Elwyn Brooks "E. B." White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) was an American writer. He was a contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a co-author of the English language style guide The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as "Strunk & White". He also wrote books for children, including Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). Charlotte's Web was voted the top children's novel in a 2012 survey of School Library Journal readers, an accomplishment repeated in earlier surveys.
White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, the youngest child of Samuel Tilly White, the president of a piano firm, and Jessie Hart White, the daughter of Scottish-American painter William Hart. Elwyn's older brother Stanley Hart White, known as Stan, a professor of Landscape Architecture and inventor of the Vertical Garden, was influential as a child teaching E. B. White to read and explore the natural world. He served in the army before going to college. White graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1921. He picked up the nickname "Andy" at Cornell University, where tradition confers that moniker on any male student surnamed White, after Cornell co-founder Andrew Dickson White. While at Cornell, he worked as editor of The Cornell Daily Sun with classmate Allison Danzig, who later became a sportswriter for The New York Times. White was also a member of the Aleph Samach and Quill and Dagger societies and Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI).
White worked for the United Press (currently the United Press International) and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922. Then he became a cub reporter for The Seattle Times in 1922 and 1923. Once, when White was stuck on writing a story, a Times editor said, "Just say the words." He then worked for two years with the Frank Seaman advertising agency as a production assistant and copywriter before returning to New York City in 1924. Not long after The New Yorker was founded in 1925, White submitted manuscripts to it. Katharine Angell, the literary editor, recommended to magazine editor and founder Harold Ross that White be taken on as staff. However, it took months to convince him to come to a meeting at the office and further weeks to convince him to agree to work on the premises. Eventually he agreed to work in the office on Thursdays.
A few years later in 1929, White and Angell were married. They had a son, Joel White, a naval architect and boat builder, who owned Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine. Katharine's son from her first marriage, Roger Angell, has spent decades as a fiction editor for The New Yorker and is well known as the magazine's baseball writer.
James Thurber described White as being a quiet man, disliking publicity, who during his time at The New Yorker would slip out of his office via the fire escape to a nearby branch of Schrafft's to avoid visitors whom he didn't know.
Most of us, out of a politeness made up of faint curiosity and profound resignation, go out to meet the smiling stranger with a gesture of surrender and a fixed grin, but White has always taken to the fire escape. He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club. His life is his own. He is the only writer of prominence I know of who could walk through the Algonquin lobby or between the tables at Jack and Charlie's and be recognized only by his friends.— James Thurber, E. B. W., "Credos and Curios"
He published his first article in The New Yorker magazine in 1925, then joined the staff in 1927 and continued to contribute for around six decades. Best recognized for his essays and unsigned "Notes and Comment" pieces, he gradually became the most important contributor to The New Yorker at a time when it was arguably the most important American literary magazine. From the beginning to the end of his career at The New Yorker, he frequently provided what the magazine calls "Newsbreaks" (short, witty comments on oddly worded printed items from many sources) under various categories such as "Block That Metaphor". He also served as a columnist for Harper's Magazine from 1938 to 1943.
In 1949, White published Here Is New York, a short book based upon a Holiday magazine article that he had been asked to write. The article reflects the writer's appreciation of a city that provides its residents with both "the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy", and concludes with a dark note touching upon the forces that may destroy the city that the writer loves. This prescient "love letter" to the city was re-published in 1999 on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, with an introduction by his stepson, Roger Angell.
In 1959, White edited and updated The Elements of Style. This handbook of grammatical and stylistic guidance for writers of American English had been written and published in 1918 by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's professors at Cornell. White's rework of the book was extremely well received, and further editions of the work followed in 1972, 1979, and 1999. Maira Kalman illustrated an edition in 2005. That same year, a New York composer named Nico Muhly premiered a short opera based on the book. The volume is a standard tool for students and writers and remains required reading in many composition classes. The complete history of The Elements of Style is detailed in Mark Garvey's Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.
In 1978, White won a special Pulitzer Prize citing "his letters, essays and the full body of his work". Other awards he received included a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and memberships in a variety of literary societies throughout the United States.
In the late 1930s, White turned his hand to children's fiction on behalf of a niece, Janice Hart White. His first children's book, Stuart Little, was published in 1945, and Charlotte's Web appeared in 1952. Stuart Little initially received a lukewarm welcome from the literary community. However, both books went on to receive high acclaim.
White received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal from the U.S. professional children's librarians in 1970, recognizing his "substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature". At the time it was awarded every five years. That year he was also the U.S. nominee and a highly commended runner-up for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award, as he was again in 1976. Also in 1970, White's third children's novel was published, The Trumpet of the Swan. In 1973 it won the Sequoya Award from Oklahoma and the William Allen White Award from Kansas, both selected by students voting for their favorite book of the year.
In 2012, School Library Journal sponsored a survey of readers which identified Charlotte's Web as top children's novel ("fictional title for readers 9–12" years old). The librarian who conducted it observed that "it is impossible to conduct a poll of this sort and expect [the novel] to be anywhere but #1".
Awards and honors
- 1960 American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal
- 1963 Presidential Medal of Freedom
- 1970 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award
- 1971 National Medal for Literature
- 1977 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award, Letters of E. B. White
- 1978 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for Letters
- 1953 Newbery Medal honor for famous children's book "Charlotte's Web"
- The Lady Is Cold – Poems by E. B. W. (1929)
- Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do (1929, with James Thurber)
- Alice Through the Cellophane, John Day (1933)
- Subtreasury of American Humor (1941)
- One Man's Meat (1942): A collection of his columns from Harper's Magazine
- The Wild Flag (1943)
- Stuart Little (1945)
- Here Is New York (1949)
- Charlotte's Web (1952)
- The Second Tree from the Corner (1954)
- The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.) (1959, republished 1972, 1979, 1999, 2005)
- The Points of My Compass (1962)
- The Trumpet of the Swan (1970)
- Letters of E. B. White (1976)
- Essays of E. B. White (1977)
- Poems and Sketches of E. B. White (1981)
- Writings from "The New Yorker" (1990)
- In the Words of E. B. White (2011)