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New Yorker's E. B. White Dies : Essayist, 86, Also Known for His Children's Books

October 02, 1985|KEITH LOVE | Times Staff Writer

E. B. White, one of America's foremost essayists, author of classic children's books and a guiding influence at The New Yorker magazine from its earliest days, died Tuesday at his farm in Brooklin, Me.

He was 86. J. Russell Wiggins, publisher of a local newspaper and a longtime friend, said White had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"A few months ago, he said he had so much to tell and so little time to tell it," recalled Wiggins, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who had known White since the late 1940s.

White was familiar to millions on various levels. He was the author of "Charlotte's Web," "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet of the Swan," children's books that have also delighted adults. He was well known to writers for his updating of "The Elements of Style," a highly praised guide to writing and English usage written by one of White's college professors, Will Strunk.

He was probably at his best, however, in his essays on American life, both urban and rural, many of which appeared in The New Yorker. White also wrote editorials for The New Yorker. And more than any other writer associated with the magazine since its founding in February, 1925, he helped set its tone and style.

White was curious but rarely passionate, intelligent but never intellectual, modern but never faddish or stylish, a city man who wrote some of his best essays about rural life.

And he was often very funny.

The magazine bought some of his light verse in 1925, and by 1929, he was given a small salary and an office. White rarely kept regular hours and would be just as likely to write from Maine as from his apartment in New York.

One of White's closest friends was James Thurber, with whom he shared an office at The New Yorker in the magazine's early days. It was White who taught Thurber how to write the magazine's "Talk of the Town" pieces and who helped launch Thurber's career as a cartoonist.

Thurber could not get his drawings published until 1929, when he and White collaborated on a humorous book, "Is Sex Necessary? Or Why You Feel the Way You Do." According to White's biographer, Scott Elledge, the editor of the book trusted White's intuition that Thurber's drawings would be well received. They were so well received that Thurber was an overnight sensation as a cartoonist.

At The New Yorker, White was one of the first--and best--writers of witty tag lines for "news breaks," the filler items selected from American newspapers because of their typographical errors or odd statements.

In his 1984 biography of White, Elledge recounted some of White's best tag lines for news breaks, including one written for an advertisement someone spotted in a Pittsburgh newspaper. The ad read: "Gent's laundry taken home. Or serve at parties at night." White's tag line was, "Oh, take it home."

Caption for Famous Cartoon

It was White who wrote the caption for the now legendary New Yorker cartoon showing an angry little girl at dinner with her mother. When the mother insists that the dish before her is broccoli, the child replies, "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it."

Although he was long associated with rural life in Maine, where he had his farm near Brooklin, Elwyn Brooks White was born July 11, 1899, in the city of Mount Vernon, N.Y., the youngest of six children whose father was president of a piano-making firm in New York City.

He attended Cornell University on a scholarship, leaving briefly during World War I to serve as a private in the Army.

It was at Cornell that White got the nickname "Andy." The school's first president had been named Andrew White, and E. B. White's classmates decided he should be called "Andy" as a prank. For the rest of his life, E. B. was known to friends and associates as Andy White.

After college, White toured the west in a Model A Ford and spent a year writing for a Seattle newspaper. He was not very happy with daily newspapering and once explained why in a letter to one of his brothers:

"I discovered . . . that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart . . . was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace. As a reporter I was a flop because I always came back laden not with facts about the case but with a mind full of the little difficulties and amusements I had encountered in my travels. Not until The New Yorker came along did I ever find any means of expressing these impertinences and irrelevancies."

At The New Yorker, White not only charmed readers with reports on life at his Maine farm or his experiences in New York, he also wrote eloquently about the evils of totalitarianism, about the need for a world government after the invention of the nuclear bomb and about the dangers of censorship.

During World War II, White joined other writers and artists on the Writers' War Board and, when assigned to define democracy in a pamphlet, he wrote:

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