E.B. White, the author of twenty books of prose and poetry, was awarded the 1970 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his childrenÂs books, Stuart Little and CharlotteÂs Web. This award is now given every three years "to an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have, over a period of years, make a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." The year 1970 also marked the publication of Mr. WhiteÂs third book for children, The Trumpet of the Swan, honored by The International Board on Books for Young People as an outstanding example of literature with international importance. In 1973, it received the Sequoyah Award (Oklahoma) and the William Allen White Award (Kansas), voted by the school children of those states as their "favorite book" of the year.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York, Mr. White attended public schools there. He was graduated from Cornell University in 1921, worked in New York for a year, then traveled about. After five or six years of trying many sorts of jobs, he joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, then in its infancy. The connection proved a happy one and resulted in a steady output of satirical sketches, poems, essays, and editorials. His essays have also appeared in HarperÂs Magazine, and his books include One ManÂs Meat, The Second Tree from the Corner, Letters of E.B. White, The Essays of E.B. White and Poems and Sketches of E.B. White.
In 1938 Mr. White moved to the country. On his farm in Maine he kept animals, and some of these creatures got into his stories and books. Mr. White said he found writing difficult and bad for oneÂs disposition, but he kept at it. He began Stuart Little in the hope of amusing a six-year-old niece of his, but before he finished it, she had grown up.
For his total contribution to American letters, Mr. White was awarded the 1971 National Medal for Literature. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy named Mr. White as one of thirty-one Americans to receive the Presidential Medal for Freedom. Mr. White also received the National Institute of Arts and LettersÂ Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism, and in 1973 the members of the Institute elected him to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a society of fifty members. He also received honorary degrees from seven colleges and universities. Mr. White died on October 1, 1985.
_This year is The New Yorker’s eighty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, over eighty-five weekdays we will turn a spotlight on a notable article, story, or poem from the magazine’s history. The issue containing that day’s selected piece will be made freely available in our digital archive and will remain open until the next day’s selection is posted.
Today’s selection is E. B. White’s “Comment” from August 18, 1945.
In a 1969 Timesinterview, the American essayist and stylist E. B. White was asked what he cherished most in life: “I cherish the remembrance of the beauty I have seen. I cherish the grave, compulsive word.” Grave is not typically a term associated with White, who for fifty years was the whimsical, intellectual soul of The New Yorker. From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899, the youngest of six children. After attending Cornell University, where he acquired the nickname Andy, he worked as a reporter for the United Press and then the Seattle Times, before returning to New York to work at an advertising agency. During this period, he sold a number of poems to Franklin P. Adams’s “The Conning Tower” column. In 1925, he submitted several pieces to The New Yorker, and the following year he took a job at the magazine editing newsbreaks. Ross soon approached White about writing Comment, and it was there that he quickly established the editorial voice of the magazine. As White’s good friend James Thurber observed, in 1938,> Harold Ross and Katharine Angell, his literary editor, were not slow to perceive that here were the perfect eye and ear, the authentic voice and accent for their struggling magazine…. His contributions to the Talk of the Town, particularly his Notes and Comment on the first page, struck the shining note that Ross had dreamed of striking.
In addition to Comment, White also contributed light verse, casuals, longer essays, and captions for cartoons (most famously, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”). His intimate essays, which his stepson, the New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell, once said “took down the fences of manner … and pomposity in writing,” were remarkable examples of White’s ability to relate the quotidian to the topical. In a 1985 Postscript in this magazine, John Updike observed,> The least pugnacious of editorialists, [White] was remarkably keen and quick in the defense of personal liberty and purity of expression, whether the threat was as overt as McCarthyism or totalitarianism or as seemingly innocuous as … Alexander Woollcott’s endorsement of a brand of whiskey. American freedom was not just a notion to him; it was an instinct, a current in the blood, expressed by his very style and his untrammelled thought, his cunning informality, his courteous skepticism, his boundless and gallant capacity for wonder.
White married Katharine Angell in 1929, the same year that he and Thurber published their satire on Freudianism, “Is Sex Necessary?” In 1938, White and Angell left New York and settled in Maine, where White wrote a monthly column, “One Man’s Meat,” for Harper’s magazine. White began writing Comment again for The New Yorker in the spring of 1943, and he also took up writing what would later become a children’s classic, “Stuart Little” (1945), which was soon followed by another classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” published in 1952. Of his children’s writing, White once said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” White continued writing for the magazine until the late seventies, and he was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 1978. He died in Maine, on October 1, 1985, at the age of eighty-six.
Today we highlight a Comment that ran in the issue of August 18, 1945. The essay examines White’s visceral skepticism about the beginnings of the atomic age. In this excerpt, White questions just how far man is willing to go in his pursuit of victory:> We thought back over the whole long war, trying to remember the terrible distances and the terrible decisions, the setbacks, the filth and the horror, the bugs, the open wounds, the fellows on the flight decks and on the beaches and in the huts and holes, the resolution and the extra bravery—and all for what? Why, for liberty. “Liberty, the first of blessings, the aspiration of every human soul … every abridgment of it demands an excuse, and the only good excuse is the necessity of preserving it. Whatever tends to preseve this is right, all else is wrong.” And we tried to imagine what it will mean to a soldier, having gone out to fight a war to preserve the world as he knew it, now to return to a world he never dreamt about, a world of atomic designs and portents. Some say this is the beginning of a great time of peace and plenty, because atomic energy is so fearsome no nation will dare unleash it. The argument is fragile. One nation (our own) has already dared take the atom off its leash, has dared crowd its luck, and not for the purpose of conquering the world, merely to preserve liberty.
In England the other day a philosopher and a crystallographer held a debate. The question was whether a halt should be called on science. The discussion was academic, since there is no possibility of doing any such thing. Nevertheless, it was a nice debate. Professor Bernal, the crystallographer, argued that children should be allowed to play with dangerous toys in order that they may learn to use them properly. Joad, the philosopher, said no—science changes our environment faster than we have the ability to adjust ourselves to it.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when a blind girl in Albuquerque, noticing a strange brightness in the room, looked up and said, “What was that?” A bomb had exploded a hundred and twenty miles away in the New Mexican desert. And people all over the world were soon to be adjusting themselves to their new environment. For the first time in our lives, we can feel the disturbing vibrations of complete human readjustment. Usually the vibrations are so faint as to go unnoticed. This time, they are so strong that even the ending of a war is overshadowed. Today it is not so much the fact of the end of a war which engages us. It is the limitless power of the victor. The quest for a substitute for God ended suddenly. The substitute turned up. And who do you suppose it was? It was man himself, stealing God’s stuff.
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