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When E.B. White is also Grandpa

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

(Page 2 of 2)

In true grandfatherly style, E.B. White made an exception for Martha, noting in his inscription that “you can use all the needless words you want to.”

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Martha recalled that the inscription winked at another long-running family joke by ending in a preposition, a no-no among grammatical puritans. It was a rule her grandfather recognized, yet wasn’t above breaking if it suited his purposes.

Being E.B. White’s granddaughter had other fringe benefits. Rather than having to wait for her grandfather’s children’s book “The Trumpet of the Swan” to hit the bookstore, she read a hot-off-the-press copy sitting on her grandparents’ living room couch.

Perhaps the most memorable gift from her grandfather, Martha suggests in the new book, “was his unsurpassed capacity for wonder – at the first pullets’ eggs of the season, displayed in a black bowl in the living room; at the antics of a series of small and often neurotic dogs; at a hummingbird he’d had a chance to hold in his hand; and at the joys of grandchildren....”

That sense of wonder suffuses “In the Words of E.B. White” as well as his other books, most of which are still in print and quite popular more than a quarter century after his death. As her grandfather’s literary executor, Martha regularly fields requests and proposals concerning E.B. White’s work. Among recent business has been a plan for a Latvian translation of “Charlotte’s Web” as well as a “Charlotte’s Web” edition in Cherokee to help reintroduce that language to young members of the tribe.

“That’s kind of fun, that you would be able to have ‘Charlotte’s Web’ in Cherokee, so that was an easy yes,” she said.

Martha also deals, to a lesser degree, with the literary estate of Katharine White, the influential New Yorker editor and garden writer who was E.B. White’s wife and Martha’s grandmother. Katharine died in 1977.

Most of E.B. and Katharine White’s descendants have worked in either writing and editing or boat-building.

Besides Angell, best known as a writer about baseball, and Angell’s sister Nancy, a science teacher who died in 1996, the family also included Joel McCoun White, Martha’s father, a prominent boat designer and builder who died in 1997.

Martha’s brother, Joel Steven White, also works in boat-building; another brother, John Shepley White, is a lobsterman.

Martha’s husband, Taylor Allen, works in boat construction, too. Of Martha and Taylor’s four children, two are in the boat business, and another son, a college student, teaches sailing during summer breaks. Martha and Taylor’s daughter, also a college student, was just offered a job editing Wikipedia.

Martha, who plans to take up work on a novel soon, said that she never felt pressured to follow in her grandparents’ literary footsteps.

“I got into writing because I like to read – and I couldn’t think of doing anything else,” she said. “I think one thing my family has been very good about is allowing you to do what’s best for you.”

“I think the best writing is often done by persons who are snatching the time from something else,” E.B. White once observed.

Martha, who balances managing E.B. White’s writing with tending to her own, seems to have taken her grandfather’s advice to heart.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate and a frequent essayist for national publications, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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