ONWARD AND UPWARD A Biography of Katharine S. White By Linda H. Davis Harper & Row. 300 pp. $22.50

IN ANY history or memoir of The New Yorker's halcyon days, three men stand out: Harold Ross, the editor whose passionate if peculiar vision shaped the magazine's character, and James Thurber and E.B. White, the writers whose work made it possible for Ross' vision to become reality. Yet as is so often the case there is another figure, far less celebrated, whose role in the shaping of the magazine was every bit as important as theirs.

Like Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Scribner's who had so central a part in the careers of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, Katharine S. White was a significant influence on 20th-century American literature; and like Perkins, she comes late to the recognition she deserves. Perkins was something of a mystery until the publication, a decade ago, of A. Scott Berg's fine biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Similarly, Katharine White has been overshadowed by her more famous husband, E.B. White; but now, with Linda Davis's Onward and Upward, Mrs. White begins to receive her due.

Davis has written a solid, respectful, affectionate biography that, like Scott Elledge's life of E.B. White, never quite overcomes the central obstacle its subject's life presents: for all the undeniable importance of her career and the great force of her personality, Katharine White's life was neither dramatic nor eventful. If E.B. White spent his life at the typewriter, Katharine White spent hers at the editor's desk; both occupations are honorable and both of these people produced valuable work, but neither career makes for much in the way of biographical interest.

Thus the central events of Katharine White's life can be summarized quickly. She was born Katharine Sergeant in 1892 and grew up in a prosperous household in the Boston suburb of Brookline; from an early age she was encouraged to read. She attended Bryn Mawr, where she was encouraged both as an intellectual and a feminist. She married Ernest Angell, a lawyer who eventually attained considerable note as a civil libertarian, with whom she had two children. After they moved from Cleveland to New York she got a job as an editor at The New Yorker, then six months old, where she rapidly rose to prominence and where she met E.B. White. Some years later she divorced Angell and married White, with whom she had one child. They bought a house in Maine, and for the rest of her life she moved back and forth between there and New York, conducting much of The New Yorker's business by correspondence and telephone. She suffered from various debilitating and depressing ailments, and died in Maine in 1977.

BEYOND THIS skeleton of an outline, Katharine White's story involves what are essentially interior dramas. The first, and apparently the most difficult to document or define, is her development as an editor. Though she loved to write and was skilled at it, she was "a natural editor, in her feeling for literature, and in a complex, inborn need: to be challenged, intellectually and creatively; to work with people (work to which she had earlier been drawn, in different forms); to nurture others." Davis tells us, most convincingly, of the invaluable assistance Mrs. White gave to such indisputably important writers as Vladimir Nabokov and Jean Stafford; but it is more difficult to show how such service is rendered and how the writer capitalizes on it, and here Davis is able to provide only limited and tentative evidence.

A second drama, which was hinted at in Elledge's biography, is the conflict between Katharine White the precociously liberated woman and Katharine White the loyal and protective helpmeet. Of E.B. White, Davis writes: "Katharine White was his most fervent fan, and his protector. During the 1940s she assumed 'the terrible responsibility' of becoming his agent, handling his contracts and editorial difficulties; and his work always took precedence in their family life." Indeed it did; the Whites moved away from New York to Maine in order to give Andy, as E.B. was known, the quiet and solitude to write, in the process wrenching his wife from an office and a job she loved. Was there no resentment of this? Did Katharine White subordinate herself to her husband without question or challenge?

It is difficult to believe she did not, for it is clear that she was a strong, willful personality who expected the respect and deference of others. She was "supremely self-confident, a woman of seemingly unshakable poise"; further, "by virtue of her personality and appearance, {she} was intimidating." Can such a woman have left New York for Maine without argument, or at least without some inner sense of sacrifice and loss? It scarcely would seem so, but Davis never precisely addresses the question; apparently she feels that this woman -- who "was unable to mother her own children" and "had never coped easily with domestic problems" -- abandoned city life and editorial responsibility without serious complaint, and went off to the Maine seashore to hold her husband's hand.

If this seems rather improbable, it is worth bearing in mind first that Katharine White was an unusually complicated and contradictory person, and second that she was of a generation that assumed the husband always came first. Merely for her to take a job required a measure of courage and independence; as she once wrote, "to be a working mother is not easy, even for a professional woman." So it may well be that when duty called she responded as she had been trained to do; but the question bears a more direct analysis than Davis gives it.

On the whole, though, she has written a serious, responsible book. Her prose is workmanlike at best and occasionally she has difficulty with transitions, but she has done scrupulous work; she has had the cooperation of Katharine White's family, but her portrait is not fawning and she describes her subject's shortcomings as well as her virtues. Like Nancy Milford's Zelda, Onward and Upward brings the wife out of the shadows and reveals her to be, in some respects, more interesting than the husband. That is a statement to which the loyal Katharine White doubtless would object, but it is true.