The Wit, Wisdom, Whimsicality and Wonderings of E.B. White
Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week: Re-read Stuart Little or Charlotte's Web.
The Wit, Wisdom, Whimsicality and Wonderings of E.B. White
Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web by E. B. White were two of my favorite books as a child--still are. Yours too, perhaps?
I have to admit that before last week I only vaguely remembered that White had written for adults as well (it turns out he wrote over 2000 articles, mostly for The New Yorker magazine, and many books). But one night when I was looking for something new to read, Letters of E.B. White caught my eye. Though I've had the book for 15 years, I don't think I had ever opened it, perhaps thinking it might be too boring or too intellectual for my taste.
Little did I know. Letters of E. B. White (with the aid of minimal commentary and editing), reads like an epistolary novel, full of the lyrical prose, quirky humor, attention to detail, and warmth of his children's books. Since then I've finished Letters, delved into a number of his essays, and read five articles about him online.
I found out, for instance, that he never liked his given name, Elwyn Brooks, and happily took the nickname Andy, given him as a freshman at Cornell.
As a writer I was particularly tickled by some of his writing about writing. But there were far too many excerpts to choose from--they will have to wait for next week's post.
In a 2005 New Yorker article by his stepson, Roger Angell, (himself a senior editor at that magazine), simply entitled "Andy," Angell noted, "there was a readiness for play in him that lasted all his life....He was the most charming man I’ve known, and he got that side of himself into his writing."
Humorist though he may have been, he also wrote many serious pieces about life and politics and culture. And he was a courageous writer, taking a strong and public stand, for instance, against Senator McCarthy's communist witch hunts in the 1950s, when doing so could have gotten him blacklisted and investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But what he enjoyed most was writing what he knew and dearly loved, "the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living."
Mel Allen, longtime editor of New England's Yankee magazine, said that White penned "some of the most elegant and memorable sentences in the English language."
Here a few samples, with brief explanatory notes.
For a long time Andy and his wife Katherine (who was the Fiction editor at The New Yorker) commuted back and forth between their "salt water farm" in Maine, and New York City. In a letter to a friend he apologizes for the lateness of a previous letter sent from Maine:
"The mails out of here cover the first fifty miles by dog-sled, which I believe is pulled by Chihuahuas." [Letters, p. 553-554]
"Good-bye to Forty-eight Street" is White's (mostly) humorous essay about moving--a topic most of us can relate to--when he and Katherine gave up their apartment in New York to move full-time to that salt-water farm in Maine.
"For some time now I have been engaged in dispensing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one's worldly goods to go out again into the world....A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow." [Essays, p. 3, 4]
Andy was something of a hypochondriac but also knew how to laugh at himself, in his gentle self-deprecatory way. This is part of a letter he wrote to his former doctor in New York City.
"I miss you every day....I shall miss you early tomorrow morning ('nothing by mouth after midnight') when I present myself on an empty stomach for a glucose tolerance test that ought to take no more than five hours and prove absolutely nothing except that I can tolerate glucose. I'm always being tested for the wrong thing. They ought to test me for people tolerance, or events tolerance, or gin tolerance, or human stupidity tolerance. And not on an empty stomach." [Letters, p. 560]
From another essay:
"I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority." [Essays, p. 39]
In the aforementioned article his stepson notes that White's editor, William Shawn, "called him the most companionable of writers, but added that 'renowned as his writing was for its simplicity and its clarity, his mind constantly took surprising turns, and his peculiar mixture of seriousness and humor could not have failed to astonish even him.'"
His children's books took some unexpected turns.
Here are the last four sentences of Stuart Little, with Stuart on the road, hoping to find his beloved bird friend, Margalo, who, frightened by two plotting cats, had flown north without even leaving a note:
"Stuart rose up from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and somehow he felt he was headed in the right direction."
Some adults (on behalf of children), and some children themselves, expressed concern about this ending. There is no reassurance that Stuart will ever find Margalo, or even that he will find his way back home. Children need closure and happy endings, they said. White's response?
"In a way, Stuart's journey symbolizes the continuing journey that everybody takes--in search of what is perfect and unattainable....This is too large an idea for young children to grasp, but I threw it to them anyway. They'll catch up with it eventually." [Letters, p. 406 and 470]
I remember that when I read the book as a child I felt rather wistful at the end, wanting to know if Stuart ever found Margalo. But some deep part of White suspected (and rightly so, I think) that children (and adults) can be called forward, with love, into mystery, into the challenge and beauty and poignancy of being a grown up human being.
Here is his wonderful response to a young reader in 1974:
"Thanks for your letter--I was very glad to get it....'Stuart Little' is the story of a quest, or search. Much of life is questing and searching, and I was writing about that. If the book ends while the search is still going on, that's because I wanted it that way. As you grow older you will realize that many of us in this world go through life looking for something that seems beautiful and good--often something we can't quite name. In Stuart's case, he was searching for the bird Margalo, who was his ideal of beauty and goodness. Whether he ever found her or not, or whether he ever got home or not, is less important than the adventure itself. If the book made you cry, that's because you are aware of the sadness and richness of life's involvements and of the quest for beauty.
"Cheer up--Stuart may yet find his bird. He may even get home again. Meanwhile, he is headed in the right direction, as I am sure you are." [Letters, p.651 - 652]
Until next time,
Photo & art credits:
Charlotte's Web cover, Garth Williams
Andy on his farm in Maine, unknown
Andy, his wife, Katherine, and their dog, one morning in Maine, The New Yorker
Stuart Little cover, Garth Williams
Stuart and Margalo, endpapers on original edition