E B White: A Web of Intrigue
American author Elwyn Brooks White wrote some of the most famous children’s books of the 20th century, such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Better known by his pen name of EB White, he was legendary for his love of animals, which was reflected in his work.
Published in 1952, Charlotte’s Web was listed by Publishers Weekly as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time in 2000. The touching tale of a farmyard spider called Charlotte and her efforts to save a livestock pig named Wilbur from the dinner-table is a modern classic.
White was an intensely private man, who avoided being photographed, giving public speeches and attending literary teas. He was a writer of prominence in his lifetime, yet could still walk through a restaurant or hotel lobby unrecognised.
The author’s legacy lives on in his wonderful books, 34 years after his death, following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. His obituary described his writing as “timeless” – an apt description. His books are as relevant today as they were when they were first written.
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Love of animals
White was born in July 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York. His father Samuel was president of a piano firm and his mother Jessie was the daughter of famous landscape artist William Hart. The youngster grew up loving all animals, but dogs in particular.
There was always a pet dog in his family for as long as he could remember. Not only was he a dog lover, he was also a keen observer of their antics. In fact, as well as writing children’s books, he also wrote short, true stories about his dogs.
His storytelling has charmed and delighted generations of dog lovers. His non-fiction stories have been brought together in a 2013 book, EB White on Dogs, by his granddaughter, Martha White. His delightful dog tales pre-date the current trend for dog blogs and videos by almost a century.
Martha has compiled his best and funniest letters, poems, essays and sketches depicting many of her grandfather’s various canine companions. These include his precious old dachshund Fred and his Scottie, Daisy, who escaped one day and ran through Schrafft’s famous restaurant, but was sadly killed on her adventure when she was knocked down by a taxi.
The New Yorker even ran Daisy’s obituary at White’s request. White wrote that she “enjoyed practically everything in life except motoring.” Daisy “never grew up” and died “sniffing life and enjoying it.”
He had more than a dozen family dogs, including his first collie, several Labradors, Scotties, terriers, dachshunds and various “mutts”, all of whom were much-loved.
After graduating from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1921, he found employment as a sports writer for the New York Times. He worked for various newspapers and also became a contributor to the popular literary magazines of the day.
He didn’t start writing children’s fiction books until the late 1930s, when he wrote short stories for his niece, Janice Hart White. His love of animals spilt over into his story-telling, but he didn’t have a children’s book published until 1945.
His first published book was Stuart Little, about the adventures a four-inch tall, anthropomorphic mouse called Stuart, the son of an ordinary human family in New York City.
Initially, the book received only a lukewarm reception, but it went on to be recognised as a modern classic and was adapted for the big screen.
The book for which everyone remembers White is Charlotte’s Web, which was published in 1952. It promoted a wonderful message of different species living side-by-side and helping each other out.
The plot saw Charlotte the spider save Wilbur the pig from the slaughterhouse by turning him into a celebrity. She would leave messages, woven into her web in the barn, about how wonderful he was.
People thought it was a miracle, the press got hold of the story and visitors came from far and wide to see the famous pig. His life was saved when he became a star and he lived on, even after Charlotte’s death from old age.
The emotive book was seen as White’s masterpiece and was described as “just about perfect” and “magical” by the critics. It won several awards, including the Newbery Medal in 1953 from the American Library Association and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1970. It led to White being recognised as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.
In 1973, Hanna-Barbera released a cartoon feature film of Charlotte’s Web. The studio had a dispute with the author, as they wanted to have a happy ending, rather than keeping to the script and including Charlotte’s death.
Although White won in the end, it was reported that he and his wife hated the animated film and wished that they hadn’t agreed to it being made, although it was a commercial success.
In 2006, a film adaptation starring Dakota Fanning was made, with voices provided by John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, Robert Redford and more. Released by Paramount Pictures, it earned both critical and commercial acclaim.
His third famous animal book was The Trumpet of the Swan, published in 1970, about a trumpeter swan called Louis, who is unable to make a sound. The plot reveals how Louis learns to communicate and finds a mate, eventually triumphing over adversity.
White married Katherine Angell, whom he met at work, in 1929 and they had a son, Joel, who became a naval architect and boat builder. They were married until Katherine’s death in 1977 and lived in a farmhouse in Maine for many years.
In later life, White was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease. His family said he fought the condition with “grace and humour”.
His son, Joel, would read to his father to entertain him. White would enjoy hearing his own books and essays, but would criticise them, saying the writing wasn’t good enough in some passages.
He would sometimes forget he had written the words. If he heard a passage that he liked, White would ask Joel who had written it. Joel would reply, “You did, dad.”
Then, White would concede, “Well, it’s not bad.”
White’s physical health had remained good into his 80s, but eventually, the symptoms of the Alzheimer’s disease became more pronounced and the author was bedridden for his final weeks. Joel was his constant companion, reading to him all the time.
White died at the age of 86 on 1st October 1985 at his Maine farm. The EB White Read Aloud Award was launched in his honour by The Association of Booksellers for Children to recognise books that deserve to be read out loud.
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