Call Him ‘Andy’ – The Life of E. B. White
Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little are but two of the adored contributions that E. B. White made to the world of fiction for younger readers, as well as those who are young at heart. He was a man of words, but he also was a husband, an animal lover, and more.
I’ve always been awed by the man as an author, so when I learned more about White’s life beyond children’s books, a few things genuinely surprised me. Let’s learn a little more about the man that many people knew as ‘Andy’.
Creative and Intelligent Foundation
E. B. White was born to Samuel Tilly White and Jessie Hart White in Mount Vernon, New York, on 11 July 1899. His father was the president of a company that manufactured and sold pianos, and his mother was the daughter of William Hart, the celebrated painter.
His birth name was Elwyn Brooks White; a name he said his mother chose because she had run out of ideas. He explained this by adding that he was the youngest of six children.
One of his siblings was Stanley ‘Stan’ Hart White. A caring older brother, Stan taught the future children’s books author how to read. He also helped instil an appreciation of nature in his younger brother.
The Nickname That Stuck
With such wonderful influences in his life, it is no wonder that E. B. White enrolled at Cornell University after graduating from school. He went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree with the respected institution.
One of the university founders was a man by the name of Andrew Dickson White. It became a tradition at the institution to give every student with the same surname the nickname ‘Andy’. This suited the classical children’s books author because he never particularly liked the name ‘Elwyn’.
While a student, White joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity as well as the Quill and Dagger and the Aleph Samach societies. He also was the editor of the university newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun.
A Life at Work
Long before he wrote his first children’s book, White got his first job at the United Press. He also had a job with the American Legion News Service. In 1922 and 1923, he joined the Seattle Times as a cub reporter.
After his stint in journalism, E. B. White entered the world of advertising. He worked as a copywriter, as well as a production assistant for the Frank Seaman agency. However, by the time 1924 rolled along, he was ready to return to New York City.
1925 was an important year in American journalism, as it was the year in which Harold Ross founded the New Yorker, a magazine with a long history of association with important writers. White submitted several manuscripts that impressed the literary editor, Katherine Angell.
It was partly due to her influence that White was hired as a staff writer, even though his anxiety and procrastination meant that an initial meeting between him and Ross took months to arrange. E. B. White’s career with the magazine continued for more than 50 years.
Love, Marriage, and Stuart Little
White and Angell started having an affair; something that eventually lead to Katherine’s divorce from her husband. The lovers got married in 1929, and eventually celebrated the birth of a son, Joel.
Sometime in the 1930s, thanks to one of his nieces, the magazine writer started writing children’s books. Stuart Little, the first of them, was published in 1945. Although the book eventually became a success (as well as a popular movie), its first readers did not think it was fantastic. Charlotte’s Web, which was published in 1952, received much better reviews, and went on to win the American Library Association’s Newbury Medal.
Classical Children’s Books and More
The classical children’s books author made another important contribution to the literary world in 1959, when he created an updated edition of William Strunk Jr’s Elements of Style. First published in 1918, the book is one of the most important writing guides for American English.
B. White received the 1963 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1970, published the Trumpet of the Swan, the same year he received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. 1973 saw a film based on one of his short stories and narrated by him nominated for an Oscar. In 1978, he won a Pulitzer Prize. The children’s books writer was nominated for Hans Christian Andersen awards in 1970 and in 1976.
White mourned the death of his wife, who had suffered a long bout of poor health, in 1977, but his anxiety was so bad that he avoided going to her private funeral. In his later years, E. B. White was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he spent his final days on his farm in North Brooklin, Maine. He died on 1 October 1985, leaving behind a legacy of iconic classical children’s books that are still enjoyed by young and old readers alike.