E.B. White: A Writer Who Delighted, Instructed
E.B. White, who delighted generations of children with his tale of a miraculous spider named Charlotte and helped generations of students understand the principles of clear English prose, died last week at his North Brooklin, Me., home at the age of 86.
Children first introduced to Mr. White as the author of Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) later encountered him as the White of the team that produced perhaps the pre-eminent text on prose writing, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
Actually, the famous 1959 version of the text represented a revision by Mr. White of a little-known work written by a former professor of his at Cornell University, William Strunk Jr. But "Strunk and White" became for millions of high-school and college students the shorthand label for the book.
Harper & Row, the publisher of Mr. White's children's stories, over the years received so many letters from readers (many addressed to Charlotte or to Stuart Little, the mouse-child) that the author drafted a form-letter reply. Mr. White wrote:
"Are my stories true, you ask? No, they are imaginary tales, containing fantastic characters and events. In real life, a family doesn't have a child who looks like a mouse; in real life, a spider doesn't spin words in her web. In real life, a swan doesn't blow a trumpet. But real life is only one kind of life--there is also the life of the imagination. And although my stories are imaginary, I like to think that there is some truth in them, too--truth about the way people and animals feel and think and act."
Adults knew E.B. White as one of the inspiring forces, along with James Thurber, behind The New Yorker, to which he contributed essays and humor for nearly half a century. Mr. White was said, for example, to be the author of a famous caption for a cartoon depicting a child glaring at a plate of broccoli. It read: "I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it!"
His writing for children and for adults was among the best the nation could claim, critics said. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1978; in 1970, the American Library Association awarded him its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award; and in 1971 he won the National Medal for Literature.
The New York Times last week termed Mr. White "one of the nation's most precious literary resources."