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When E.B. White is also Grandpa

E.B. White granddaughter Martha keeps loving watch over a unique literary legacy.

By / February 20, 2012

E.B. White rowing to Martha's Vineyard.

Courtesy of the estate of E.B. White

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Readers around the world know the late E.B. White as the author of classic children’s stories such as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little;”; or as one-half of the writing team, with William Strunk Jr., of “The Elements of Style”; or as the man who, from his farm in Maine, wrote some of the most graceful essays in the English language.

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But for another Maine writer, E.B. White was also Grandpa.

Martha White has extended her grandfather’s literary tradition by working as a writer and editor, with freelance gigs for publications as varied as The New York Times and Family Circle. She was also an editor and writer for the publisher of The Old Farmer’s Almanac and is the author of a book about home remedies for common ailments.

But Martha also keeps busy as her grandfather’s literary executor, a job that routinely consumes a week of every month. She’s edited a revised edition of E.B. White’s correspondence, and she’s also compiled and edited In the Words of E.B. White, a collection of his quotations that’s recently been published by Cornell University Press.

The new project is part of a series from Cornell in which the most celebrated words of famous thinkers are excerpted in book form. E.B. White, a Cornell graduate who died in 1985, seemed a natural for the series, although Martha wasn’t so sure at first.

“I hesitated,” she recalled in a phone interview from her home in coastal Maine. “My grandfather was very careful about being excerpted.”

E.B. White’s stepson, New Yorker writer Roger Angell, was also skeptical, dubbing the concept “E.B. White Lite.”

But Martha eventually gave the green light to the book idea, which she brought to reality as the project’s editor. She hopes the book will nudge readers into visiting or revisiting her grandfather’s other books, and she’s also hoping that an accurate collection of E.B. White’s most memorable observations will discourage admirers from misquoting him.

In a recent edition of the literary journal Berfrois, Martha wryly noted a tendency among public speakers and online writers to flub E.B. White’s prose: “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,’ ” she wrote.

Editing “In the Words of E.B. White” required Martha to spend a year reading through her grandfather’s work, a task she also had to undertake several years ago while editing his letters. The work deepened a connection with a man Martha first came to know not as a writer, but as a treasured member of the family.

She recalls that bond in an introduction to “In the Words of E.B. White” that’s as nicely crafted as anything her grandfather ever wrote.

Here’s Martha on what it was like to grow up as the grandchild of a literary legend: “When an occasional classmate would ask, too breathlessly, ‘What is your grandfather like?’ I was apt to reply, ‘He’s my grandfather. What is your grandfather like?’ ”

The full extent of her grandfather’s fame began to dawn on her when E.B. White gave her a copy of “The Elements of Style,” his famous guide to writing that includes, among other celebrated dictums, the directive, “Omit needless words.”

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