Writing that rocks – E.B. White

Classification: Letters, non-fiction

For the last several months, I have been working my way through Letters of E.B. White – “working” only in the sense that the book is 660 pages long, and (as I may have previously mentioned) I have two small boys to chase after. In every other sense, reading this book is the absolute opposite of a chore. People just do not write like White any more, and that’s a pity.

E.B. White is, of course, one of the grand-daddies of American literature. He is most famous for penning his children’s classics: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. (We owned copies of each of these books when I was a child, and I wore them out.) White also contributed to the prestigious The New Yorker magazine for roughly 60 years, and he co-authored a little book that has become the “bible” for writers – The Elements of Style (it is also commonly called “Strunk & White,” after its authors.)

The Elements of Style should be required reading for would-be writers (and you need your own copy, because you’ll be highlighting and underlining, and writing in the margins.) The book covers grammar and word usage, but it also explains principles of style and composition, giving such golden instructions as “Omit needless words.” Messrs. Strunk and White believed in making writing as clear and concise as possible, by slashing all extraneous words from one’s prose, and I cannot tell you how often that chant echoes through my head (“Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”) Whenever I obey, my writing becomes better. (An example, from the book: “He is a man who” can be simply written as “he,” without losing any of the meaning – and with a savings of four words!)

Back to Letters of E.B. White. I found this thick book at my favorite used bookstore, and it is just about the best $2.00 I have ever spent. White never wrote an autobiography; instead, in 1976, he collected and published this book of his life-long personal correspondence. Letter compilations often make great memoirs – IF the author is a talented and prolific writer – because people tend not to self-censor when they’re writing personal letters, and also because you are reading details and feelings exactly as they happened, not as they were remembered decades after the fact. I’m afraid this kind of book is a dying breed. No one writes letters by hand any more – certainly not to the tune of hundreds or thousands of them.

Letters of E.B. White begins with a few childhood letters, but the collection really “kicks in” after college, when White and a friend hit the open road in a model-T, in 1922. While driving across the country (working odd jobs when he needed to), White wrote long letters home, to friends and family. At 23 years old, White had not yet developed the beautiful conciseness he would later display, but his writing skills were already impressive. Portions of his letters are so descriptive, they actually sound like great fiction.

Once White had married, he settled into life on a farm in Maine, and he enjoyed puttering around with his animals almost more than he enjoyed writing. (One has only to refer to the subjects of his children’s books, to see how fond he was of small creatures.) Although White was always courted by the most elite literary publications in New York City, he seemed constantly on the verge of giving up writing jobs altogether, in order to devote more time to his country pursuits, and his descriptions of early 20th-century rural life are charming.

White was a gentleman, as men of that era were, and his writing was elegant, but he also had a marvelously droll sense of humor that really made his words sparkle. He was self-deprecating without sounding either grouchy or cynical. You cannot teach that kind of clever wit, and you can’t fake it.

Two years after publishing his book of letters, White won an honorary Pulitzer for his lifetime of work (he had previously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)

Reading through White’s letters is like having a chat with a delightful companion, and it’s an excellent way to spend a warm summer evening, with a cool drink in hand. Or a crisp Fall morning, with a steaming cup of coffee in hand. Or a rainy afternoon, with an afghan over your lap and a fire crackling next to you. Okay, yes. I find reading to be a lovely and appropriate way to pass any time of day, in any season. And if you couldn’t relate, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place.

I raise my coffee mug to you.


2 thoughts on “Writing that rocks – E.B. White

  1. One of my favorite E B quotes:
    “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy…. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

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