Katherine S. White: the invisible editor made visible

Onward and Upward, A Biography of Katherine S. White, by Linda H. Davis, New York: Harper & Row. 300 pp. $22.50. Editing is an invisible art. After a good editor prunes and polishes, the writer gets the praise. Few editors ever become famous.

Even long-time readers of The New Yorker magazine may know little about Katherine White, an editor who profoundly influenced the tone, quality, and style of that publication during her 35 years there. The part she played in the evolution of The New Yorker is acknowledged, although briefly, in the various books written about the magazine and its almost legendary creator, Harold Ross. Perhaps the best description of Katherine's qualifications for this role is the succinct summary Ross gave to James Thurber. ``She knows the Bible, and literature, and foreign languages,'' he said, ``and she has taste.''

Linda Davis's biography of Katherine White traces how she developed those qualities and explores - but never quite explains - what made her so effective and respected as an editor. Davis began work on this book while still in graduate school and had the encouragement and cooperation of White's second husband, E.B. White - Andy to friends - as well as her children and colleagues. The influence of the Whites' 48-year marriage on Katherine's work is a significant theme in this biography.

Brought up in a comfortable home in Brookline, Mass., educated at Bryn Mawr just before World War I, Katherine - like many of her classmates - wanted to pursue a career. Unlike most of them, she married soon after college and had two children before finding her niche at The New Yorker. That marriage ended in divorce, a wrenching decision she long remembered, despite her many happy years with Andy White. The Whites had one child, a son. Since they were always able to afford household help, Katherine could concentrate on what New Yorker writer Janet Flanner called ``the best editor's job in the world.''

As a fiction editor, White cultivated authors. Her letters to writers such as John Updike, Jean Stafford, Vladimir Nabokov, and Nadine Gordimer about their manuscripts speak with a firm but friendly voice as she corrects, sometimes recommends major changes, and always encourages. Many found in Katherine a caring friend, who often added very personal notes to her professional comments. To those who knew her less well, she seemed almost austere. This combination of sensitivity and authority is aptly described by her son-in-law as a ``velvet hand in an iron glove.''

Though deeply satisfied with her work and stimulated by the literary life in New York, Katherine was also dedicated to her marriage. When Andy decided that he wanted to live full time on their farm in Maine, an atmosphere he found more conducive to the kind of writing he wanted to do, Katherine left her desk job - but not her involvement with The New Yorker. She continued to work on manuscripts in Maine. In addition, her first son, Roger Angell, had become an editor at the magazine. And she began to write the original, informative articles on gardening for which she is probably best known.

Under the title ``Onward and Upward in the Garden,'' the pieces appeared at intervals over a period of almost 20 years. In his foreword to the collection of these essays published after Katherine's death, Andy describes her ``agonizing'' writing efforts: ``The editor in her fought the writer every inch of the way.... She would write eight or ten words, then draw her gun and shoot them down.'' She rarely completed even a paragraph before revising. The editor ascendant.

Complementary in many ways, devoted to each other with an intensity that seems never to have diminished, the Whites also shared a concern for their health that some saw as hypochondria, even when their physical problems were clearly debilitating. Davis spares no detail, especially when describing the rare skin affliction that plagued Katherine after her retirement from The New Yorker and speculating about its possible psychological causes. Katherine would have been appalled.

Still, Linda Davis deserves credit for recording the complexity and accomplishments of this remarkable woman. Katherine White is no longer an invisible editor.

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