When E.B. White is also Grandpa

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

Courtesy of the estate of E.B. White
E.B. White rowing to Martha's Vineyard.

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.

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.”

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.”

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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