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E. B. White

He was a man for all seasons.  He was a writer and a reporter and an author and more.  He was E. B. White, author of the children's classic, Charlotte's Web.  Born Elwin Brooks White in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11, 1899, E. B. was the son of Samuel White, a well-to-do piano manufacturer, and Jessie Hart White. 

The youngest child of a large family, E. B. was surrounded by love and security.  On his twelfth birthday, White's 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."

White attended Cornell University until his graduation in 1921, after which he took several reporter's jobs--for United Press, American Legion News Service, and the Seattle Times.  In 1924, he returned to New York and went to work as a production assistant and advertising copywriter.  Two years later, he discovered that the allure of the slick new New Yorker proved to be greater than the security of advertising, and White went to work there.

He said, "[I] was attracted to the newborn magazine not because it had any great merit but because the items were short, relaxed, and sometimes funny.... I lost no time in submitting squibs and poems [and] in return I received a few small checks and the satisfaction of seeing myself in print as a pro."

There, too, he had the satisfaction of meeting his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell, the magazine's literary editor, whom he married in 1929.  For 11 years, White wrote editorials, "Talk of the Town" commentaries, essays, and verse for the magazine.  "Every week, the magazine teetered on the edge of financial ruin…." White wrote.  "[Editor Harold] Ross fumed, fussed, broke down partitions, changed the format every issue, strove and strove, cursed and raged.  It was chaos, but it was enjoyable."  Among the other writers with whom White and his wife hobnobbed were Dorothy ("Men don't make passes at Girls who wear glasses") Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and Stephen Leacock.

White loved New York City and once wrote, "New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village—the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up!"  Nevertheless, for a country boy, the allure of upstate New York, New England, and Canada were great.  In 1929, while on vacation in Ontario, he seriously considered quitting his job at The New Yorker and becoming a camp director.  He had recently turned thirty  and was dismayed at not having published anything more serious than a bunch of humorous magazine pieces. 

White and his wife eventually moved out of New York to a farmhouse in Maine, where he began writing longer, more personal essays about his life, his experiences on the farm, his daily chores, and his observations.  He wrote, "Just to live in [the country] is a full-time job; you don't have to 'do' anything.  The idle pursuit of making-a-living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace."

Of the animals White kept on the farm, he wrote, "A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors."  He was particularly fond of his pigs and felt guilty about turning them into ham and bacon.  One day, while he was walking through his orchard, he got an idea for a story about how a pig's life could be saved.  He said, "I had been watching a large spider in the backhouse, and what with one thing and another, the idea came to me."

He wrote to his editor, "My next book is in sight.  I look at it every day.  I keep it in a carton as you would a kitten."  Charlotte's Web was published in 1952.  It's the story of Wilbur, a runt pig saved from slaughter when a spider named Charlotte begins to weave words about him into a web above his pen.  After saving his life, she lays her eggs and dies.  White's publishers tried to get him to change the unhappy ending, but he refused.

In 1959, White published a standard style manual for writing, The Elements of Style, which became a mainstay of high-school and college English courses in the U.S.  The work was based on Prof. William Strunk Jr.'s privately printed book, which had gone out of print.  White revised the original, adding a chapter and expanding some of the other content.  Later, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style was revised several times.  The famous manual, with its timeless observations, is still considered an exemplar of the principles it explains.  "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary part."  White's essay, "Will Strunk," published in The New Yorker, now serves as the introduction to the book.

Between writing columns, White also published several popular children's books.  Stuart Little (1945) depicts an independent and adventurous child, the size of mouse, who is born into a human family.  After various adventures, he sets off in search of a bird whose life he had previously saved.  The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) is about a mute swan that learns to trumpet and becomes a celebrity.  In these works, White explores such themes as loyalty, tolerance, and rural living.  They have become for many young readers unforgettable guides into the world of fiction.

E. B. White, who once wrote, "All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world" died of Alzheimer disease on October 1, 1985 in North Brooklin, Maine.

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