E.B. White published so little in the last years of his life -- mostly letters, new editions of old books, odds and ends -- that his presence was scarcely felt. Especially after the death eight years ago of his beloved wife, Katharine, he retreated into the bucolic pleasures of his farm in Maine, tending his hens and dogs, receiving an occasional visitor, but writing, so far as we know, little if anything. When he died last week it seemed less a departure than a reappearance, a final reminder that he had been there all along and that we had missed him.
Many words have now been said over him, and fine words too. He has been praised as a stylist and a positive influence on the writing of others, as an essayist and a writer of exquisite books for children, all of which he most certainly was. It has been noted that with his death the last of The New Yorker's early giants is gone, though it has not been noted that his death coincided with the arrival at that magazine of a new business management that seems hellbent on destroying what remains of its original character.
Much to the credit of his obituarists, no one has yet called White either a great writer or a great American. White had a decent regard for his own accomplishment and was a devoted citizen of this country, but he had an extreme distaste for hyperbole and would have dismissed such claims forthwith. He knew full well that his gift was not for the large and cosmic but for the miniature and intimate, as he pointed out once in a letter to his brother, Stanley:
"I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, 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 till The New Yorker came along did I ever find any means of expressing those impertinences and irrelevancies . . . The rewards of such endeavor are not that I have acquired an audience or a following, as you suggest (fame of any kind being a Pyrrhic victory), but that sometimes in writing of myself -- which is the only subject anyone knows intimately -- 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, an antic sound."
This letter is to be found, of course, in "Letters of E.B. White," that large and wonderful book published nine years ago. White himself did not edit the book -- that was done by the daughter of an old friend and associate -- but he gave the project a cooperation that was both full and far from unenthusiastic. That he did so, and that he permitted the book to be published during his lifetime, suggests another side to the modesty he so often expressed about himself and his work; the same can be said of his cooperation, though slightly more reluctant, with the biography by Scott Elledge that was published last year.
White knew he was a miniaturist, that is, but he seems to have had a somewhat greater avidity for the limelight than his letter to Stanley White would lead us to believe. This is not a pejorative comment, but a recognition that White was no stranger to internal conflict, just as, his letters tell us, he was no stranger to nocturnal fears and hypochondria. If anything, the probability that he yearned for fame and applause even as he hid away in his distant farm gives us a heightened awareness of his humanity, of the complex web of longings that no doubt helped make his writing so compassionate, so understanding and so vigorous.
This last word has perhaps appeared too infrequently in his obituaries. The gentleness, humor and kindliness of his writing have been much remarked upon, as indeed they should be, but the vigor and acidity of it have been too little noticed. White was slight and rather frail, but there was nothing weak about the opinions he so pungently expressed. In 1947, for example, which was a bad time -- "an age of fear," he called it -- he did not hesitate to upbraid The New York Herald Tribune for supporting the blacklist of the Hollywood Ten. "It is not a crime to believe anything at all in America," he wrote. "To date it has not been declared illegal to belong to the Communist party. Yet ten men have been convicted not of wrongdoing but of wrong believing. That is news in this country, and if I have not misread history, it is bad news." Two decades later he told a friend:
"My uneasiness about modern writing is not because of its being experimental but because of its abandonment of the responsibility of good taste and its acceptance of the inevitability of complete disclosure. This I find worrisome. When freedom of expression is abused, and things become disgusting, then freedom of expression is endangered. People will stand just so much, then they want the clamps put on. I think we are getting perilously close to the clampdown. The movies are not going to be happy till they present the sex act in living color, and this is where the trouble is going to start and where the new Victorian age will bloom . . ."
In these two passages White considered themes that recur over and again in his most serious work: the preciousness of freedom and the obligation not to abuse it. He was about as ardent a small-d democrat as ever lived; he once wrote proudly that "I believe in freedom with the same burning delight, the same faith, the same intense abandon that attended its birth on this continent more than a century and a half ago." Yet he also understood that freedom is not a synonym for license, that we -- especially those of us who have been granted the privilege of speaking or writing in public -- must have the maturity not to cheapen it.
There were other themes, as we all know, and it seems only right to let White himself express them, to give him the last word. It will be found in a letter he wrote in 1973, to some sixth-graders who had sent him a group of essays:
"Your essays spoke of beauty, of love, of light and darkness, of joy and sorrow, and of the goodness of life. They were wonderful compositions. I have seldom read any that have touched me more.
"To thank you and your teacher Mrs. Ellis, I am sending you what I think is one of the most beautiful and miraculous things in the world -- an egg. I have a goose named Felicity and she lays about forty eggs every spring. It takes her almost three months to accomplish this. Each egg is a perfect thing. I am mailing you one of Felicity's eggs. The insides have been removed -- blown out -- so the egg should last forever. I hope you will enjoy seeing this great egg and loving it. Thank you for sending me your essays about being somebody. I was pleased that so many of you felt the beauty and goodness of the world. If we feel that when we are young, then there is great hope for us when we grow older."