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EB White - Most Companionable of Writers

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The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University.

The New Yorker
A Guided Tour Through The New Yorker | Ross's Little Magazine (1925 - 1951) | Mr Shawn's New Yorker (1951 - 1987) | A Condé Nast Publication (1987 - present) | Harold Ross - The History | Harold Ross - The Man | Katherine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor

On 11 July, 1899, a baby boy entered the world full of promise and hope. Then his parents named him Elwyn Brooks White. It is not startling that the boy, when he became a man, signed only with his first initials and surname; under these he became the world-famous author of Charlotte's Web, co-author of The Elements of Style and 'number-one wheel horse' for The New Yorker. EB White is adulated as one of the most skilful masters of the English language of the 20th Century, and possibly several other centuries as well.


EB was the youngest of Samuel Tilly White and Jessie Hart White's brood of six in Mt Vernon, New York, a suburb of Manhattan. Elwyn was an anxious little boy who did not like school, but did enjoy playing with musical instruments and the barnyard animals kept behind his huge home. He loved boats — he had his own canoe at the family summer home in Maine — and loved writing, winning several magazine contests before graduating from grade school. He skated at the local pond, admired girls from afar and wrote about it in his journal. He wrote editorials for the high-school paper and even then enjoyed unusual metaphors: 'It's an art to know how to stay out,' he wrote about World War I, 'and it has to be cultivated, just the same as potatoes do.'

Elwyn's teenage years can be summarised in a similar way to his childhood ones: he tried hard, did his best and worried that it wasn't good enough. He left for Cornell University in 1917. Cornell was a good place for a young writing man. Professor William Strunk drilled him to 'omit needless words', while Professor Bristow picked the brains of his and his fellow journalism students on Monday afternoons over tea. Elwyn quickly rose through the ranks of the Cornell Daily Sun to become Editor-in-Chief. The best thing that happened to him was the acquisition of a nickname. The college's first president had been Andrew White, and all those surnamed 'White' in Cornell forever after were nicknamed 'Andy'. Andy happily used his new name for the rest of his life.


Following graduation, Andy bounced unhappily between newspaper and writing jobs. He was shy, lacked confidence and applied high standards, not least of all to himself. Frustrated, he finally took off on a cross-country road trip with a friend. They earned money along the way by helping university students write philosophy papers, posting letters for an advertisement agency, selling cockroach powder, writing a prizewinning limerick, working as farmhands, playing the piano, sanding a dancefloor, washing dishes, running a carnival concession stand and eventually selling both their typewriters.

In Seattle, Andy became a journalist for the Seattle Times, but was unsuited for the job because his writing took a humorous slant on news events while tragedies upset him so much he couldn't write about them at all. (Actually, he was sick over the telephone while calling in a murder story). The editor finally gave him a daily column to himself, and Andy filled it with humorous paragraphs in the style of many literary columns of the 1920s:

We Answer Hard Questions:
Sir: What does it take to become a successful businessman?
Answer: A successful business.


Up-and-coming, nouveau-riche Seattle was not the place for such a column, and Andy was cut adrift. Lacking anything else to do, he returned to New York. There, he took a job at an advertisement agency (which he hated), sent pieces to FPA for publication in 'The Conning Tower'1 and went on boating trips with his friends.

'In Re Gladness'
At nine my little doings are begun:
I thumb the thumby files, and note the day,
And write — on some small doing that is done —
The owl-faced phone begins its questioning,
My pencil leaves and odd, cubistic track,
And like as not you'll hear me say, 'I'll ring
You back.'
...The June bug bumps his head upon the screen,
The lilac blows the last sweet kiss of spring;
Compared with these my doings do not mean
A thing.
Yet though my tasks with stars cannot be matched,
And men and days and hours are all a myth,
I feel it's something just to be attached

On 19 February, 1925, Andy purchased the first issue of a new magazine called The New Yorker. It promised to be funny, satirical and literary. Andy immediately started sending pieces in. His first published contribution consisted of six examples of what an advertising copywriter would produce if he took over the 'Vernal' account:

A Million a Day
If the new 1925 crocuses were not the most remarkable value in the field they wouldn't be appearing at the rate of a million a day.
Nothing satisfies like a good crocus!

New Beauty of Tone in 1925 Song Sparrow
Into every one of this season's song sparrows has been built the famous Vernal tone. Look for the distinguishing white mark on the breast.

Still, it was a casual essay describing his reaction when a waitress spilled a glass of buttermilk on him that changed his life. Andy described how, with composure and dignity, he comforted the waitress, paid for the soup and even left her a tip, while the entire restaurant gaped in awe. The readers loved it. Andy discovered that 'the world would pay a man for setting down a simple, legible account of his own misfortunes'. For most of the rest of his career, Andy published steady accounts of his own misfortunes, to popular acclaim.

In the summer of 1925, the magazine's editor, Harold Ross, hired a young married lady named Katherine Sergeant Angell as a part-time reader of incoming manuscripts, but by the fall she was his full-time editorial assistant. Katherine was intelligent, confident, a born leader and, more importantly, had the thorough education that Ross lacked. Soon he was relying on her opinion on almost every aspect of the magazine. So when she urged him to hire the writer who signed his pieces 'EBW', Ross didn't hesitate.

EBW did hesitate. He refused to join full-time because he lacked faith in his ability to make a living as a writer. He also refused to submit to steady office hours; years into his career he was liable to disappear to Maine for vacation without any warning.

Voice of The New Yorker

White brought steel and music to The New Yorker.
— Marc Connelly

'Newsbreaks' were column-fillers consisting of news items from other papers, usually made humorous by a typo or a miswording. Andy's job was to add a pithy punch line to the newsbreak, something his subtle sense of humour was aptly suited for:

Gent's laundry taken home. Or serve at parties at night.
— Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph
Oh, take it home.

Andy soon established 'departments' under which he could run a newsbreak without further comment. Some of his departments became New Yorker tradition, such as the 'Letters We Never Finished Reading' department, the 'Neatest Trick of the Week' department and the 'Uh Huh' department. He edited the newsbreaks until 1982. His 'departments' eventually bled into the 'Talk' section.

Neatest Trick of the Week

Her black hair was drawn tight so that her huge forehead bulged and hung twisted into meagre pigtails down her back.
— the
Family Herald

Our Pshaw Department

It is, to say the least, an unusual composition, scored for 11 mechanical pianos, one of them mechanical.
The New Yorker
So many people have told us that that sentence didn't make sense that we are getting around to that opinion ourselves.

Ross soon learned that 'there was practically no purpose to which words could be put that White was unable to master', and soon Andy was writing Notes and Comments, Talk of the Town, casual essays, light verse, reviews, advertisements and cartoon captions. The famous mother-child dinner exchange, 'It’s broccoli, dear,' 'I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it,' was White's cartoon caption.

But the two 'front of the book' sections were where White's style shone. Talk of the Town was supposed to, by Ross's description, sound like dinner-table conversation. The section is composed of humorous journalistic snapshots of city life; it was Andy White and James Thurber who brought the dinner table conversation to life.

Notes and Comments was initially 'lighthearted and searching' editorial; the tone Andy set was painstakingly imitated by Notes writers for decades after. While the world idolised Charles Lindbergh for his solo transatlantic flight, White noted how un-American it was of Lindbergh to make the entire flight without a single cup of coffee. He continued:

We noted that The Spirit of St Louis had not left the ground ten minutes before it was joined by the Spirit of Me Too. A certain oil was lubricating the engine, a certain brand of tires was the cause of the safe take-off.... This was a heartening manifestation of that kinship that is among man's greatest exaltations... We liked that, and for twenty-four hours the world seemed pretty human. At the end of that time we were made uneasy by the volume of vaudeville contracts, testimonial writing and other offers, made by the alchemists who transmute glory into gold. We settled down to the hope that the youthful hero will capitalise himself for only as much money as he reasonably needs.

Andy heeded two important pieces of advice in his writing: Omit needless words and Just say the words. He aimed for unaffected simplicity and straightforwardness, always sympathising with the reader. His prose is clear, honest and beautiful. It is difficult to call EB White the best writer of the past century because he never played the full range of semantic notes: he wrote playfully, he wrote satirically, he wrote seriously and sometimes forcefully, but he rarely wrote fiction, and never tried to arouse in his reader terror, hate, passion or yearning. Still, there is no denying his mastery over metaphor, word choice and sentence structure.

[He is] the most companionable of writers.... his peculiar mix of seriousness and humor could not have failed to astonish even him.
— William Shawn
He does not labour for reference or add a chunk of scholarship to give them meaning; he waits for the connection — that extra moment — and delivers it with grace.
— Roger Angell
I have never seen you use an unnecessary word.
— Harold Ross (to White)

Enter James Thurber

Ross trusted Andy's taste as explicitly as he trusted Katherine's, so when Andy introduced him to a young writer named James Thurber, Ross hired him on the spot. Jim and Andy had only met briefly before the introduction, but the two shared an office for the next few years and became fast friends. They also helped mould each other's writing styles and the culture-made-easy parody advertisements2 Andy wrote for The New Yorker in 1927 carry the Thurber mark:

Sterling Finny grasped his wife's hand. 'Goodbye,' he said, 'It is better for me to leave now than to have our boy grow up in the knowledge that his own father is not interesting.'
'God bless you,' sobbed Flora.
...Only the week before, a neighbour had said to Mr Finny, 'I hear that the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is very entertaining.' And all Sterling could answer was: 'I too, hear that the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is very entertaining.'
The neighbour moved away.
'We must think of Junior,' Flora insisted, 'It isn't fair to have him come under your influence.'
'You are right,' answered Sterling. 'When my little boy gets to be a man, I want him to join in the conversation everywhere. I better go.'
...Perhaps you too have a dear baby who will soon be old enough to know what an ass his father is! Are you going to leave home, or will you take the simple measures to get bright?
The New Yorker is written entirely by fathers and mothers whose children are proud to know them.

With the later addition of Wolcott Gibbs, a shy but adept editor and writer, these young men and Katherine shaped The New Yorker.

Courting Tentatively

Andy couldn't recall when he became infatuated with Katherine, but said he'd been half in love with her for a long time. He wooed her silently but not wordlessly with poems that Katherine quietly printed within the pages of The New Yorker.

'Notes from a Desk Calendar'
Suppose the glance you gave me
While standing by my chair
Struck home, could aught then save me?
And am I one to care?...
The persons who have seen us
Together—have they guessed
There stands so much between us
Which has not been confessed?...

The relationship blossomed, and the two began to spend more and more time together. Though Katherine's marriage was in a shambles, she still hoped to salvage it. Accordingly, she and Andy eventually agreed to limit their interaction strictly to business. The new arrangements were painful, and Andy nearly quit the magazine just to get away from Katherine.

'Soliloquy at Times Square'
The time for little words is past;
We now speak only the broad impertinences.
I take your hand
Merely to help you cross the street
(We are such friends),
Choosing the long and formal phrase

By late 1928, Andy had mastered all the writing required of him for The New Yorker and felt like he was stagnating. He turned Talk of the Town over to Thurber and joined a friend at a Canadian summer camp while Katherine was acquiring a divorce in Reno, Nevada. When he returned in late September, he refused to take up his previous obligations and wrote what he pleased as he pleased when inspiration struck. He wrote alternating chapters of Is Sex Necessary?, a parody of the psychological books of the time, with James Thurber. Andy insisted that Jim provide the illustrations, catapulting the humorist into artistic fame.

The system is this: we write as we please, and the magazine publishes as it pleases. When the two pleasures coincide, something gets into print.
— EB White

Making the Most Beautiful Decision of His Life

Katherine also returned to the office in September; she and Andy tentatively picked up their relationship, and the two were soon talking marriage. Andy was naturally hesitant. Katherine was a divorced mother of two and seven years older than he was. During one of their discussions, Katherine mentioned her ivy plants, and White snapped, 'Oh let the ivy rest!' Katherine answered thoughtfully, 'That sounds like the name of an English country house,' and Andy made a snap decision. They picked up Katherine's divorce papers, looked at rings, ate lunch, drove 50 miles upstate where they bullied a minister into marrying them (to Andy's delight, the ceremony was interrupted by a dog-fight), ate dinner back in Manhattan and returned to work the next day. The New York Daily Mirror announced their marriage two days later:

EB White...of The New Yorker comic department, and Katherine Angell, the managing editor of The New Yorker, eloped Tuesday3 and were sealed upstate.
The groom recently co-authored a book titled (heh-heh):
Is Sex Necessary?

Andy later called it 'the most beautiful decision of his life' and remained a doting husband until the day he died. 'The Whites have been married for 40 years now,' wrote Brendan Gill in 1975, 'and on the occasions when they have been obliged to be apart, White's conversation is so likely to centre on his wife that she becomes all the more present for being absent.' Katherine returned the sentiment and supported Andy through his emotional ups and downs.

Making Strides

In 1937 Andy decided to take a year off to spend with himself, figure out what he wanted from life and (though he never told anyone) maybe write a book. He explained his plan in an apologetic letter signed by the family Scottie and absconded to their Maine vacation home. There he sailed his yacht, the Astrid, fished and enjoyed a relaxed, quasi-farmer life. Then, in January 1937, perhaps in response to excoriating letters from his former co-workers — one quoted Ross as saying, 'He just sails around in some goddam boat' — Andy abandoned his year off. Instead, the Whites moved to Maine year-round. While Katherine edited long-distance, Andy tended sheep and chickens and published his thoughts in a Harper's column entitled 'One Man's Meat'. He also still wrote some 'Notes and Comments' for The New Yorker. He and Katherine together compiled A Subtreasury of American Humor in 1941, an anthology of funny pieces spanning Benjamin Franklin to SJ Perelman.

Would he want to do anything else do you think? Or some special kind of writing? Whatever White wants to do he can do, as far as I am concerned. He's the one man I'll make any kind of deal with that he can name.
— Harold Ross to Katherine White in 1943

The New Yorker struggled through World War II, but in late 1943 Ross recalled the Whites to New York out of desperation for writers. In return, Ross agreed to allow Andy to write more sober and opinionated Notes and Comments pieces. This he did, and Notes and Comments became a voice of reason through some of America's more tumultuous days. Concerning McCarthy Era loyalty investigations, Andy wrote, 'If I must declare today that I am not a Communist, tomorrow I shall have to testify that I am not Unitarian. And the day after, that I never belonged to a dahlia club.'

Until now, the magazine's greatest editorial accomplishment was ending the broadcasting of advertisements to the captive audience in Grand Central Station, changing the lights on the Empire State Building from coloured to white and moving Grand Central's information booth to the centre of the main floor. But after Andy took his 'delicately barbed quill' to current events, there was some shifting of weight in higher spheres. A brief week after Andy opined that Elmer Davis should be appointed head of a new Office of War Information, the office was invented and the appointment made. In typical EB White fashion, his Comment often mixed politicians and animals for metaphoric comparison.

One animal personality that frequently invaded Andy's writing in this period (and made an excellent foil for politicians) is Fred. Fred was 'a very large and dissolute dachshund...'

...he even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do. And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle to light a cigarette just to hold me up. [Fred died at 13] of his excesses and after a drink of brandy.
— EB White

For quite a while Andy had been thinking about writing a children's book. Back in New York, he settled down to compile one. In 1945, Stuart Little was published to lousy reviews. It became a bestseller. Then 'Song of the Queen Bee,' a lengthy poem mocking man's presumptuous criticism of nature, became so wildly popular that The New Yorker couldn't keep up with the requests for copies:

'Song of the Queen Bee'
'The breeding of the bee,' says a United States Department of Agriculture bulletin, 'has always been handicapped by the fact that the queen mates in the air with whatever drone she encounters.'
....I wish to state that I think it's great,
Oh it's simply rare in the upper air,
It's the place to pair
With a bee.
Let old geneticists plot and plan,
They're stuffy people, to a man;
Let gossips whisper behind their fan.
(Oh she
Buzz, buzz, buzz!)
My nuptial flight is sheer delight;
I'm a giddy girl who likes to swirl,
To fly and soar
And fly some more,
I'm a bee....

For quite a while, Andy was almost happy. Usually, he was highly critical of his work, terrified of being stuck in a rut and depressed about his accomplishments. Now he had proof that he'd done something worthwhile. During these years, he enjoyed unusual good health. An inveterate hypochondriac, Andy suffered psychosomatic symptoms of his unhappiness. As a result, he spent quite a bit of time among doctors.

I had a nose operation in Boston last fall, which didn't amount to a damn, [but] I wrote a piece for The New Yorker about being in a hospital and got paid more than the doctors charged me.... which I consider a very unusual feat, as well as a clear-cut victory over the medical fraternity.
— EB White (in a letter)

As a final bolster to his self-esteem, Charlotte's Web hit the bookstores in October, 1952 and was an instant runaway bestseller. It remains one of the best-selling children's books of all time.

The result was more fame than the quiet, shy Andy knew what to do with. At first, he accepted a few awards and honorary degrees, but public appearances and making speeches actually made him feel ill and he soon learned to turn them all down. The only medal he actually felt proud to receive was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, though he later wrote that he wasn't sure what to do with it; a drawer seemed unnecessarily obscure, while casually tossed on the hall table seemed ostentatious.

Aging Gently

In 1957, the Whites retreated back to Maine. Katherine contracted some debilitating diseases and became, in reality, more ill than Andy ever imagined himself. To pay for the extra nurses Katherine needed, Andy revised The Elements of Style, a manual on writing written by his old Cornell professor; published The Points of My Compass, a collection of previously printed essays; wrote The Trumpet of the Swan, another children's book; and allowed Charlotte's Web to be made into a film.

The happy ending of Charlotte's Web was ironic coming from Andy, who had been raising and slaughtering pigs for years, a practice kicked off with the humorous pathos of his popular essay 'Death of a Pig'. When the daughter of his stepson Roger Angell, who was a devout fan of Charlotte's Web, heard that her grandfather would be slaughtering his pig, she was horrified. She painstakingly copied the illustration of Charlotte's 'Some Pig!' web from the book and surreptitiously pasted it to the side of Andy's barn late one night (with the collaboration of her father, who drove her there for the purpose). Andy found the sign amusing, but killed his pig anyway.

Andy aged gently. For him, a happy moment was perching on the back porch stairs babysitting some goslings, with his terrier Susy's paws around his neck. 'Spring and Susy have me in their clutches,' he commented peacefully. He enjoyed telling funny stories about the antics of Jones, his 'sad neurotic dog — just like his master' to his family over a martini. He answered bags of fan mail from children around the world4 and edited newsbreaks for The New Yorker. Isabel Russell, the Whites' personal secretary, enjoyed tossing at him newsbreak-worthy lines she came across in their correspondence, to which he could immediately pitch back a quip.

Russell: 'We need a [croquet] set for four or six players with heavy heads and good balls.'
White: 'Surely some of the players might be light-headed, mightn't they be?'

Katherine died in 1977. A crushed and phobic Andy composed her funeral service, but didn't attend it5. He collected the gardening pieces she'd written for The New Yorker into a book, ensuring she had a bound and printed memorial, and placed fresh flowers on her grave every morning. He continued to live on his farm and write until arthritis and cataracts made that impossible.

One day Andy came in from the barn, worried about a knock he'd received to his head. Within weeks, he developed a form of dementia and was bedridden. His son Joel visited him daily.

[Joel] would read aloud to his father and discovered that he enjoyed listening to his own writings, though he wasn't always clear about who the author was. Sometimes he'd raise a hand and impatiently wave a passage away: not good enough. Other evenings he'd listen until the end... and then ask again who'd written these words. 'You did, Dad,' Joe said. There was a pause and Andy said, 'Well, not bad.'
— Roger Angell in Let Me Finish

On 1 October, 1985, EB White died.

Today, EB White is remembered best for Charlotte's Web and The Elements of Style, but his efforts are scattered across libraries throughout the English-speaking world and his legacy lives on in the front of The New Yorker.

1Back in the golden days of print media, many papers had a literary column that would carry short and often funny poems, mini-essays and paragraphs. 'The Conning Tower' of The New York World, by Franklin P Adams (known to all as FPA), was the most prestigious of such columns in the USA, and Andy was rightfully proud to have his initials in the same space as some of the most famous writers of the time: Dorothy Parker, John O'Hara and Don Marquis.2At the time, books that promised to cram the average Joe full of culture so he could converse wisely on all topics were widely advertised using supposed arguments between husband and wife.3They actually married on Wednesday.4He loved children, and treated them with as much respect and gravity as he did adults. He once wrote to his editor, 'I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children's book, as I have too much respect for children.'5By that time, he avoided any and all crowds. At his eight-year memorial service his stepson Roger wryly commented, 'If Andy White could be with us today, he would not be with us today.'

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