In the Words of E. B. White?


E. B. White, circa 1923

by Martha White

Quotations have a way of shape-shifting, and like the best shape-shifters in mythology or fairytales, they can unexpectedly take on the characteristics of someone else entirely. In 2011 at a Harvard Business School conference, for example, this image appeared on the screen (and later online) before a wide audience.

2011 Social Enterprise Conference, Harvard Business School

What author and stylist E. B. White had actually written was:

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

Sounds a little different, doesn’t it? Even casual readers of E. B. White might have read these two lines on the screen and suspected foul play. I don’t know whether the speaker had personally paraphrased the quotation to better suit his own presentation (and left the quotation marks in place, regardless) or unknowingly picked it up from a website, already severely corrupted. I have no doubt, however, that this mistaken version will spread like wildfire – if it hasn’t already. That is one reason I consented to compiling and editing a book of my grandfather’s quotations, In the Words of E. B. White.

In July 1969, New York Times journalist Israel Shenker had managed to persuade White to be interviewed at his farmhouse in Maine, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. It was rare for my grandfather to consent to such a request and the interview had not gone well. As White later commented in a letter to retired Columbia professor, David Dodd, “I hate interviews and do not regard them as a sensible form of activity or a means of enlightenment.”

Recalling the dreaded visit sometime later, White wrote to his old friend, Frank Sullivan, “Israel Shenker’s visit to this decadent ranch a couple weeks ago was not one of those perfect occasions that we all dream about. I greeted him with tachycardia and taciturnity in about even parts, and I guess he left without a story, because I soon received an abominable questionnaire in the mail and had no choice but sit down and answer it.”

If you had read the article that Shenker filed, you would have seen his context for the question. “What bothers you about the world?” he evidently had asked. (“Interviewers,” my grandfather might have been tempted to answer.) In the piece, as published, Shenker presented the written answer as if it had been spoken, even though White never uttered it, but wrote it in answer to the mailed questionnaire. The New York Times passage, published July 11, 1969 on White’s actual 70th birthday, read this way, with first Shenker, then White (seemingly) speaking:

What bothers him about the world at large is ‘its seductiveness and its challenge.’

‘If the world were merely seductive,’ he noted, ‘that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.’

Had White spoken the words in person during the interview, it is doubtful that he would have added the parenthetical phrases, amending improve and enjoy to save and savor. And despite the Harvard keynote speaker’s paraphrasing, intentional or not, no one was having “one hell of a good time” on the day of that interview. Even if White had been enjoying the occasion, he never would have spoken of it in that fashion. When another decade had passed and his 80th birthday was approaching, my grandfather enlisted my help to get him out of town – in fact, out of state – for the occasion. Forty-two years earlier he had written, “Octogenarians have a more devil-may-care tactic: they are sometimes quite willing to crowd on some sail and see if they can’t get a burst of speed out of the old hooker yet.” We “crowded on some sail” that July in 1979, not in his good sloop Martha (built by my father and named for me), but in my old Toyota and he made it to Vermont, thus avoiding the press.

Being able to make right the many quotations that appear on the internet either incorrectly attributed to E. B. White, badly mangled, or completely without a source reference was one of the primary reasons I decided to edit In the Words of E. B. White. When the Cornell University Press asked me to compile the collection, I admit that I hesitated. As manager of my grandfather’s literary estate, I have been all too aware of what he did and did not give permissions for, and he was never a fan of excerpting. Here was a book project where I was going to be called upon to excerpt every book he ever put together. Essentially, I was about to offer readers, as my literary uncle Roger Angell called it, “E. B. White Lite.”

This was also a book that would be used by public speakers, to help them stand before a podium and expound on any number of life’s causes, worthy or unworthy, a pursuit that White himself was physically incapable of doing. In an unpublished journal entry in 1965, he had written: “Today I was asked to read from my works at the Festival of the Arts in the White House, June 14. A Mr. Goldman had called The New Yorker, and Harriet had refused to give him my phone number here – which I thought comical. I had to call and say that I couldn’t do it. But I doubt that he believed me; I think very few people have any conception of my inability to make any sort of public appearance. They think it is a pose or an evasion.”

Despite those ironies, I decided go ahead for several reasons, chief among them that I didn’t want another editor to make the choices instead. Certainly I hoped to correct what was wrong, but also to remind readers of how much was right, and where it had come from. Many of the best collections of White’s works are now out of print, including The Points of My Compass, Second Tree From the Corner, The Fox of Peapack and others. Many of his essays and poems are only available through the New Yorker archives or in the Complete New Yorker, now available on CDs. It is my hope that this little book will serve as a springboard to his other books, prompting discerning readers to find his voice once again, or for the first time.

Similarly, some readers only know E. B.White for his children’s books, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, or less often, Trumpet of the Swan. Worse, some have only seen the movies and not read the books: a different thing altogether. Children who have grown up reading about Stuart and Charlotte and Wilbur are often surprised and pleased to stumble across One Man’s Meat and the Essays of E. B. White. Many of them will find Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style on their required reading lists, either in high school or college, and it is not uncommon for “Once More to the Lake,” “Death of a Pig,” or others of his more popular essays to show up on a school required reading list or in an anthology. But very few readers know of Poems & Sketches of E. B. White, Essays of E. B. White, One Man’s Meat, or even Is Sex Necessary? (the latter, co-authored and illustrated by James Thurber.) Editing In the Words of E. B. White was a chance to offer these quotations as teasers to the original works, most of which are still available, if not on book store shelves, then in libraries or used book shops.

I’ll leave you with one last E. B. White quotation, part of a mock interview with a goose, on the subject of Watergate. You’ll have to read “Goings on in the Barnyard” (August 15, 1973, New York Times) for the full context, but it includes: “Watch out for quoters….”

About the Author:

Martha White is manager of the White Literary LLC, the literary estate of E. B. White and the editor of Letters of E.B. White, Revised Edition. A freelance writer herself, she lives on the coast of Maine. In the Words of E. B. White, Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers, (Cornell University press, Ithaca and London) is available in bookstores November 15, 2011.