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May 2007

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E. B. White's Web

Business: Legacy

E. B. White and Katharine Angell
Photo courtesy of the E. B. White estate
E. B. White and Katharine Angell
Though he was one of the 20th century's greatest weavers of tales, E. B. White did not want his way with words to put Brooklin, Maine, on the literary map.
Brooklin isn’t on the way to anywhere, unless you’ve taken a wrong turn looking for the Deer Isle bridge. The town is home to Wooden Boat magazine and boatbuilding school, and for the past few summers has hosted the Flye Point music festival. A small sign as you enter the town highlights the boatbuilding heritage, but there is no visible reminder that Brooklin was home to one of the 20th century’s great writers.

And that is just the way Elwyn Brooks (E. B.) White would have wanted it.
“He didn’t think writers should be celebrities,” says his granddaughter, Martha White. She is the editor of a new revised edition of The Letters of E. B. White, published in 2006 by Harper Collins.

The updated volume contains letters from the years between the publication of the original volume in 1976 and the author’s death in 1985. It also includes additional photographs and a new foreword by John Updike. Its publication coincided with the release of a live-action film of White’s most enduring children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, from Paramount (an animated version was made by Hanna-Barbera in 1971). The new movie stars Dakota Fanning as Fern, the girl who befriends a pig on a Maine farm and, with the help of Charlotte the spider, saves him from the axe and the dinner table.
As the manager of White Literary LLC, Martha White, who lives in West Rockport, is the person primarily responsible for her grandfather’s legacy. The legacy has faded, but only in spots. Twenty-two years after his death, White remains revered by writers and editors, and by admirers of the lean, uncluttered, elegantly humorous prose style he brought to his numerous essays, letters, and observations.

Today, he is best remembered for his three children’s novels: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. College students may not even know that he is the White of “Strunk and White,” the co-authors of The Elements of Style, the slim, ubiquitous volume still required in many introductory writing courses. And scholars and history buffs remember his seminal work for The New Yorker, which was a two-year-old magazine struggling to stay afloat when he joined its staff in 1927. Along with his friend and fellow writer James Thurber, White helped shape the magazine into the publishing powerhouse it is today. Over the decades, in countless essays, unsigned “Notes and Comments,” and “Talk of the Town” pieces, White put his own literary stamp on the magazine, so much so that a two-page mock schematic of The New Yorker headquarters in the February 19, 2007, issue depicts a “Mr. E. B. White Memorial Belfry” at the top of the fictitious building.

What many people don’t realize is that he did much of that work from his farm in Brooklin, Maine, to which he moved in 1937. “He probably wrote more about the state of Maine than anything else,” Martha White says, “but he’s not particularly known as a Maine writer. Children who read Charlotte’s Web don’t necessarily think ‘Maine,’” though the book was inspired by life on White’s Brooklin farm. (Sadly, the new Paramount version of Charlotte’s Web was filmed mostly in Australia.)

E. B. White’s association with Maine began in early childhood, when his family vacationed in Belgrade Lakes. Born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899, the youngest of six children, White began writing at a young age. (The first letter in the collection was written when he was nine.) He attended Cornell, where he became the editor of the campus newspaper, and acquired a nickname, “Andy,” a moniker hung on most students with the surname White, after Andrew D. White, Cornell’s first president. The name stuck, Martha White speculates, because he had never liked his given name.
By 1925, Andy White was in Manhattan, rooming with three other Cornell graduates and living on the occasional freelance assignment. That same year, The New Yorker was born.

“It was a turning point in my life, although I did not know it at the time,” he wrote. “I was attracted to the newborn magazine not because it had any great merit but because the items were short, relaxed, and sometimes funny. I was a ‘short’ writer, and I lost no time in submitting squibs and poems. In return, I received a few small checks and the satisfaction of seeing myself in print as a pro.”

His work caught the attention of Katharine Sergeant Angell, an assistant to Harold Ross, the magazine’s founding editor. At her urging, Ross called him in to offer him a full-time job.

“At first he turned them down,” Martha White says. “He didn’t feel like he could sit in an office and write. Eventually they struck a deal whereby he could come and go as he pleased.”

Katharine was married and the mother of two children, one of whom, Roger Angell, would follow in her footsteps as a senior editor at The New Yorker, and also author several acclaimed books on baseball, culled from his columns. Following her divorce, Andy and Katharine were married in 1929, and their son, Joel, was born the following year. In 1937, the family moved to Maine full-time, where both husband and wife continued their work for The New Yorker via the U.S. Postal Service, though they maintained offices at the magazine and traveled from Brooklin to Manhattan several times a year.

Joel White—father of Martha and her two brothers—would become famous in his own right, at least in boating circles, as a naval architect and boat designer. Joel died in 1997; Martha’s older brother, Steve, now runs Brooklin Boatyard, which their dad founded in 1960. Younger brother John lobsters out of nearby Naskeag Harbor. Martha is a writer, with a book (Traditional Home Remedies, published by Time-Life in 1997) and a long list of magazine and newspaper credits. Among the places her work has appeared are The Christian Science Monitor and The Old Farmer’s Almanac. And she manages her late grandfather’s ongoing career.

“People used to ask me what it was like to have a famous grandfather,” Martha White says. “The question didn’t make much sense to me. We lived a mile down the road; he would come over with eggs, and my brothers and I would go help with chores on the farm. We often spent time over there seeing what was new around the barnyard. It was just what we did with our grandfather. We were always aware that our grandparents had this other life in the city, but growing up in Brooklin, it was easy not to pay attention to it.”

White took farming far more seriously than the popular image of the writer as “gentleman farmer” might lead one to believe. “He kept hundreds of chickens,” Martha White says. “He raised sheep, and he boarded other people’s cows. During the war years, his contribution to the war effort was to increase production of eggs and hay on the farm.”

It was shortly before World War II that White began work on his first book for children, Stuart Little, which was published in 1945. “You will be shocked and grieved to discover that the principal character in the story has somewhat the attributes and appearance of a mouse,” he wrote to his editor, Eugene Saxton, in 1939. “This does not mean that I am either challenging or denying Mr. Disney’s genius . . . Luckily he bears no resemblance, either physically or temperamentally, to Mickey.”

Charlotte’s Web, inspired by White’s close observations of the daily lives of the animals on the farm, was published in 1952. It remains the work for which he is best known, and it has sold nearly 12 million copies. His third and final tale for young readers, The Trumpet of the Swan, was published in 1970, a book that was written, in part, to release a backlog of Charlotte’s Web royalties that was tied up by the original book contract.

“I was a teenager when The Trumpet of the Swan came out,” Martha White says. “I read it at their house, and although he didn’t say much, I remember my grandfather paying attention to the places where I was laughing.”

By the 1970s, E. B. White was also well-known as one of America’s premier essayists, and his nonfiction books for adults, such as One Man’s Meat and The Points of My Compass, enjoyed good sales and even better reputations. White was a liberal thinker who championed the freedom of the individual while supporting the role of government as the guarantor of the rights of the minority. The Letters of E. B. White was published in 1976. “Ideally, a book of letters should be published posthumously,” White wrote in the introduction. “The advantages are obvious: The editor enjoys a free hand, and the author enjoys a perfect hiding place—the grave, where he is impervious to embarrassments and beyond the reach of libel. I have failed to cooperate in this ideal arrangement.”

Despite his fame, E. B. White remained publicity-shy all his life, turning down invitations to speak in public. At his memorial service in Blue Hill, Roger Angell said, “If E. B. White could be here today, he wouldn’t be here.”

“He wouldn’t accept engagements to speak,” Martha White says. “He absolutely hated to get up on stage and make a speech.”

Those who knew him well joked about it. Observing White and the notoriously nearsighted Thurber, Harold Ross allegedly remarked: “Look at them, my two best writers, one can’t see to cross the street, and the other one is afraid to.”

White’s shyness extended even to reading his own work to his family. “I’ve often been asked, ‘Did he read to you, tell you stories?’” Martha White says. “And the answer is no, he never did that. Katharine was the one who read to us. She reviewed children’s books for The New Yorker, and always had new and interesting books around.

“He loved to be with children, but he didn’t tell stories to them. I think he was very childlike himself, in that he kept his sense of wonder. He loved to watch children get excited about something in the barn.”

That barn was famously the inspiration and setting for Charlotte’s Web. But it isn’t open to visitors. The family sold the seaside farm after his death, with the stipulation that it not be turned into any sort of E. B. White museum. Even in death, his adopted hometown respects his privacy. Brooklin is no Salinas, California, where one can do business at the Steinbeck Savings Bank and visit the Steinbeck Center, whose displays include the custom pickup truck in which John Steinbeck visited Deer Isle and the Blue Hill/Brooklin peninsula in 1958 on the cross-country trip he chronicled in Travels with Charley.

E. B. White would have none of that, according to his granddaughter. “He didn’t want it to be a full-time job being the author of Charlotte’s Web. That was one of the wonderful things about the people in Brooklin. They did not give people directions to his house, and did not show up with every visitor and guest asking him to sign books. He would have hated the idea of an E. B. White museum.”

Nonetheless, she acknowledges that the new film has helped to rekindle interest in all of her grandfather’s work. “We had no involvement in the new movie,” she says. “The movie does have the side effect of selling more books, which is good news for us. I may be the only person in the family who has seen the movie—because I was asked to do so for an interview—and my feeling was it was better than the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but I wish they’d left out the puns and the barnyard/bathroom humor. I liked it that they showed Fern reading Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, even though that wasn’t in Charlotte’s Web.”

The film also stimulated interest in E. B. White’s other writings, including his collection of letters. “The original Letters book had been out of print and the publisher wanted to reissue it, partly because of all the buzz created by the movie,” Martha White says. “Our family said yes, but we suggested that we add the last 10 years of letters in a new, revised version. They liked that idea, and the Harper Collins editor, Hugh Van Dusen, who summers in Sorrento, asked me to do it.”

Her grandfather, she says, was “a man who saved everything.” He wrote on a manual typewriter, and kept carbon copies of all its output. A few of his essays enjoy the rarified air of literary immortality, most notably a piece written for Holiday magazine in 1948 titled “Here Is New York,” which concerned the city’s vulnerability to attack and was widely reprinted in the months following September 11, 2001.

Still, “fewer and fewer people remem-ber his New Yorker work, though certain essays get reprinted a lot,” White says. The children’s books are another story, enjoying steady sales, year after year—and a decided bump whenever projects such as the Paramount movie come out. “Right now he’s enjoying the biggest blip in his popularity in a while, because of the movie.”

It’s a blip in popularity that Andy White would have been glad to have missed. His style was to do his quiet weaving in the background, much like his most famous protagonist, Charlotte the spider:

“Why did you do all this for me?” [Wilbur the pig] asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die . . . By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heavens knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

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Nov 1, 2007 07:01 pm
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