The Letters of E. B. White

E. B. White’s place in 20th-century American literature is impossible to classify. You would want to call him a man of letters, but then you notice that he didn’t write about books or culture or ideas or anything remotely intellectual. As a prolific contributor to The New Yorker’s “Notes and Comments” department, he was master of the occasional sketch or feuilleton (a term he would never use). He was also a virtuoso of the elegiac personal essay and a dab hand at comic verse, gentle poems, and droll little stories and parodies. His three children’s books still cover the land, and he contributed the third element to the writer’s trinity of necessary volumes: dictionary, thesaurus, and “Strunk and White.” He also wrote hundreds of letters. Indeed, this volume, revised to include letters written in the last decade of his life and now available in paperback, belongs as much to his life’s work as anything he ever wrote.

The best letter writers are what, today, are unkindly called control freaks, but that was E. B. White to a tee. Face-to-face discussions, of large matters particularly, irked him. They were likely to range out of control, skitter off in all directions, and result in distressing muddles, not the least being inaccurately expressed declarations of feeling. A letter is different. There you’re in charge, having your way and disarming your reader all at one go. “If this letter sounds peremptory or bossy,” he wrote to one correspondent of whom he was asking a favor, “it is because I have just dined on wild meat.”

To this end, White habitually communicated with his wife, Katharine, by inter-office memo and letter even when they were separated by only a few steps. Among such letters is one notifying her shortly after their wedding that he is happy they are married, and a later one in which he writes to let her know that he is greatly moved that she is pregnant. This undertaking, however, was so formidable that he handed it over to their dog, Daisy: “White has been stewing around for two days now, a little bit worried because he is not sure that he has made you realize how glad he is?he gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling, and he worries about his inarticulateness just the same as he does about his bowels, except it is worse, and makes him either mad, or sick, or with a prickly sensation in the head.”

White admitted to living in a state of chronic uneasiness. Writing about his encounters with the world, in which he combined precision and whimsy, not only brought him relief, but constituted his art. He had discovered, he wrote to his brother, 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.” We notice that, with characteristic meticulousness in describing his outlook, he does not speak of “life,” but of “living.” Life is alarmingly portentous, while living — an assembly of little tasks and small happenings — is possible for an uneasy man to take on and describe with some festivity. In writing of the quotidian, he continued, “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.”

These letters are filled with that antic sound, a source of endless joy to the reader, and never more so than when White is describing the goings-on at his saltwater farm in Maine and the ways of his animals. Among the actors are dogs (“Tunney, who is twelve and has the worst breath in Hancock County, is in love again, and goes sobbing all over the house, playing his violin”), chickens (“These birds of mine never stop shaking their heads and it is beginning to get to me. Sometimes I stand there and get thinking that maybe they are shaking their heads at me”), and geese (“Geese…are sagacious, contentious, storm-loving, and beautiful. They are natural hecklers, delight in arguing a point, and are possessed of a truly remarkable sense of ingratitude. They never fail to greet you on your arrival, and the greeting is tinged with distaste and sarcasm?. Their bowel activity is, of course, legendary”).

In his letters, as elsewhere, White was fond of impromptu generalizations about the world, fanciful maxims forged most often out of adversity, as when he broke his toe: a cane “gives dignity, direction, restraint, and a general sense of owning whatever you set the point of the cane down on.” Or after his daughter-in-law’s dog ends a visit: “The departure of a St. Bernard from a home is one of the finest things that can happen to the home.”

The letters range from 1908 to 1985, from when he was nine, and already a humorous fellow, to the year he died. Aside from any number of missives to Katharine recording his doings (“Wormed Mose, and got eleven fine roundworms — six inches long each”), the volume includes letters to members of his family, among which are comic tales of his road trip to the West Coast, meditations of how he means to live his life, and reports on his health (“Except for waves of nausea that glide through me on their little cat feet, I’m fine”). There are epistles of fantastic evasion to a longtime girlfriend, chatty ones to old college mates and friends, and many revealing and often severe dispatches to colleagues at The New Yorker, including editor Harold Ross (“I pull back like a mule at the slightest goading”). The most entertaining letters of all are to friends whose unbounded sense of humor he shares, James Thurber and Frank Sullivan among them. And throughout and to everyone he conveys a pleasure in manual labor and tinkering that is visceral, if not positively concupiscent. (“I have an entirely new feeling about life ever since making an ax handle”).

The death of Katharine in 1977 was a terrible thing, but his comic sensibility and humaneness survived. In the end, this book, with its humor, its celebration of nature and her busy, personable creatures, and its insistence on a modest human existence, is immeasurably heartening. Perhaps we can’t say precisely where E. B. White fits in American literature, but his collected letters belong at every American bedside.