As many of my generation, I first encountered Elwyn Brooks White as the author of Charlotte’s Web. In college, The Elements of Style was an often-recommended guide to prose composition, written by William Strunk in 1918 and by White revised in the 1950s. With these associations, E. B. White would for years be summed up in my mind.
Some time ago I found a collection of his “Notes and Comment” writings for The New Yorker. It now rests on my bedside table, and most nights I dip in at day’s end. In our age of the rant, it’s pleasurable to read prose of a decent, civilized, and ironic character: prose which recalls a time when irony was not mere sarcastic contempt. His work suggests a man of principle and conviction, but of some reservation also. One imagines him too kind to engage in polemic, though the firmness of his convictions seems clear. John Updike, in Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, states that White’s writing career began with an essay describing his reaction to a waitress who had spilled a glass of buttermilk on him:
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 [i.e. White] 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.
Having read a good deal of White’s published works, I find the story credible. The words “simple” and “legible” well describe the sort of prose you will get from an E. B. White essay. He writes in defence of humanist values, principally of freedom of thought, critical expression, and the dignity of the individual. Much of his work concerns compassion and solidarity, themes which are prominent in his writings for children.
In recent years he has been blamed for having introduced “hyper-correctness” into the teaching of English prose composition. Some of his grammatical dicta, for instance the prohibition against splitting of infinitives, are seen as nit-picking. To some readers, his style will seem antique and stilted — a perception doubtless compounded by The New Yorker’s insistence that he write in the third person. Against these charges, I’ll say only that in times of war and inquisition, when much was at stake, E. B. White took a clear and thoughtful stand against tyranny, and even when confronting his opponents he was generous and thoughtful. Never having allowed himself to lose grip on his wit, nor his wits, he has left us a useful legacy.