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Weaver of Words

A century after E.B. White 1921 graduated from Cornell, his literary legacy endures

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E.B. White on his farm in Maine in 1962Courtesy of White Literary LLC

Charlotte’s Web has captivated children since it was first published in 1952, with its moving tale of an unlikely friendship between a humble pig named Wilbur and a clever spider named Charlotte, who saves Wilbur from slaughter by spinning messages of praise into her titular home. Author E.B. White 1921—one of Cornell’s most famous alumni writers, whose literary archive is housed in the University Library—was inspired to write the book by his own experiences on his farm in Maine, where he raised cows, geese, sheep, chickens, and pigs. One morning White walked into the barn and became fascinated by a large gray spider spinning a complex web; weeks later, he realized that the spider had died, leaving behind an egg sac. So he placed it in an old candy box and carried it with him on a trip to New York City—guarding the eggs until they hatched, just as Wilbur does for Charlotte’s eggs in the novel. Martha White—White’s granddaughter and literary executor—believes Charlotte’s Web and his other children’s books are so beloved because her grandfather took writing for kids as seriously as he did for adults. “He did not dismiss children as an audience for his best writing; if anything, he probably thought they were superior judges and that their attention would quickly flag if he let the narrative go at all,” she says. “His respect for children brought him to that writing in a way that was very authentic.”

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White as a senior on the HillCourtesy of White Literary LLC

White—who graduated from Cornell a century ago this spring—has long been celebrated for his contributions to literature, which earned him a special Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for “his letters, essays, and the full body of his work.” And while he remains best known for his children’s books—not only Charlotte’s Web but Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970)—he didn’t start penning those stories until well after he was established as a journalist, poet, editor, and essayist, most notably for the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. During a long and distinguished career, White also authored more than twenty volumes of poetry and prose and turned The Elements of Style—a guidebook on English usage by William Strunk Jr., PhD 1896, one of his former professors—into a bestseller that’s still used by students from middle school onward. As New Yorker editor William Shawn said when White died in 1985 at age eighty-six: “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 . . . [H]e was ageless, and his writing was timeless.”

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White as a boy with a canine lawn statue, about 1910Courtesy of White Literary LLC

The youngest of six children, Elwyn Brooks White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899. He followed his two older brothers to Cornell, where he picked up the nickname “Andy”—back then, the moniker was traditionally given to any male student with the surname White, in honor of University co-founder and inaugural president Andrew Dickson White—and family and friends would call him that for the rest of his life. On the Hill he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and the senior honor society Quill and Dagger and served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Sun. “I think I probably put in too much time on the Sun,” he reflected in a 1964 interview with the paper during Cornell’s centennial celebration. “In my senior year I had to write an editorial column every day and I used to get back up on the hill anywhere between one and two in the morning if it was when I was night editor.” But, he observed, “it certainly made a journalist out of me.”

After graduating, White had brief stints at the United Press and the Seattle Times before returning to New York City to take a job at an advertising firm while freelancing on the side. But it was at the New Yorker where he really made his mark. His first article—a satire of popular automobile ads—ran in one of the magazine’s earliest issues in 1925, and he joined its staff two years later. With his wry wit, straightforward style, and thoughtful observations, White is credited with helping set the tone of the then-fledgling publication, which would go on to become one of the country’s most prestigious and influential magazines. His contributions to the New Yorker would span nearly sixty years, during which he wrote about everything from the U.S. Constitution to the common cold. “His prose was so vivid and graceful and made such an impact,” says George Hutchinson, a professor of English and the Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture, who teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature. “It helped model a certain kind of literary journalistic style.”

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While White has long been celebrated for his ability to capture the spirit of New York City—his 1948 essay-turned-book Here Is New York is considered one of the definitive odes to the Big Apple—by the late 1930s he’d swapped urban life for a bucolic forty-acre property in North Brooklin, Maine. By then he’d wed Katharine Angell—the fiction editor for the New Yorker, to whom he was married for nearly a half-century—and they had a son, Joel White ’52. (Joel matriculated at Cornell but later transferred to M.I.T., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture; White was also stepfather to Angell’s two children from a previous marriage, one of whom is writer Roger Angell, who spent much of his career as a New Yorker contributor.) The farm in Maine was where White was happiest and where he did much of his finest writing. In addition to his magazine work, he’d started to compose his first children’s book, Stuart Little, about an adventurous mouse living with a human family. The tale began as a way to entertain one of his nieces, who always asked for a story when she came to visit, and White’s wife encouraged him to turn it into something longer. It was an immediate hit: published in 1945, Stuart Little sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year. In 1999 it was adapted into a film (that would have two sequels) starring Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis as Mr. and Mrs. Little, with Stuart voiced by Michael J. Fox.

A few years after White’s success with Stuart Little, he began Charlotte’s Web. Also an immediate bestseller, it has since been read all over the world and is still regarded as one of the best children’s books of all time. As Eudora Welty wrote in a review: “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” Over the years the book has been adapted for the stage and screen, including a 1973 animated feature and a 2006 live-action film with Julia Roberts as the voice of Charlotte. It has also been translated into at least three dozen languages—the most recent being Kazakh, as part of an effort to help schools in Kazakhstan teach and preserve the country’s native tongue.

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A page from White’s handwritten first draft of Charlotte’s WebCourtesy of White Literary LLC

The vast collection of personal papers and other items that the writer donated to Cornell starting in the early 1960s includes multiple partial drafts of Charlotte’s Web. Research services librarian Eisha Neely notes that those manuscripts are among the collection’s most treasured items, in part because they underscore the care that White took in bringing his barnyard characters and their pastoral surroundings to life. For instance, an early handwritten draft of the first chapter includes a sketch in one corner of what he envisioned Charlotte looked like, as well as a detailed drawing of the barn where the two live, which was modeled after White’s own barn in Maine. “It’s a fascinating look into his process of writing fiction,” says Neely. “He was very deliberate in how he depicted the animals. He didn’t want them to be too cartoonish. He was meticulous—you can see how he wanted to get it just right.” In all, the collection in Kroch Library comprises more than 260 boxes of notes, marked-up columns, galley proofs, photos, clippings, awards, and correspondence between White and friends, relatives, colleagues, and editors. (It also includes White’s rather ornate wooden desk, his pencil sharpener, and the Underwood typewriter—circa 1942—that he used to write many of his New Yorker essays.)

By the late 1950s White had solidified his literary reputation with The Elements of Style, an update and expansion of a slim handbook of rules for crafting prose that Strunk had written and privately published in 1918 for students taking his advanced writing course. (Among its famous decrees: “Omit needless words.”) After a Cornell friend sent White a copy of Strunk’s book in 1957, he penned a tribute to his former professor (who had died in 1946) for the New Yorker. That caught the attention of an editor at Macmillan, who proposed a reissue with White’s essay as an introduction. White proceeded to do far more than that, giving Strunk’s original volume a thorough edit and adding new material. Among the tips that White added was to “revise and rewrite,” and he often followed his own advice: Martha White points out that much of the 100 linear feet of letters and papers housed in his Cornell archive are revisions. (She also recalls witnessing her grandfather on his hands and knees in his office in Maine, cutting a manuscript apart, reworking it, and pasting it back together.)

Elements was a smash when it was released in 1959, and further editions followed; by the time a fourth was published in 2000 with a foreword by Roger Angell, ten million copies had been sold. It remains relevant: in 2011 Time listed it as one of the 100 best and most influential nonfiction books, and a recent survey by DegreeQuery (a company that does research on higher education) found that it’s among the top ten texts assigned at Ivy League and top public colleges in the U.S. Katherine Gottschalk—a retired senior lecturer who co-wrote The Elements of Teaching Writing, a resource for writing instructors whose title is an homage to the classic guide—believes White’s voice is key to the book’s lasting appeal. “We can thank him for the fun, for his wonderful ear and aptitude for metaphor,” says Gottschalk, pointing to an elegant line that appears at the beginning of one chapter: “Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

Along with the increased popularity of White’s work and widespread acclaim came fame—something he greatly disliked. He rarely granted interviews, gave speeches, or did literary readings. He declined to attend the ceremonies when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the National Medal for Literature in 1971, or the Pulitzer. Martha White explains that while her grandfather appreciated the honors, he was a private person who was uncomfortable in public settings. “He didn’t like being in the limelight,” she says. However, White happily wrote back to many of the fans who reached out to him; Neely notes that White saved thousands of letters over the years along with carbon copies of his replies, which are preserved in the archive. He seemed especially touched by the correspondence from young readers, who often sent crayon drawings and asked detailed questions about the books. Says Neely: “There are so many beautiful interactions between him and these children.”

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A youthful reader from 1951 asks a common question about Stuart Little’s avian pal.Courtesy of White Literary LLC

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White’s reply to the same query from a different child more than two decades laterCourtesy of White Literary LLC

Since her grandfather’s death, Martha White has edited four collections of his work including In the Words of E.B. White, a selection of quotations published in 2011 by Cornell University Press, and E.B. White on Dogs, a 2013 compendium of canine-related writings by the lifelong dog lover. She says she’s certain he’d be pleased by the effect his writing continues to have—and she’s mindful of how many of his decades-old essays are relevant today, particularly those that speak about freedom and democracy. That struck her so strongly when re-reading some of his work a few years ago, she put together a compendium of essays, letters, and poems entitled On Democracy (2019). Given America’s current tumultuous political climate, she argues that his words offer historical context, quiet wisdom—and faith in a better future. As her grandfather wrote in 1973 as the country was fighting the Vietnam War, in response to a letter from a man lamenting the state of the world: “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman . . . the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.”


Reading List

A sampling of White’s oeuvre

White is best known for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Elements of Style—but he published some twenty other books during his long career. They include:

""Less Than Nothing (1927) This little-known first publication compiled a series of humorous advertisements for the New Yorker. As a newly hired staff writer, White anonymously wrote short features about a dim-witted young couple, Sterling and Flora Finny, who commit social missteps that could have been avoided if they’d read the magazine. Each ad is illustrated with a photograph of the couple, portrayed by a pair of mannequins that White came across in Wanamaker’s department store.

""The Lady is Cold (1929) White’s first collection of poetry was released two years after he joined the New Yorker, where he began to find his literary voice. Not long after this book was published, White wrote to his brother Stanley: “I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace.”

""Is Sex Necessary? (1929) In his early years at the New Yorker, White shared an office with writer and cartoonist James Thurber. The two collaborated on this parody of the books about Freudian sexual theories that were popular in the 1920s, inventing pseudoscientific terms and using Thurber’s spare pencil sketches as illustrations. The spoof was a bestseller and helped launch both of their careers, with a critic for the Saturday Review of Literature fondly calling it “one of the silliest books in years.”

""One Man’s Meat (1942) This collection started as a series of columns for Harper’s Magazine after White left Manhattan and began writing about everyday life on his farm in Maine. It includes a reprint of one of his best-known essays, “Once More to the Lake,” a meditation on the passage of time. A Kirkus review called the book “a lively record of an active inquiring mind, whose sense of the ridiculous in no way impairs his appreciation of the life he lives and the people he knows.”

""Here Is New York (1949) White wrote this nostalgic, reflective essay for Holiday magazine in the aftermath of World War II. It was then published as a short book, which the New York Times named as one of the ten best ever written about New York City. His prescient words about the fragility of the city took on new meaning after 9/11: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.”

""The Second Tree from the Corner (1954) Most of the essays, poems, and stories in this volume originally appeared over two decades in the New Yorker (and include a deeply personal piece about the death of a pig that some believe inspired the character of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web). A nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award, this collection prompted the New York Times to write: “It is high time to declare roundly what a good many people have long suspected, that E.B. White is the finest essayist in the United States.”

""The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South (1962) The essays in this collection (which first appeared in the New Yorker) are from a period when White was writing as if he were a foreign correspondent—but one who never left home. In it he muses about topics big and small: the United Nations, New York pigeons, Thoreau, railroads in Maine, hurricanes, nuclear disarmament, and a visit to the circus.

""The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) White’s third novel for children tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. Louis is determined to overcome this difficulty to win the love of a beautiful swan named Serena, but nothing works—until his father steals him a real brass trumpet. John Updike (whose early work was championed by White and his wife, Katharine) praised White’s love of natural detail, noting: “We, and our children, are lucky to have this book.”

""Poems and Sketches of E.B. White (1981) The final book published during White’s lifetime is an anthology of fifty poems and thirty-five sketches, stories, and other commentary that spans his prolific career. Among them are three previously unpublished poems, including a touching verse for his wife that reads in part: “Flowers respond to something in the gardener’s face / Some secret in the heart, some special grace. / Yours were the rains that made the roses grow / And that is why I love your garden so.

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One thought on “Weaver of Words

  1. PhD 1983

    Readers may also want to know about the engaging biography of White written by Scott Elledge, who was a professor of English at Cornell from 1962 to 1984, and who was also a Cornell alumnus, having received his M.A. in 1936 and his Ph.D. in 1941. (He died in 1997.) It’s entitled E. B. White: A Biography, and it was published in 1984 by W. W. Norton.

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