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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, New York. The youngest child in a large family, Elwyn was a shy boy. He was most comfortable among the pigeons, snakes, geese, pollywogs, rabbits, spiders, lizards, caterpillars, mice, and other wild creatures that lived in the stable behind his home, and in the fields and by the Great Pond in Maine where he summered every August with his family.
These were the creatures that would color his fiction in future years and the happy settings that would inspire his children's books. Although it would be half a lifetime before White would finally pen the works that gave him the most satisfaction, he was nonetheless a prolific writer, recording his thoughts every day in a journal from the time he was eight, winning awards in grade school for his essays, publishing at college in the Cornell Daily Sun, and coauthoring with professor William Strunk Jr. the classic The Elements of Style.
But it was his tenure at The New Yorker that first brought E. B. White to the attention of the reading public. Together with publisher Harold Ross, James Thurber, and editor and future wife Katharine Angell, White set the editorial tone for the magazine with his satirical observations on New York City life in particular and public life in general. When he left The New Yorker for Harper's magazine, where his popular column, "One Man's Meat," attracted an even larger audience, White was at the height of his professional success as a humorist.
Perhaps it was the child in White that resented a humdrum desk job andlongedfor freedom. Whatever the reason, he took a vacation from magazine writing and turned his attention to a small, well-dressed mouse of a character that had come to him in a dream (while traveling by train through the Shenandoah Valley). White jotted down some notes about the mouse-child who had visited him in his sleep, and it was to these notes that he returned in 1944, eager to resume the adventures that he had been spinning out for his nieces and nephews over the years.
White called the character Stuart Little, but the only thing small about this hero was his size. Although he was just two inches tall, Stuart was a helpful child, climbing down the drain to retrieve his mother's wedding ring; a bold child, riding a Fifth Avenue bus with aplomb; and above all, a courageous child whose greatest adventure comes when he leaves home — certain he is headed in the right direction — in search of a beautiful little bird that has won his heart.
For White, Stuart Little proved to be the right direction. Reviews were good, and royalty checks were steady. And so, some five years later, White retired to his Maine farm, where he began preliminary sketches on Charlotte's Web. Once again, White drew from his own experiences, setting his story in a barn exactly like his own, recalling the remorse he felt as he fatted his own pigs for slaughter, wishing all the while that the pigs could be spared.
White's wish came true with Charlotte's Web, the story of a pig named Wilbur who is saved by a loyal and clever spider named Charlotte. The heroine of the story was a large Aranea cavatica spider that really did live in the back of White's barn. As White fed his pigs and watched the spider spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs, the story that was to become Charlotte's Web was born.
It wasn't until 1968 that White settled down to complete his third children's book, The Trumpet of the Swan. This story of a trumpeter swan born without a voice who attracts fame, fortune, and the swan of his dreams with a trumpet given to him by his father was again derived from White's lifelong memories: watching a loon tend her nest; traveling through the sweetgrass country of Montana; spending time at a wilderness camp in Ontario, Canada. White was 70 when he completed his last book for children, but he retained his love for the natural world and his boyish spirit well into his 80s. For by conjuring up the adventures of his youth and immortalizing the wild creatures he so loved, he gave readers of all ages an indelible portrait of a wonderful world that would remain, like the best children's literature, forever young.
—Beth Slone Gruber