Words from the wise 

Two books look back at E.B. White

It’s hard to imagine E.B. White would relish the new film adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, which opens this weekend at the Carmike 10. White was mortified by the animated version made in 1973 and resolved never to let it happen again. “After listening to Wilbur sing ‘I Can Talk, I Can Talk,’ in the Hanna-Barbera picture,” he wrote to legendary animator Chuck Jones, “I can take anything. I wanted to run on my sword but couldn’t find it.”

This amused orneriness was White’s traditional garb, and no one ever looked so fine wearing it. White disliked many things, but particularly things that degraded human intelligence. So he was no fan of advertising, overly fulsome service at hotels, gathering in groups, New York City taxi cabs, public speaking, noise, printed gossip and especially improper grammar. When those last two reared their heads in a single phenomenon White was certain to write about it.

“We envy the gossip columnist their lot,” he wrote in “No Verbs,” collected in Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976. “We particularly envy them their ability to earn a living by talking in partici- ples…From a literary standpoint it is the prose invention of the century, for it enables the writer to sound as though he were saying something without actually saying it. Thus: ‘Mrs. Oral Ferrous on the Starlight Roof, chatting with Count de Guiche.’”

White’s humor was posh and clubby, but the only entrance fee was getting the joke. And it wasn’t based just on displeasure. White’s affections had a way of wending through his sentences, and delivering to their recipient a touch of melancholy. “I find the natural world as engaging and innocent as it ever was,” he wrote to a fan in 1951. “When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do.”

Such wry humor suffuses the reissue of White’s letters, originally published in 1976 and here expanded and revised by granddaughter Martha White with a new introduction by John Updike. This new volume features almost a decade more of correspondence with the likes of Updike, Garrison Keillor and columnist David Broder. Much of it is directed to White’s biographer, Scott Elledge, whom he apologetically plies with corrections to fact and, yes, grammar.

“The temptation is strong, though,” wrote White, “when I see an easy fix for a passage that stopped me when I read it. It’s the Will Strunk coming out in me, and I hope you’ll forgive my presumption…”

Who would have denied him at that point? This is, after all, a man who took an out-of-date usage guide and turned it into The Elements of Style (which has sold 10 million copies to date). White once crowed to a friend that he had found a misspelled word—vichyssoise—in Webster’s, and excoriated founding editor Harold Ross when The New Yorker used the word “afoot” in print.

White’s association with The New Yorker lasted 60 years, and the care the magazine took with language and fact was clearly a reason why.

“Where do we get our paper, anyway?” he once jokingly asked legendary editor William Shawn, after describing a two-mile journey by boat in heavy gale to check a fact. “Or do we just use old paper towels from the men’s room?”

The other satisfaction White found at The New Yorker was his wife, Katherine Angell. In many ways, Letters of E.B. White reads like one long love affair between a finicky writer and his firm, brilliant, often unsung protector. “You are my precious stone,” he wrote to her in 1954, “all the more so because you don’t glitter.”

Some of the most heartbreaking of the new letters refer to her death, such as when White wrote to Andy Rooney that since Katherine’s death: “The food is good, but nothing else is…”

Although we’ll never know what else White wrote to Rooney, thanks to the ellipses the editors have inserted, the economy of this phrase is pure White. He had a knack for describing in the plainest detail what it meant to be alive.

“I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace,” White wrote to his brother Stanley in 1929.

We all know White for the light his approach threw upon the animal kingdom. As these letters prove, he extended that grace to humans, too.

arts@missoulanews.com

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