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James T. KeaneMay 14, 2024
E. B. White in 1946 (National Endowment for the Humanities)

I was well into adulthood before I realized the co-author of my battered copy of The Elements of Style was also the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. That’s right, the White of the revered style manual that everyone knew as “Strunk and White” also wrote children’s books…as well as some of the best essays in the English language.

If you’re of a certain age, you might well remember E. B. White’s pointers in The Elements of Style:

Place yourself in the background; write in a way that comes naturally; work from a suitable design; write with nouns and verbs; do not overwrite; do not overstate; avoid the use of qualifiers; do not affect a breezy style; use orthodox spelling; do not explain too much; avoid fancy words; do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity; prefer the standard to the offbeat; make sure the reader knows who is speaking; do not use dialect; revise and rewrite.

That’s some good advice, much better than the terrible counsel offered on Page 76: “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.” Thanks, E. B., I do what I want. ☹️

Born in 1899 in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Elwyn Brooks White attended Cornell University, where he earned the nickname “Andy.” (Weird historical fact: If your last name was White, you were automatically an Andy at Cornell, in honor of the school’s co-founder, Andrew Dickson White. There is no connection to fellow Cornell alum Andy Bernard.) After graduation, White worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter for several years. He published his first article in The New Yorker the year it was founded, 1925.

White became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1927, but was an early enthusiast of the work-from-home movement, initially refusing to come to the office and eventually agreeing to come in only on Thursdays. In those days, he shared a small office (“a sort of elongated closet,” he called it) with James Thurber.

His famous officemate later recalled that White had an odd a brilliant habit: When visitors were announced, he would climb out the office window and scamper down the fire escape. “He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club,” Thurber later remembered of the chronically shy author. “His life is his own.”

In 1929, White and Thurber co-authored their first book, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. (Don’t worry: It was comic essays.) That same year, White married Katharine Angell, The New Yorker’s fiction editor from its inaugural year until 1960. She was the mother of Roger Angell, the famed essayist and baseball writer who himself became a fiction editor at The New Yorker in the 1950s.

In 1938, White and Katharine moved permanently to a farm in Maine they had purchased five years before. If you’re wondering about the inspiration for 1952’s Charlotte’s Web, look no further than White’s 1948 essay for The Atlantic, “Death of a Pig.” (He bought the pig with the intention of fattening it for slaughter; instead, he later nursed it through a fatal illness and buried it on the farm.)

Stuart Little had been published seven years before Charlotte’s Web. Along with 1970’s The Trumpet of the Swan, these books have made White one of the nation’s best-known children’s authors. I’m sure White didn’t mind, but by all rights, he should be better known for his essays. He authored over 20 collections of such classics as “Once More to the Lake,” “The Sea and The Wind That Blow,” “The Ring of Time,” “A Slight Sound at Evening” and “Farewell, My Lovely!” Endlessly anthologized, many are also taught in writing workshops to this day.

In 1949, White published Here Is New York, a short book developed from an essay about the pros and cons of living in New York City. In a 2012 essay for America, literary editor Raymond Schroth, S.J., noted White’s juxtaposition in Here Is New York of technological terrors like nuclear bombers (the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949) with the simple beauties of nature:

Grand Central Terminal has become honky tonk, the great mansions are in decline, and there is generally more tension, irritability and great speed. The subtlest change is that the city is now destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a flock of geese could end this island fantasy, burn the towers and crumble the bridges. But the United Nations will make this the capital of the world. The perfect target may become the perfect “demonstration of nonviolence and racial brotherhood.” A block away in an interior garden was an old willow tree. This tree, symbol of the city, White said, must survive.

“It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it,” White wrote in Here Is New York. “In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: ‘This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.’”

The tree lasted for another six decades—two more than the Cold War, in fact—before finally being chopped down in 2009.

In a 1954 review of books by White and James Michener, America literary editor Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., said White “has one of the most distinctive styles discernible on the American literary scene.” Since even the most cursory review of Father Gardiner’s many years of commentary shows he hated almost everything, it was quite a compliment. (Later in the review, he noted that “Mr. Michener, who has done better in his other books, comes a cropper here mainly because his style is wooden, sententious and dull.”)

In 1963, White received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his writings. Fifteen years later, he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for “his letters, essays, and the full body of his work.” In 2005, the composer Nico Muhly debuted a song cycle based on The Elements of Style at the New York Public Library. Among its signature moments was a tenor offering more of White’s good advice, this time in song:

Do not use a hyphen between words
that can be better written as one word.

White died in 1985 at his farm in Maine. His wife Katharine had died eight years earlier. His obituary in The New York Times quoted William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

His literary style was as pure as any in our language. It was singular, colloquial, clear, unforced, thoroughly American and utterly beautiful. Because of his quiet influence, several generations of this country's writers write better than they might have done. He never wrote a mean or careless sentence. He was impervious to literary, intellectual and political fashion. He was ageless, and his writing was timeless.


Our poetry selection for this week is “Another Doubting Sonnet,” by Renee Emerson. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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