By Ted Pease
[Note: This column appeared in the Dayton, Ohio, Daily News, October 7, 1985.]
E.B. White, that great man of American letters who raised curmudgeonly humor to an art form, died this week at 86 on his saltwater farm on the Maine coast. Suddenly, the English language feels unprotected.
For three decades he was the country's foremost defender of the language and one of its most able and subtle craftsmen. My fear is that with E.B. White gone, an era of golden prose is over, and American writing could sink into grey dullness. Not that there aren't many other fine writers out there carrying on White’s tradition, but it feels as if father has died.
White would have been the first to ridicule that. Writing about him is a hazardous undertaking; for one thing, White was a very private individual who took a Yankee’s dim view of prying, and I suspect that he would consider any posthumous tribute ghoulish. Or at least in poor taste.
Although White was without question one of the great scholars of the English language and the art of writing, that label — as all labels — would have offended him. He was a writer and humorist who ridiculed and resented those who sought to analyze his work. “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” he said, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to all but the pure scientific mind.”
Furthermore, he said, his writing in general and humorous writing in particular “won’t stand much blowing up, and it won’t stand much poking. It has a certain fragility ... which one had best respect.”
I take the hint, not just about White’s humor, but about his life as a whole. Even so, he’s dead now, who gave me so much enjoyment from my first reading of Charlotte’s Web as a child, to my latest consultation of The Elements of Style just last week, and I miss him already. I can’t let him go without saying so.
Readers and critics spent White’s life trying to pigeonhole him. He sometimes was dismissed as “just a humorist” by readers who finished his writing with an appreciative chuckle at his wit, but who missed the originality of thought for which White’s humor was but adornment.
White was a little prickly about being written off as a humorist, although he had a high regard for clever writing and would have taken a stick to anyone who called him “serious.”
“The world likes humor,” he wrote, “but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel and its wags with Brussels sprouts.”
White used humor to open consciousness, so that as the reader warmed to his dry wit, White the philosopher was able to slip in nuggets of impeccable good sense and serious thought. But more than that, E.B. White was a magician with the language. The subject never mattered — he could write about pigs, Ferris wheels, raising turkeys, the World of Tomorrow, dentists, world war, television, deer hunting or the weight of possessions, and could produce in readers an appreciate grin for his virtuosity. His sentences still sparkle, his phrases compel, his imagery is sharp, unassuming and clean.
Everything he considered worth saying about writing is in his Elements of Style, an 85-page adaptation of William Strunk’s 1919 English class handbook. Strunk’s message is contained in the book’s rule 17: “Omit needless words.” White heeded the advice and reduced it further into a credo for writing and living: simplify, simplify.
It’s good advice in these days of information glut and societal extremes, but seemed somehow easier to follow last week, knowing that White was still with us, vigilant against excesses of life and language.