I may be the only person in America—I am certainly the only one in New England—who did not mourn the recent passing of E.B. White. Of course, I don’t mean to say I celebrated his death. On the contrary, I was horrified by the New York Times‘ obituary, which began with the brutal, if unassailable, fact that the sage of North Brooklyn “died of Alzheimer’s disease”—an uncharacteristically clinical detail, and hardly necessary. At 86, people are entitled to die “peacefully” or “after a long illness.”
No, I respectfully decline to join the encomiashc chorus that has sung him to his rest. Celebrities are often done in by their friends, and E.B. White was no exception. They came to overpraise him, and they buried him in the process. He was an amiable colleague with a minimalist’s gift for fables, pointed epistles, and the occasional breezy essay. But the repeated assertions of gentleness, good humor, preciousness (not precocity), gentleness again, fast friendship, down-home judgment, and even more gentleness finally took their toll.
E.B. White was not a literary figure so much as a theatrical phenomenon. 4and like James O’Neill, who was trapped in a lifetime’s performance of The Count of Monte Cristo, he played the same role too many times. Mr. White was the kindly gray moustache who fed his geese and calved his cow while the ancient Underwood sat patiently in the background. His rustic imagery, his monosyllabic wisdom and earnest disinterest were all too carefully contrived to be persuasive. He seems to have been unable to distinguish between his well-advertised modesty and an obvious, sometimes overweening, pride. Like Gen. MacArthur’s ribbonless uniform, his self-conscious simplicity was a form of ostentation. All those letters to the New York Herald Tribune, gently prodding while viciously condemning, were written by someone who knew they would be printed and read, and perhaps even reprinted if not reread.
He was a writer, but what is the substance of his reputation? His obituaries dwelt on his deeply rooted belief in world government, expressed early and often. This is likely to earn him a place in the United World Federalists’ Hall of Fame, but that would apply to all manner of crackpot visionaries and single-taxers. Alas, the world is full of Henry Wallaces; the names have been changed, but the sentences remain the same. As a New Yorker editor, Mr. White was a connoisseur of sentences, all right, but how many dead editors enjoy a posthumous fame beyond Sixth Avenue? Maxwell Perkins, Saxe Commins, Harold Ross—giants in their day, I suppose, but the sands of time erase their footprints soon enough.
He wrote two famous children’s books, one of which jerked an easy tear with the heroine’s protracted death. Like most stories of its kind, Charlotte’s Web was really directed at adults. I have been interested to observe that the parents who have written so movingly about reading it aloud to their children always mention that it was they who wept, not their audience. Children are wise in ways we don’t always expect and often see things clearly for what they are.
E.B. White had a real gift for necrology. Some of his best-quoted phrases come from postmortem salutes to fallen New Yorker idols. Of course, one’s taste for such literature is a matter of choice; but with two or three exceptions, I have never really believed that the death of one New Yorker scribe diminishes us all. It may be hard to believe, but those gentle tributes to modest habits occasionally fall on deaf ears. (Visitors will be reminded of this when they stroll through Strawberry Fields, New York’s horticultural monument to John Lennon.)
And then there is The Elements of Style, another man’s book rewritten to teach putative writers how to write like E.B. White. By then, he must have believed what he read about himself! It was the late 1950’s, the old New Yorker crowd was swiftly passing, and the tributes were beginning to outnumber the reviews. His flesh was weighted down by the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal for Literature, and a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize people. His spirit was undoubtedly refreshed by his membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters and his Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was, he had become, the poet laureate of modesty. The epistles were shot off to the New York Times instead of the Trib, but the message was familiar: “I have retired to the Maine woods (like another famous American writer), and have managed to convert retreat into advance. Look on my letters to the editor, ye Mighty, and despair.”
And then he was dead. A famous career, an exalted reputation—but the lone and level sands stretch far away. One of the lessons of celebrity is that the engines of self-promotion can lend substance to the slightest of material. It is tempting, but it is ultimately dangerous. E.B. White is often quoted but seldom read, and when this generation of subscribers is gone, the quotations may disappear, too.