Five things you probably didn’t know about E.B. White

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

– E.B. White 

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E.B. White died on this day in 1985. He was 86 years old. I’ve read a few of White’s books, including Charlotte’s Web and Here is New York. And as a writer, The Elements of Style has a permanent place on my desk. But as I started to look into him a little more for this post, I realized how little I actually know about the man himself. In addition to these five things I learned, I’ve also added his book of essays to my reading list, and even the book of gardening essays his beloved wife Katharine wrote sounds a good read.

It took him about three years to write and publish Charlotte’s Web. He got the idea while working in his barn: “One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig’s life. I had been watching a big grey spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story that you know, a story of friendship and salvation on a farm.”
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E.B White loved dogs and owned over a dozen in his lifetime. When his dog Daisy died (she was hit by a cab), he even wrote her an obituary. You can read it in full here (and you should). Here’s my favourite part: “Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment. Persons who knew her only slightly regarded her as an opinionated little bitch, and said so; but she had a small circle of friends who saw through her, cost what it did.”
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In 1957, White was asked to revise his former professor William Strunk Jr.’s writing guide. It was published a couple of years later as The Elements of Style and has gone on to sell millions of copies. One of the best quotes about Elements is from Dorothy Parker, who reviewed the book for Esquire: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
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E.B. White met his wife Katharine at The New Yorker in 1926 while she worked there as an editor. They spent most of their near 48-year marriage together at their farmhouse in Maine. Katharine died in 1977 at the age of 84. He remained at the house after she died but said it was never the same without her. He has said many sweet things about her, but this is my favourite: “I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of a wife. I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, ‘Put in some tooth twine.’ I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me.”
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E.B stood for Elwyn Brooks. He wasn’t very fond of that name, however, saying “”I never Elwyn. My mother just hung it on me because she’d run out of names. I was her sixth child.” So he probably appreciated his nickname, Andy, which was given to him while he was a student at Cornell. That nickname, after Cornell’s first president, Andrew D. White, was commonly bestowed on students with the last name White.
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