Join 3,516 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


I have never seen you use an unnecessary word.
July 12, 2012 6:08 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday would have been the 113th birthday of EB White. He is probably best known for one of two enduring classics: Charlotte's Web, or (as the reviser and co-author of the widely-used English language style guide, Strunk & White's) The Elements of Style.

Charlotte's Web was his second book, coming several years after his mouse tale Stuart Little.

White's early career was as a journalist and copy-writer, and he even dabbled a spoof on marriage and romance published in 1929.
Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do
was co-written with James Thurber, known for such short stories as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The book was re-issued in 2004 with foreword by John Updike.

Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web were jointly awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1970, some 20-odd years after they were published by the Association for Library Service to Children.

White subsequently lent his name to The E.B. White Read Aloud Awards, and would go on to write a number of books and essays.

He died in 1985, having seen his best known book adapted into film by Twilight Zone alum and The Waltons creater Earl Hamner Jr creating a new generation of fans.

It was re-shot as a live action film in 2006. There was a belated sequel to the animated film in 2003: Wilbur's Great Adventure.
posted by Mezentian (54 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Does no one still read Trumpet of the Swan? That was always my favorite of his books as a child.
posted by Forktine at 6:12 AM on July 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


Anyone who has only ever read E.B. White's works for children: you have seriously missed out on his very fine work for adults. I recommend starting with his essay "Walden," a literal revisitation of Thoreau, which is particularly fine.
posted by BlueJae at 6:15 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hope my daughter reads Mr. White's wonderful children's books to her children and remembers her father reading them to her.
posted by incandissonance at 6:16 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yesterday would have been the 113th birthday of EB White.

Yes, and it's a pity he didn't make it to 113. Some say life really begins at 113.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:17 AM on July 12, 2012


"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." - Here Is New York is one of the best essays written about the city ever.
posted by The Whelk at 6:19 AM on July 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oh, god, I loved Trumpet of the Swan as a kid. Way more than Charlotte, actually.

Also worth mentioning is White's ode to New York City, Here Is New York.
posted by Sara C. at 6:19 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


My favorite E.B. White is Once More to the Lake.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:19 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wait what: E.B. White of Strunk & White is the same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte's Web? How did I not know this. Why did I assume there were two different E.B. White's who were both writing?
posted by chunking express at 6:20 AM on July 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


Yeah it's sad if Elements of Style is really better remembered than Stuart Little or Trumpet of the Swan. I'm not as down on Elements as some, but I don't think it's nearly as good as his children's books or some of his essays.
posted by pete_22 at 6:22 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


My five year old is addicted to the audiobook of E.B. White reading The Trumpet of the Swan.
posted by nightwood at 6:26 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vaguely recalling that Gene Shalit's invaluable anthology, Laughing Matters, might have an excerpt from Is Sex Neccesary I pulled it down, and flipped it open directly to the opening of the preface:
Almost everyone who cares about humor pays homage to E. B. White. Me too. After all, he and his collaborator-wife Katharine S. White did put together the best anthology of American humor of all time. However, "all time" ended in 1941, when their A Subtreasury of American Humor appeared(...)
posted by longtime_lurker at 6:28 AM on July 12, 2012


White of Strunk & White is the same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte's Web?

My daughter was just as surprised when I began reading Elements of Style to her at bedtime.

"Daddy, this book is boring."

"Yes, but it's written by the same author who wrote Charlotte's Web."

*Blank stare*

She still doesn't get my attempts at subtle humor.
posted by three blind mice at 6:30 AM on July 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wait what: E.B. White of Strunk & White is the same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte's Web?

Mind blown.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:31 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Happy 113th, Mr. White! Hope the ASPCA has forgiven you!
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 6:36 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I was working at the punk rock store, I used to regularly hang out with a bunch of guys who sold books outside, up the block. We'd occasionally trade books, or they would just give me a book or two, and this one time I got a copy of Elements of Style. I left it behind the counter at work, and one of my coworkers picked it up and shook his head:

"I don't understand why people read books like this."
"What do you mean? It's got a lot of good advice in it."
"It just doesn't make any sense. You either have style or you don't. That's how it works. You can't get it from a book."
"..."
posted by griphus at 6:37 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


And Mr. Feeny was KITT!
posted by kmz at 6:38 AM on July 12, 2012


I have to admit until today I knew neither about the Elements of Style connection, nor Stuart Little, nor that White was even a man.

But I intend to fix some of those lapses by getting some of his adult stuff, and his undread kids' work. My 1st grade teacher reading Charlotte's Web and Moomintrolls have stuck with me more than the maths lessons ever did.

And Mr. Feeny was KITT!

Mind: BAYSPLODED!
posted by Mezentian at 6:41 AM on July 12, 2012


“Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north...As he peeked ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.”
posted by octothorpe at 6:43 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


My five year old is addicted to the audiobook of E.B. White reading The Elements of Style.
posted by Scientist at 6:45 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Elements of Style and adorable piglets, together again!

Though I'm sure E.B. White would have agreed with me that "The wise goose warns Wilbur of his fate - a crispy, scrumptious Christmas meal" is an awkward sentence and could use a rewrite.
posted by Jeanne at 6:49 AM on July 12, 2012


Oh, thank you for this!

And thanks to Mrs. Nesbitt, my Grade 3 teacher who read his books to us every day after lunch. Even as an adult, Charlotte is one of the characters I most admire. In her short life, she knew her position, her duty, and yet still wanted to do one good thing for a friend. Her life was complex, but clear. She seemed like such a nice "person" to be around. I'm envious of that balance and kindness.


His books of Essays and Poems and Sketches are always at hand on their own shelf that I pass ten times a day, where I can grab them in a heartbeat - and I love reading those to my daughter along with the children's books. They are among the best gifts a friend has ever given me (funny - she's a teacher too. Is he a teacher thing?) I know what I'm tucking in with tonight!

And the Illustrated Elements of Style is a book I often give as gifts to writerly friends. I should probably procure a copy for myself.
posted by peagood at 6:51 AM on July 12, 2012


Here is New York
posted by ThisIsNotMe at 7:06 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oddly, after loving and forgetting Charlotte's Web as a child, I returned to E.B. White later, in high school, because someone told me that reading and studying his essays would make my college application essays better. My model in terms of tone and style was "Death of a Pig" which starts off with one of the all time great ledes:
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.
posted by AceRock at 7:19 AM on July 12, 2012


E.B. White is fantastic. This past winter I discovered the audiobooks of him reading his own stories. I ripped them to my iPod but have been saving them until... Well, I don't know what for, but this is gonna be GREAT!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:21 AM on July 12, 2012


For a long time I conflated E.B. White ("Trumpet of the Swan," et al.) with T.H. White ("Once and Future King"), two books that I loved and which seem like they maybe could have come from the same mind.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:22 AM on July 12, 2012


and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

What, wait, spiders can write and swans can ply trumpet and mice can drive invisible cars, but pigs can't do accounting?
posted by chavenet at 7:23 AM on July 12, 2012


Of the countless letter writers I've come across running Letters of Note, E. B. White remains one of my favourites -- so much so that I actually have to stop myself from simply featuring his correspondence on a weekly basis. I could start a site called 'E. B. White's Letters of Note' and not run out of material for many years. If you haven't enjoyed it already, I highly recommend the book, Letters of E. B. White. It's positively overflowing with wisdom, humour, and touching moments. Seriously fantastic.

A wonderful man.
posted by Usher at 7:30 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a good thing he never saw the travesty that was the Stuart Little "film franchise." I must have sailed the Lillian B. Womrath miles in my bathtub.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:33 AM on July 12, 2012


I have never read "Once More to the Lake" before, but it immediately resonated with me: this summer I will again take my wife & kids back to Minnesota to see the rest of the family, and I know we will again go to The Lake. Every summer I have felt the same confusion as White when I see my father and my sons fishing in the boat I fished from with him: am I myself, watching, or am I one of them? Which one? Do I feel youthful hope or adult wistfulness?

Thank you for pointing out this essay to me; what a delight.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:33 AM on July 12, 2012


Anyone who is a fan of E.B. White ought to read The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lapore. About a quarter or so of the book is a biography of White -- the rest puts him in the context of the development of ideas about sex and life and death in the 19th and early twentieth century.

The book also has mini-biographies of Milton Bradley and Lillian Gilbreth, of "Cheaper By the Dozen" fame: Bradley because he created a board game about the nature of success, and then turned his efforts to helping promote the concept of kindergarden and early childhood education, and Gilbreth because she managed to be a mother of twelve and a PhD industrial-efficiency expert. White fits in because of his role and his wife's in re-inventing children's literature (making it more grown up, basically) and because he did have opinions on the rapidly changing attitudes toward sex and relationships in his day.
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:34 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


One day my wife and I were waiting at a red light. In the car next to us was a driver who, while waiting for the light to change, kept himself occupied by reading a book: Strunk & White's Elements of Style.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:52 AM on July 12, 2012


You can tell a sweetly aspiring writer by his unshakable faith in Strunk & White. I say "sweetly" out of self-compassion, because we've all been there.
posted by gilrain at 8:11 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I mean to say, it's the highest level watchword of writing. Every would-be writer learns to pin it on and strut a bit. The most severe cases rely on it for style advice, as well!
posted by gilrain at 8:14 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Oh, and yes: the next highest level watchword of writing is loudly denying Strunk & White. I am at that stage of less-than-sweetly aspiring writer. I expect the next watchword after that is embracing the deeper truths of Strunk & White while rejecting its lazy generalizations. Can't wait!)
posted by gilrain at 8:16 AM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of my favorite quotations of all time is from E.B. White:

"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

...It's like he KNEW MY LIFE.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:17 AM on July 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Stuart Little is a great book, but when I was a young child it filled me with something like existential angst. The whole thing with the family cat and Stuart's friend the bird was fraught with horror and tension, and the time he went on a date with the very small woman and things didn't go well - I remember very strong, very odd feelings of, perhaps not terror, but certainly dread and pity.

Ugh, I still am my seven-year-old self.
posted by Occula at 9:14 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I felt the same way about Curious George. Also the Tigger end of the Winnie-the-Poohniverse.
posted by Sara C. at 9:24 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, god. I hate, hated Rabbit for intentionally losing Tigger in the scary woods. I know Rabbit isn't meant to be the most sympathetic busybody ever, but that was monstrous. I can finally say it as an adult: fuck you, Rabbit!
posted by gilrain at 9:31 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


He died in 1985, having seen his best known book adapted into film . . . It was re-shot as a live action film in 2006

They made Elements of Style into an action flick?








Whoa . . .
 
posted by Herodios at 9:46 AM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


They made Elements of Style into an action flick?
Would pay to see this. It has to turn out better than john carter of mars.
posted by smidgen at 10:08 AM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't know about an action flic, but it'd make a nifty musical (are ya listening, Hollywood? My email's in my profile; call me.) The nice thing is that Elements of Style: The Musical! would be mercifully short.
posted by mosk at 11:02 AM on July 12, 2012


Hmmm...an action flick would work to.

Tough Guy 1: "He said to omit needless words. Get him, Rocco!"

Victim "???"

Rocco: "!!!"

Victim "."
posted by mosk at 11:05 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Totally calling dibs on titling my next screenplay The Elements of Style.
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite E.B. White story may well be apocryphal, but I don't care. I think this is from some long-ago radio interview with Roger Angell, and he mentioned that his step-father enjoyed inventing plausible sentences that broke all the "rules," including this tiny story.

A father is putting his son to bed. After sending the boy upstairs, he rummages around in the living room until he finds a book that had been out of the bedtime rotation for a few months. He brings it to the bedroom, and the boy, seeing the cover of a book he had tired of weeks ago, says:

"Dad, why did you bring me that book I don't want to be read to out of up for?"
posted by range at 11:51 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is "never end a sentence with a preposition" actually in Elements of Style?

It's not a grammar book.
posted by Sara C. at 11:58 AM on July 12, 2012


S&W are explicitly fine with sentence-ending prepositions, actually.

(It occurs to me that one might craft an amusing joke or faux rap lyric around the ambiguity of S&W standing for both Smith & Wesson and Strunk & White. Ideally, this would be performed with ukulele accompaniment in a kitschy YouTube video.)
posted by gilrain at 12:11 PM on July 12, 2012


No, that rule isn't in Elements of Style, to my knowledge - in my mind, anyway, it seems like his hobby of writing rule-breaking sentences caused a lot of stodgy Latinate rules to be omitted...
posted by range at 12:37 PM on July 12, 2012


They made Elements of Style into an action flick?








Whoa . . .


How prescient of you. Keanu Reeves starred.
posted by A dead Quaker at 4:46 PM on July 12, 2012


Strunk and White are gods.
posted by Twang at 5:17 PM on July 12, 2012


(Oh, and yes: the next highest level watchword of writing is loudly denying Strunk & White. I am at that stage of less-than-sweetly aspiring writer. I expect the next watchword after that is embracing the deeper truths of Strunk & White while rejecting its lazy generalizations. Can't wait!)

I've ended up feeling like Strunk & White is a great demonstration of the power of tacit knowledge.

E.B. White wrote better English prose than just about anyone else of his era. And he did it without having the faintest conscious idea of how to write good prose. He couldn't explain what he was doing. He'd just gotten damn good, over the years, at doing it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:05 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


And yeah, the S&W shibboleth of choice is "avoid the passive voice," not "never end a sentence with a preposition."

Though to their credit they were actually reasonably flexible about the passive too, and admitted that it was sometimes the best way to express something. I don't know who it was that turned it into the inflexibly asinine principle that some people like to invoke now, where we're supposed to pretend that half of the English verb paradigm doesn't exist at all.

posted by nebulawindphone at 7:09 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm waiting for the fourth sequel in the franchise, The Fifth Element of Style.

"Skin is created by bombarding the body with slightly greasy solar atoms."

Avoid passive construction.
posted by sonascope at 1:55 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know who it was that turned it into the inflexibly asinine principle that some people like to invoke now

English teachers who wanted to make grading essays easier.

In high school, all of mine directly warned us that they would deduct 5 points (i.e. half of a letter grade) for use of the passive voice. I'm not sure if they stuck to that as a hard and fast rule, though.

On the one hand, this inspired the less grammar-inclined kids to actually learn what the passive voice is so that they could avoid it, which probably improved their writing. On the other hand, that's probably what spawned this generation of people who apparently think the passive voice is incorrect grammar or whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 3:51 PM on July 13, 2012


Preposition ending sentences were made.
posted by y2karl at 6:50 PM on July 15, 2012


« Older "You really learn to look..and suddenly you begin ...  |  Can Tumblr embrace ads without... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments