Recalling the writer's writer, again

Just yesterday I saw it. The day was grim and dismal, but there she lay, just off to my right, in the rain mist, as understated as the man himself – the saltwater farmhouse of E.B. White.

If I hadn't chanced upon it during my jaunt down to the Maine coast, I'd have forgotten that July 11 would have been the master essayist's 103rd birthday.

One of my great regrets is that I never met the man. I owe this failing to inertia on my part, for I was already living in Maine, not all that far from Mr. White's home in Brooklin, while he was still vital and tolerant of unannounced guests who arrived in his driveway and immediately began a discourse on "Stuart Little."

What can be said of Andy White (he acquired the "Andy" moniker while a student at Cornell) that has not already been said 100 times? He was a writer's writer, the patron saint of clarity and precision of language, and a benign sentinel of strict rules of English usage. In the 1950s, White was asked to recreate his former college professor Will Strunk's "The Elements of Style." When his editors suggested he bring the manuscript more in tune with "modern educational theory," White erupted: "I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust the unadjustable Mr. Strunk to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow because I have seen the work of his disciples, and I say the hell with him. If the Strunk-White opus has any virtue, any hope of circulation, it lies in our keeping its edges sharp and clear, not in rounding them off."

White's passion for crisp, compelling, yet poetic language manifested itself in some of the most enduring short pieces (he liked to write short) ever rendered in American English. From "Farewell, My Lovely!" – a tribute to his Model T and the first of his essays to become famous – through countless "Notes and Comment" columns for The New Yorker, to his timeless children's stories ("Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web," "The Trumpet of the Swan"), White showed an astounding versatility. His characteristic subtle, skeptical humor formed the common ground of all his work.

Although not a Mainer by birth, White was thoroughly Yankee by conviction. He bartered homegrown eggs at the general store, relished a good Maine snowfall, and harbored a New Englander's disdain for the unnecessary word. When he and his wife, Katherine, made their initial move to Maine in 1938, he justified his abandonment of New York by saying, simply, that Maine was "more fun, cleaner, and less wearing."

White's most moving tribute to the Pine Tree State was his essay, "Home-Coming," whose most poignant paragraph reads: "What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at a cost of seventy-five cents in toll? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily see a partridge in a pear tree, or three French hens, but I do have the sensation of havingreceived a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spire of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do."

It is a paradox of E.B. White's life as a writer that, despite the sophistication of his prose, he wasn't an avid reader, nor did he know much about who was writing what. His lack of interest in literary history and climate extended to the arts in general. "I know nothing of music or of painting or of sculpture or of the dance," he once said. "I would rather watch the circus or a ball game than ballet."

The asset in this attitude was that White was able to keep his own counsel, pay attention to his own thoughts, report on whatever happened to interest him at the moment: the coastal weather, the death of a pig, the return to a beloved childhood lake, a resident raccoon in a front-yard tree. When he considered these things, he managed to engage all of us, even the most citified, and his readership, as a result, was vast.

One would have to say that, on the whole, Andy White did not have a happy life. He had a habit of resigning himself to worry: about finances (when he had ample cash in the bank), about employment (when magazines were clamoring for his work), and about his health (he was a hypochondriac). He was chronically restless, but he was happiest when he was in Maine, doing his chores, sailing his boat off Allen Cove, and corralling his geese, which, he once remarked, "are friends with no one, they badmouth everybody and everything. But they are companionable once you get used to their ingratitude and false accusations."

When White died in 1985, the eulogies were passionate. William Shawn, former editor of The New Yorker, said. "He never wrote a mean or careless sentence." No one since has improved upon that remark. Under duress, I might be compelled to add, simply, "He was a good man," which, more than being a writer, is what I think he always aspired to be.

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