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January / February 2012
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Worth a Closer Look

In the Words of E.B. White

CU Press publishes a collection of E. B. White's quotations

In Charlotte's Web, a spider saves a pig's life by weaving a few well-chosen words. Like his beloved character, author and essayist E. B. White '21 touched millions with his deft, straightforward prose. Now readers can peruse some of his sayings—both famous and obscure—in In the Words of E. B. White, published by Cornell University Press and edited by the writer's granddaughter, Martha White.


Many modern readers know White for his classic children's novels—Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. But his literary legacy owes as much to his prolific career as a New Yorker essay-ist during his years in the city and, later, in rural Maine, where his family still resides. That state provided inspiration for much of his work, and many of the quotations in In the Words of E. B. White are taken from poems, essays, and novels written during these later years. "I would really rather feel bad in Maine," he wrote in a 1937 letter, "than feel good anywhere else."

The book includes White's thoughts on such subjects as old age, New York City, language, and rural life. His words are often funny: "I was lucky to be born abnormal," he wrote. "It ran in the family." Each quote is characterized by the same no-frills phrasing that he and Cornell professor William Strunk Jr., PhD 1896, drummed into generations of English students with their grammar guide, The Elements of Style. "He had the ability to speak great truths with a minimalist style," says CU Press's Jonathan Hall, who likens reading the new collection to "talking to an old friend." The book is the first in a series featuring quotes from notable figures; future subjects include Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass.

In the Words of E. B. White was completed in about a year, thanks to Martha White's familiarity with her grandfather's work as the executrix of his literary estate. She initially hesitated to publish his quotations, she says, but agreed in the hope of familiarizing readers with some of her grandfather's lesser-known work. "It's ironic that this book will probably be used in great part by public speakers," she adds, "because my grandfather never liked to give speeches." She notes that, especially later in life, White objected to having his work excerpted, for fear it would be taken out of context. "All I hope to say in books . . . is that I love the world," he wrote to a Charlotte's Web fan. "I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around."

White once remarked that as a child he was taught to be seen and not heard—but as an adult, he would rather be "heard and not seen." But as he wrote in the foreword to an essay: "Whoever sets pen to paper writes of himself, whether knowingly or not, and this is a book of revelations."

— Amanda First '12

Caption: Book Trailer by CU Press (1:39)

Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Richard Edward Hayes, January 10, 2012
I have several of E.B. White´s works & look forward to this one. He is one of Cornell´s best!!
Law 1966
written by Lewis C Taishoff, January 10, 2012
As proof of how times, and mores, have changed since E. B. White's days at Cornell, see his essay "I Would Send My Son to Cornell", in "Our Cornell", 1939.
written by Ginny Clark, January 11, 2012
Can someone please post a link to the essay Lewis Taishoff referred to above, if it's available on line? Or, Cornell Alumni Magazine, will you include it next month? I'm pretty sure I've read or heard it some time in the past, but I'd like to read it now!
written by Shelley Stuart, January 13, 2012
Ginny, I haven't found the full essay online. The May 1, 1946 issue of Cornell Alumni News had this excerpt:

"I'd send my son to Ithaca because it has the most perilous topography in sixteen counties and because he'd find men trained by Will Strunk, Jr. who first hoped to graft me on the tree of knowledge by emphasizing the sanctity of an English sentence (of which I hope this article is full). Γd send him there to walk up Six Mile Creek in the early wetness of a recalcitrant spring; and because, returning, he might meet Uncle Pete Smith, who has a soft voice and a humble spirit. I would send him to sit in the mysterious Sunday night conclaves of a Greekletter den, in robes that smell of other sophomores and other Sunday nights. . . ."

Check with your local library's Interlibrary Loan desk to see if they can snag you a copy. You can also buy "Our Cornell" online. The link to the book on Amazon: ( but you may find it elsewhere as well.
M.S. 1989
written by Richard Evans, February 06, 2012
I truely could not write, until I encountered Strunk and White!

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