Where to start with E. B. White? The varieties of his writing, and the tones within the variations, were an ambrosia of flavors that made every page of his prose and every line of his poetry a new taste. At his death at 86 in North Brooklin, Maine, White, as he said of writers in the foreword to a collection of essays, had used his craft to be "a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest."
From White, it was. He covered every stage of our lives. For children, he provided "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little." It had to be a large number of young readers who grew up debating which of those classic books was their all-time favorite. For high school and college students feeling the first chancy urges to be serious about writing, White was ever-present, with Will Strunk, as the grammarian and rhetorician of "The Elements of Style." Adults wearied by writers dealing in double-distilled snake oil had in White a master of naturalness.
His words put you at ease, as though language were a relaxant. The White voice was the same whether he wrote for an audience of millions in The New Yorker or in letters he sent to a single reader. To Richard Nixon, White had four trim lines in July 1969: "Dear Mr. President: Thank you for your friendly greetings on my 70th birthday. I was pleased to have them. I'm afraid your letter crossed a brisk telegram from my wife to you demanding that you call off the moon shot. But that's the way life is in this household: something coming in, something going out, all with the best of all possible motives if not with the most sophisticated coordination."
White, who lived halfway into his ninth decade, began his writing as a reporter for his Mt. Vernon, N.Y., high school paper, The Oracle. He recalled that "being the youngest in a large family, I was usually in a crowd but often felt lonely and removed. I took to writing early, to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts, and I was a busy writer long before I went into long pants."
Literary lives as lengthy as White's usually have rises and falls or spins and turns by which we look back on the writer's days as a Greenwich Village communist, his Hollywood period, his finding a second, third or fourth spouse and then, for sure, the abandonment of liberalism to be -- what else -- a professional conservative. White's arrow, aimed at the blank page, was shot straight and stayed that way. The only straying he confessed to was that half the time he lived "blissfully wedded to the modern scene" and the other half as "the fusspot moralist suspicious of all progress."
The mistake most often made about E. B. White was to cast him only as a gently wry spirit of rare ingenuities but, after that, not to be taken all that seriously. The dismissal was unfair. White used his writing to build larger monuments than mere wryness. He was an environmentalist who, well before the bells of filth were sounding, pushed The New Yorker to discuss the coming pollution.
In 1959, the magazine began publishing environmental columns, which White edited and wrote headnotes for. He introduced the first: "Because the slaughter of the innocents continues, here and abroad, and the contamination of air, sea, and soil proceeds apace, The New Yorker will undertake to assemble bulletins tracing Man's progress in making the planet uninhabitable. This is Bulletin No. 1."
In the environmental notes, White preached with the power of facts, not lungs. The ironic fact was best: "A Turkish towel folded once and held over the mouth will help greatly in the event of air-spread radioactivity. This finding was reported in the Archives of Industrial Health, a publication of the American Medical Association."
Little of the ironic found its way to the page when White wrote of militarism. Next to the tireless Garry Davis, no American in the past 40 years has advocated as strongly as White the idea of world government as a solution to ending war. On Dec. 10, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor, when the nation's military juices were in full flow, White wrote coolly: "The passionate love of Americans for their America will have a lot to do with winning the war. It is an odd thing though: The very patriotism on which we now rely is the thing that must eventually be in part relinquished if the world is ever to find a lasting peace and an end to these butcheries."
His thinking on the need for a supranational and planet-wide government was blunt about the troubles caused by patriotism: "I know that this very loyalty, this feeling of being part of a special place, this respect for one's native scene -- I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world's wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find people for the next society."
Where to start with E.B. White? Why not with that.