On E.B. White and his Influence on Children’s Literature

E.B. White Essay
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E.B. White. Cornell University senior photograph. Uploaded by w:user:cornell2010., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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There is hardly anyone out there who has not heard of Stuart Little or Charlotte’s Web, two of the most popular novels in children’s literature. Most of us now, including myself, got to know of these works not through the books but through movie, television, and video game adaptations of these works of fiction.

When I saw the first Stuart Little movie I fell in love with it, never even imagining or suspecting that the movie was actually based on a children’s novel of the same name, written by a certain writer named E.B. White and published in 1945, 52 years before I was even born.

I honestly do not remember when and how I first heard about Charlotte’s Web in my childhood, but I am certain it was through some adaptation or the other of the children’s novel of the same name (and not through the book itself), written by White and published in 1952, 45 years before I was born.

I have no doubt that just like me there are many others out there who had or still have no idea who E.B. White was and what he did for a living and which iconic characters he had created and written about years before we were all born. Just like me, you may also be surprised to learn that some of your most beloved childhood characters were not contemporary and recent but quite old.

In this essay, we will take a look into the life of E.B. White, the shy writer few knew about, and his massive influence on children’s literature and popular culture.

Elwyn Brooks White, popularly known as E.B. White, was an American writer known for his children’s novels, essays, letters, editorials, and his contribution as editor of The New Yorker Magazine.

White was born on 11th July 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, to Jessie Hart White and Samuel Tilly White. His mother was the daughter of Scottish-American landscape and cattle painter William Hart. He was the youngest of six children.

From an early age, his older brother Stanley taught him to read and explore nature. Interestingly, Stanley would go on to become a well-known professor of landscape architecture and invent the vertical garden (also known as a green wall), a vertically built structure intentionally covered by vegetation, which has become quite popular in recent times.

While studying at Cornell University, White worked as editor of Cornell’s daily newspaper The Cornell Daily Sun. He also became a private in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) and was required to live on campus and follow a strict military schedule of studying and training. In December 1918, the SATC program was disbanded.

In 1921, E.B. White, aged 22, graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Soon after graduation, he began working for the United Press (now United Press International) and the American Legion News Service in 1921 and 1922.

Then he briefly worked as a cub reporter for The Seattle Times before getting fired from there. After getting fired, he began writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before moving on for a brief stint in Alaska on a fireboat. Eventually, he ended up working as a copywriter and production assistant at Frank Seaman advertising agency for a year or so before returning to New York City in 1924.

In 1925, Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant founded The New Yorker, and White submitted some of his stories and articles to the new magazine, the first of which was published in 1925. The magazine’s fiction editor Katharine Angell was so impressed with White’s work that she recommended to Ross that White be hired as a staff writer.

It took them several months to persuade White to come and meet them at the office, and when he finally did, it took them a few more weeks to convince him to work at the office. Eventually, in 1927, they agreed that White would work in the office only on Thursdays, and he officially became a member of the staff.

White would go on to write for The New Yorker until his death in 1985.

Over the years as a contributor to the magazine, White would come to be recognized for his essays and unsigned Notes and Comments pieces, and for his famous Newsbreaks, which were short witty comments on oddly worded printed items from multiple sources.

As the decades passed by, White slowly became the magazine’s most important and prominent contributor. He also went on to marry Katharine (the magazine’s fiction editor) after she divorced her husband.

By 1938, White had also begun writing as a columnist for Harper’s Magazine.

For someone who would come to be known as a writer of children’s books and have such a huge influence on children’s literature, White began writing Children’s novels relatively late. By then, White was already a prolific writer of essays, columns, editorials, and even the occasional poems (such as The Lady is Cold). His first book, Less than Nothing, or, The Life and Times of Sterling Finny, was a pitch-perfect series of comic advertisements for The New Yorker and was published in 1927. Various compilations of his editorials and columns from The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine were also published in book form.

White’s first children’s novel, Stuart Little, was published in 1945 when he was 46 years old. The novel was illustrated by artist Garth Williams, his first attempt at illustrating a children’s book.

Stuart Little is a realistic yet fantastical story of a mouse/rat-like human boy named Stuart Little. White would later reveal that the inspiration for the character came from a dream he had in 1926 while sleeping on a train on his way from Shenandoah Valley to New York about a tiny boy who looked and acted like a rat. And that was how the character of Stuart Little was formed.

It started with White writing a few stories about Stuart Little and reading them out to his nieces and nephews. Katharine thought the stories were good and had promise and she showed them to writer and cartoonist Clarence Day in 1935. Day agreed with Katharine and suggested that White develop it further. However, at the time, neither the Viking Press nor Oxford University Press was interested in the stories.

Katharine had also told White’s editor at Harper about the stories and the editor asked to see them. By 1939, Harper wanted to publish a novel based on the character of Stuart Little. White began working on the book but did not complete it until the winter of 1944-1945.

The novel was finally published in 1945 to a lukewarm and mixed response from the literary community. Some critics considered it one of the best works of children’s fiction, while others such as Anne Carroll Moore (the head children’s librarian at the New York Public Library), who had initially encouraged him to write the book, were critical of it.

In spite of the book receiving a mixed reaction on publication, it went on to become a classic of children’s literature and continues to be widely read and taught in schools across the world.

In 1952, White’s second children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, was published three years after he began writing it. This book was also illustrated by Garth Williams. It is the story of a livestock pig named Wilbur, who is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte, who tries to convince the farmer to let Wilbur live by writing messages in her web that praise Wilbur.

The novel deals with themes like death, innocence, and change, and is written in White’s dry, low-key manner. On its publication, the novel was well-reserved and well-reviewed by critics and readers alike. It was a critical and commercial success from the start and was a Newbery Honor book for the year 1953, eventually losing the medal to Ann Nolan Clark’s novel Secret of the Andes.

Charlotte’s Web is now one of the best-selling children’s books of all time with over 45 million copies sold. It has also been translated into 23 languages and is regarded as a classic of children’s literature across the world, one that is read and enjoyed by children as well as adults.

In 1970, E.B. White received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now called The Children’s Literature Legacy Award) for his substantial and lasting contributions to Children’s literature.

The same year, White’s third children’s novel, The Trumpet of the Swan, was published to largely positive reviews. It was a finalist at the National Book Awards in 1971 in the children’s books category and won the William Allen White Award and Sequoyah Award, both of which were voted by students to indicate their favorite book of the year.

The novel tells the story of a trumpeter swan named Louis, who is born without a voice but overcomes this difficulty by learning to play the trumpet in order to impress a beautiful swan named Serena.

White’s three novels would go on to make him one of the greatest and most influential writers in children’s literature. His novels have nuzzled their way into popular culture through animated films, television series, video games, stage plays, musicals, toys, and several other ways, making them as popular (if not more popular) as they were before.

Children across the world continue to read his novels in schools and enjoy adaptations based on these novels. The continuing influence of these novels has ensured that White’s legacy as a writer of children’s fiction continues to live on.

White’s novels frequently appear on the lists of the best-known or best-loved novels in children’s literature. Charlotte’s Web in particular often ranks first in the lists of the best children’s novels of all time. It also frequently appears on the lists of the best-loved novels in general.

Few are aware that White’s contribution to literature extends beyond fiction. In 1959, he edited and updated The Element of Style, an American English writing style guide originally written by William Strunk in 1918. The book serves as a handbook of grammatical and stylistic guidance for writers of American English.

White’s editing and updating of the book were well-received and it became very popular at the time. Since then, the book has become a standard tool for students and writers and has been made required reading in many composition classes.

Over the course of his long career, White was awarded honorary memberships to several literary societies across the United States and was even given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1971, he was given the National Medal for Literature, and in 1977 he received the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for his letters.

Perhaps the most prestigious honor he received was the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 1978 for his letters, essays, and the full body of his work.

On 1st October 1985, White, aged 86, died at his farmhouse in North Brooklin, Maine, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in the final years of his life. He was interred at the Brooklin Cemetery beside his wife Katharine, who died in 1977.

Interestingly enough, for someone who wrote only three children’s novels, White has succeeded in leaving behind a rich legacy in the world of children’s literature. All three of his novels are now regarded as classics of children’s literature, a rare feat that few writers have been able to achieve in spite of being more prolific in their output.

The impact and influence of his three novels shall no doubt continue for years to come in the realm of children’s literature, thereby making E.B. White one of the most iconic and influential writers of the 20th century.