E. B. White
Elwyn Brooks White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) was an American essayist, columnist, poet and editor. He is best known today for his work in a writers' guide, The Elements of Style, and for three children's books Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan generally regarded as classics.
- See also: The Elements of Style
- "It's broccoli, dear."
"I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it."
- Caption for a cartoon by Carl Rose in The New Yorker (8 December 1928)
- Commuter — one who spends his life
In riding to and from his wife;
A man who shaves and takes a train
And then rides back to shave again.
- "Commuter," The Lady Is Cold (1929)
- I have occasionally had the exquisite thrill of putting my finger on a little capsule of truth, and heard it give the faint squeak of mortality under my pressure.
- Letter to Stanley Hart White (January 1929)
- Did it ever occur to you that there's no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another?
- Advertisers are the interpreters of our dreams — Joseph interpreting for Pharaoh. Like the movies, they infect the routine futility of our days with purposeful adventure. Their weapons are our weaknesses: fear, ambition, illness, pride, selfishness, desire, ignorance. And these weapons must be kept as bright as a sword.
- "Truth in Advertising," The New Yorker (11 July 1936)
- Necessity first mothered invention. Now invention has little ones of her own, and they look just like grandma.
- "The Old and the New," The New Yorker (19 June 1937)
- There is a decivilizing bug somewhere at work; unconsciously persons of stern worth, by not resenting and resisting the small indignities of the times, are preparing themselves for the eventual acceptance of what they themselves know they don’t want.
- Harper's Magazine (October 1938); quoted in Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1984), ch. X: Mr Tilley's Departure (p. 209)
- Everything (he kept saying) is something it isn't. And everybody is always somewhere else.
- The Door (1939)
- All poets who, when reading from their own works, experience a choked feeling, are major. For that matter, all poets who read from their own works are major, whether they choke or not.
- "How to Tell a Major Poet from a Minor Poet" in The New Yorker (1938); reprinted in Quo Vadimus: Or, the Case for the Bicycle (1939)
- Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
- "Some Remarks on Humor," preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor (1941)
- A very similar remark is often attributed to White, but may actually be a paraphrased version of the above statement: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."
- We received a letter from the Writers' War Board the other day asking for a statement on "The Meaning of Democracy." It is presumably our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure. Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles, the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.
Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.
- The New Yorker (3 July 1943); reprinted as "Democracy" in The Wild Flag (1946)
- Government is the thing. Law is the thing. Not brotherhood, not international cooperation, not security councils that can stop war only by waging it... Where does security lie, anyway — security against the thief, a bad man, the murderer? In brotherly love? Not at all. It lies in government.
- As quoted in Common Cause: A Monthly Report of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution Vol. I, No. 2 (August 1947)
- I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear. Nothing lately has unsettled my party and raised my fears so much as your editorial, on Thanksgiving Day, suggesting that employees should be required to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs. The idea is inconsistent with our constitutional theory and has been stubbornly opposed by watchful men since the early days of the Republic.
- Letter to the New York Herald Tribune (29 November 1947)
- Security, for me, took a tumble not when I read that there were Communists in Hollywood but when I read your editorial in praise of loyalty testing and thought control. If a man is in health, he doesn't need to take anybody else's temperature to know where he is going.
- Letter to the New York Herald Tribune (29 November 1947)
- I discovered, though, that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life's more stereotyped roles.
- "Death of a Pig," The Atlantic Monthly (January 1948)
- The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
All dwellers in cities must dwell with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer who might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
- "Here Is New York," Holiday (1948); reprinted in Here is New York (1949)
- No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
- Here is New York (1949)
- Americans are willing to go to enormous trouble and expense defending their principles with arms, very little trouble and expense advocating them with words. Temperamentally we are ready to die for certain principles (or, in the case of overripe adults, send youngsters to die), but we show little inclination to advertise the reasons for dying.
- "The Thud of Ideas," The New Yorker (23 September 1950)
- When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do. Or what the weather does. This sustains me very well indeed.
- Letter to Carrie A. Wilson (1 May 1951)
- Charlotte's message in Charlotte's Web (1952)
- It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
- Charlotte's Web, last lines
- We grow tyrannical fighting tyranny... The most alarming spectacle today is not the spectacle of the atomic bomb in an unfederated world, it is the spectacle of the Americans beginning to accept the device of loyalty oaths and witchhunts, beginning to call anybody they don't like a Communist.
- Letter to Janice White (27 April 1952)
- An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do but who has escaped the terrible desire to write.
- Letter to Shirley Wiley (30 March 1954), in The Letters of E. B. White (1989), p. 391
- I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.
- "Coon Tree" (14 June 1956), The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South (1962); reprinted in Essays of E.B. White (1977)
- One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy.
- "A Report in January" (30 January 1958), The Points of My Compass: Letters from the East, the West, the North, the South (1962); reprinted in Essays of E.B. White (1977)
- If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But 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.
- Quoted in profile by Israel Shenker, "E. B. White: Notes and Comment by Author", The New York Times (11 July 1969)
- Life's meaning has always eluded me and I guess it always will. But I love it just the same.
- Letter to Mary Virginia Parrish (29 August 1969)
- An unhatched egg is to me the greatest challenge in life.
- Letter to Reginald Allen (5 March 1973)
- As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the one thing left to us in a bad time.
- Letter to M. Nadeau (30 March 1973)
- Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed.
- Letter to M. Nadeau (30 March 1973)
- A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist — nothing shields him from the world's gaze except his bare skin. A writer, writing away, can always fix things up to make himself more presentable, but a man who has written a letter is stuck with it for all time.
- Letter to Corona Machemer (11 June 1975)
- Ideally, a book of letters should be published posthumously. 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 with this ideal arrangement. Through some typical bit of mismanagement, I am still alive, and the book has had to adjust to that awkward fact.
- Foreword to Letters of E.B. White, edited Dorothy Lobrano Guth (1976)
- The essayist … can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter — philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast...
- Foreword to Essays of E.B. White (1976)
One Man's Meat (1942)
- I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television — of that I am quite sure.
- "Removal" (July 1938)
- Television will enormously enlarge the eye's range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote.
- "Removal" (July 1938)
- Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.
- "Fro-Joy" (January 1940)
- A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus.
- The future, wave or no wave, seems to me no unified dream but a mince pie, long in the baking, never quite done.
- A review of The Wave of the Future by Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Harpers Magazine (December 1940)
- Before you can be an internationalist you have first to be a naturalist and feel the ground under you making a whole circle. It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the bylaws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members. A club, moreover, or a nation, has a most attractive offer to make: it offers the right to be exclusive. There are not many of us who are physically constituted to resist this strange delight, this nourishing privilege. It is at the bottom of all fraternities, societies, orders. It is at the bottom of most trouble. The planet holds out no such inducement. The planet is everybody's. All it offers is the grass, the sky, the water, the ineluctable dream of peace and fruition.
- "Intimations" (December 1941)
- Once in everyone's life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me … I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had the chance to get some of it down on paper.
- Foreword to revised edition (1982)
- I am always humbled by the infinite ingenuity of the lord, who can make a red barn cast a blue shadow.
- A despot doesn't fear eloquent writers preaching freedom — he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.
The Wild Flag (1943)
- First published in "The Talk of the Town" in The New Yorker (25 December 1943), p. 11; later in The Wild Flag (1946)
- This is the dream we had, asleep in our chair, thinking of Christmas in the lands of fir tree and pine, Christmas in lands of palm tree and vine, and of how the one great sky does for all places and all people.
After the third great war was over (this was a curious dream), there was no more than a handful of people left alive, and the earth was in ruins and the ruins were horrible to behold. The people, the survivors, decided to meet to talk over their problem and to make a lasting peace, which is the customary thing to make after a long and exhausting war. There were eighty-three countries, and each country sent a delegate to the convention. One English-man came, one Peruvian, one Ethiopian, one Frenchman, one Japanese, and so on, until every country was represented.
- Each delegate brought the flag of his homeland with him-each, that is, except the delegate from China. When the others asked him why he had failed to bring a flag, he said that he had discussed the matter with another Chinese survivor, an ancient and very wise man, and that between them they had concluded that they would not have any cloth flag for China anymore.
'What kind of flag do you intend to have?' asked the delegate from Luxembourg. The Chinese delegate blinked his eyes and produced a shoebox, from which he drew a living flower which looked very like an iris. 'What is that?' they all inquired, pleased with the sight of so delicate a symbol.
'That,' said the Chinese, 'is a wild flag, Iris tectorum. In China we have decided to adopt this flag, since it is a convenient and universal device and very beautiful and grows everywhere in the moist places of the earth for all to observe and wonder at. I propose all countries adopt it, so that it will be impossible for us to insult each other's flag.'
- 'I don't see how a strong foreign policy can be built around a wild flag which is the same for everybody,' complained the Latvian.
'It can't be,' said the Chinese. 'That is one of the virtues of my little flag. I should remind you that the flag was once yours, too. It is the oldest flag in the world, the original one, you might say. We are now, in an original condition again, you might say. There are very few of us.'
The German delegate arose stiffly. 'I would be a poor man indeed,' he said, 'did I not feel that I belonged to the master race. And for that I need a special flag, natürlich.'
'At the moment,' replied the Chinaman, 'the master race, like so many other races, is suffering from the handicap of being virtually extinct. There are fewer than two hundred people left in the entire world, and we suffer from a multiplicity of banner.'
- The delegate from Patagonia spoke up. 'I fear that the wild flag, one for all, will prove an unpopular idea.'
'It will, undoubtedly,' sighed the Chinese delegate. 'But now that there are only a couple of hundred people on earth, even the word "unpopular" loses most of its meaning. At this juncture we might conceivably act in a sensible, rather than a popular, manner.' And he produced eighty-two more shoeboxes and handed a wild flag to each delegate, bowing ceremoniously.
Next day the convention broke up and the delegates returned to their homes, marveling at what they had accomplished in so short a time. And that is the end of our dream.
Paris Review interview (1969)
- Interview with George Plimpton and Frank Crowther, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, series eight (Viking Penguin, 1988, ISBN 0-140-10761-4)
- In order to read one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I've never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.
- New York is part of the natural world. I love the city, I love the country, and for the same reasons. The city is part of the country. When I had an apartment on East Forty-Eighth Street, my backyard during the migratory season yielded more birds than I ever saw in Maine.
- Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.
- Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention.
- When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said — it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.
I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn't know where else to go.