1945, he gathered these adventures together into a book-length manuscript, which he sent to Harper & Row for consideration. Children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, found the book to be as moving as it was humorous and accepted Stuart Little for publication. The book has since sold more than two million copies in English and has been translated into twenty other languages.
White’s next children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, was published in 1952. Charlotte’s Web is set on a farm much like the one White owned in Maine. Feeling pangs for a soon-to-be-slaughtered pig on his farm, and moved by the artistry of a spider spinning its web he had been watching, White began to formulate a story. Wilbur is destined to die, but he is saved by his friend Charlotte, a spider, when she weaves the words ”Some Pig” into a web above his pen. People who see this miraculous message are so impressed by it that Wilbur is spared and even put on display at the local fair. During their stay at the fair, Charlotte dies. David Rees, writing in The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, called Charlotte’s Web ”the one great modern classic about death.”
It wasn’t until 1970 that White published his third and final children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan. It has much in common with his earlier efforts. Like the previous two books, The Trumpet of the Swan grew out of an experience in White’s own life. His fascination with the trumpeter swans at the Philadelphia Zoo, initiated by a story in the New York Times, led White to tell the story of Louis, a voiceless trumpeter swan. Because he cannot speak, his human friend, Sam Beaver, takes Louis to school with him to learn to read and write. Thereafter, Louis carries a chalkboard and chalk with him to write out his messages. His father, wanting him to be able to communicate with other swans as well, steals a trumpet for him to play. Soon Louis’s trumpet playing leads to nightclub work and to a meeting with Serena, a female swan with whom he falls in love.
White is also known for his updates and revisions to The Elements of Style (1959), a grammar guide originally written by one of his Cornell professors, William Strunk Jr. Although White wrote little after The Trumpet of the Swan, he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 in acknowledgement of his overall contribution to American literature. White died at his home in Maine on October 1, 1985.
Works in Literary Context
The concept of animals capable of human speech has been an element of various forms of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales for as long as stories have been told. From ancient Greek mythology to Native American folk tales to Aesop’s Fables to the famed fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, talking animals have been used symbolically to offer pearls of wisdom, deceive human characters, or feature as stand-ins for different aspects of human emotions and behaviors. The biblical Book of Genesis features one of the most famous examples of a talking animal as a serpent in the Garden of Eden deceives Adam into eating a forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge, which leads to humankind’s expulsion from Paradise. In contemporary use, the talking animal has found its most regular home in the realm of children’s literature. Numerous classics of children’s literature, including C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, feature talking animals.
White used talking animals in each of his children’s books, but his depiction of them differed in each book. In Charlotte’s Web, the animals are only capable of speaking to each other, while the mouse in Stuart Little is able to talk to people. In The Trumpet of the Swan, all of the animals can speak except for the swan Louis, who is born mute.
Satire is an approach to any literary, graphic, or performing art that intends to ridicule humanity’s follies, vices, and shortcomings. Although satire is distinguished by a humorous, ironic tone, the end result of satire is not always intended to be merely comedic. Often the satirist uses satire to make a social or political point by pretending to adopt a viewpoint she or he opposes and presenting it in a ridiculous manner. The term was first applied to a collection of poetry by the ancient Roman poet, Quintus Ennius, that ridiculed his fellow poet, Accius. Throughout literary history, writers, including Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, have composed satirical works. Although White is best known for his children’s books, he wrote a number of satirical works for an adult readership. His first published book, Is Sex Necessary?; or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, was a satire of romantic advice manuals. During the Great Depression, he wrote a satirical essay about the U.S. economy called ”Alice Through the Cellophane” for The New Yorker.
Works in Critical Context
Critical evaluation of Charlotte’s Web places it among the very best of its genre. It is ”outstanding among post-war American children’s fiction,” John Rowe Townsend writes in his Written for Children: An Outline of English Language Children’s Literature (1965). Similarly, Eudora Welty writes in her review for The New York Times that ”[a]s a piece of work, [Charlotte’s Web] is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” The reviewer for the Chicago Sunday Tribune judges Charlotte’s Web to be a ”rare story of a beautiful friendship,” as well as “witty and wise, lively and tender.” Since its initial publication in 1952, Charlotte’s Web has become a classic of American children’s literature and has sold well over three million copies.
The Trumpet of the Swan
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, John Updike expresses his opinion that The Trumpet of the Swan joins Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web ”on the shelf of classics.” Although it differs from the previous books, Updike finds that Trumpet
has superior qualities of its own; it is the most spacious and serene of the three, the one most imbued with the author’s sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature, . . . yet [the book] does not lack the inimitable tone of the two earlier works—the simplicity that never condescends, the straight and earnest telling that happens upon, rather than veers into, comedy.
- Kramer, Dale. Ross and the New Yorker. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951, pp. 68-77.
- Rees, David. The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults. Boston: Horn Book, 1980, pp. 68-77.
- Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English Language Children’s Literature. Colwall, Malvern, Herefordshire: Garnet Miller, 1965.
- Beck, Warren. ”E.B. White.” College English 7 (April 1946): 367-373.
- Geismar, Maxwell. ”Go Climb a More Meaningful Tree.” Commonweal 51 (March 10, 1950): 573.
- Griffith, John. “Charlotte’s Web: A Lonely Fantasy of Love.” Children’s Literature 8 (1980): 111-117.
- Maloney, Russell. ”Tilley the Toiler.” Saturday Review of Literature 30 (August 30, 1947): 7.
- Review of Charlotte’s Web. Chicago Sunday Tribune (October 19, 1952).
- Updike, John. ”The Trumpet of the Swan (review).” The New York Times (June 28, 1970).
- Welty, Eudora. ”Life in the Barn Was Very Good.” The New York Times (October 2, 1985).
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