Elwyn Brooks White was a multifaceted writer. Although he has more than twenty volumes to his credit, his recognition is primarily for four types of literature: a style manual, fiction, poetry, and children’s literature.
White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11, 1899. His father manufactured pianos with a New York business. E. B. lived the pleasant suburban life. After serving in the Army as a private in 1918, White entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He wrote for The Cornell Daily Star. One of White’s professors was William Strunk, Jr. Strunk used his book The Elements of Style in the course. This book–with its grammar glossary, advice on pronoun uses, punctuation rules, and (later) suggestions for avoiding sexism–would prove significant to White.
After White graduated in 1921, he traveled and worked many jobs, including reporter for the United Press, the American Legion News Service, and the Seattle Times. He returned to New York in 1924 and worked as an advertising copywriter, a production assistant, and finally at the newly formed The New Yorker.
The first literary editor of The New Yorker was Katherine Sergeant Angell. In 1929 White and Angell married; they had three children. Their friends included Dorothy Parker, a short story writer, poet, theater critic, and screenwriter; Robert Benchley, a drama critic, actor, and humorist; Stephen Leacock, a modern language instructor, humorist, and chair of the Economics and Political Science Department at McGill University; and James Thurber, a cartoonist, children’s writer, and humorist. White worked with Thurber to produce Is Sex Necessary?, a spoof of the sex manuals of the day.
White worked with The New Yorker for eleven years. In addition to his editorial essays, he also wrote of the complexities of modern life, the failures of technology, war, the joys of both rural and urban life, and nature. His Ho-Hum and Another Ho-Hum were collections of essays. In The Wild Flag, White assembled some articles that had previously appeared in his New Yorker columns “Talk of the Town.” These essays reflected his support of the United Nations and internationalism; all the essays were informed and clear.
White’s poetry appeared in two volumes: The Lady Is Cold and The Fox of Peapack, and Other Poems. Critics noted the wit and exquisite form of the poems. In 1935 the Macmillan Company commissioned White to edit Strunk’s The Elements of Style. In addition to this first edit, White later revised the manual for the 1959, 1972, and 1979 editions. The Elements of Style became the standard English-language style guide.
In 1938 the Whites moved to North Brooklin, Maine. The animals and the rural peace furnished story ideas and helped allay White’s bouts of depression. E. B. White teamed up with his wife to edit A Subtreasury of American Humor, published in 1941. He also wrote a monthly column titled “One Man’s Meat” for Harper’s from 1938 to 1943. His compilation of these columns formed One Man’s Meat. Two years later he expanded the collection; One Man’s Meat remained in print for fifty-five years. White found time to contribute poetry and other writings to Harper’s.
One night when White was traveling by rail, he dreamed about a mouse named Stuart Little. The next morning he wrote down fragments of the dream. Over a period of twelve years, he continued to add to the tale. Though he intended the story for his six-year-old niece, she was grown before he finished Stuart Little, now a children’s literature classic.
Charlotte’s Web was White’s second children’s book. Publishers Weekly reported in 2001 that Charlotte’s Web was the all-time best-selling paperback children’s book. Its setting reflected White’s rural life. The story line came from his concern with the death of animals. A spider that wove intricate webs and a pig became the main characters. Charlotte’s Web won the Newbery Honor Medal (1953), the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1958), the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books Recognition of Merit Award (1970), and the New England Round Table of Children’s Libraries Award (1973). In 1970 White accepted the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award–a major children’s literature prize–for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web.
White’s third children’s book was The Trumpet of the Swan. A reversal-of-fortune story, it tells how Louis, a mute swan, compensates by playing the trumpet. Louis gives hope to challenged readers and encourages acceptance of others. The Trumpet of the Swan won the Sue Hefley Award from the Louisiana Association of School Librarians (1974) and the Young Hoosier Award from the Indiana School Librarians Association (1975).
In 1971 White earned the National Medal for Literature. In 1973 children voted The Trumpet of the Swan as their favorite book in both Oklahoma (Sequoyah Award) and Kansas (the William Allen White Award at Emporia State University). In 1978 he received a Pulitzer Prize special citation for his writings as a whole. The International Board on Books for Young People honored this third children’s book as an internationally important literature example. White received the National Institute of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism; in 1973 the members of the National Institute elected him to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a society of fifty members. He received honorary degrees from seven colleges and universities. E. B. White died of Alzheimer’s disease on October 1, 1985, in North Brooklin, Maine.