Martha White — granddaughter of E.B. — has become the kind of literary executor every author wishes they could have.
By Charlotte Albright
Soon after he moved to North Brooklin, Maine, from Manhattan, E.B. White began raising chickens, ducks, and sheep, while still meeting pesky deadlines for the New Yorker magazine. In his widely read collection of essays originally written for Harper’s, One Man’s Meat, he wrote: “I think the best writing is often done by persons snatching the time from something else — from an occupation, or from a profession, or from a jail term —something that is either burning them up, as a religion, or love, or politics, or that is boring them to tears, as prison, or a brokerage house, or an advertising firm.”
If he were alive today (unlikely, of course, at 113) he’d have seen his granddaughter snatching time from her own freelance writing career to give his a fresh luster. Martha White has a collection of E.B.’s essays, poems, and sketches about dogs coming out in October 2013, as well as ferreted out choice sentences and paragraphs for a compact collection called In the Words of E.B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable Writer, which was published last year by Cornell University Press.
“At first I had reservations about doing it,” she admits, sipping a mug of tea on a comfy sofa in the West Rockport house she shares with her husband, boatbuilder Taylor Allen. Her grandfather, known to friends and family as “Andy,” mercilessly red-penciled his own work, including letters re-printed in an edition Martha revised in 2006. “He didn’t want to be excerpted,” she says, with a hint of guilt.
“Omit needless words,” White the elder famously urged aspiring writers in The Elements of Style, co-authored with his former Cornell English Professor William Strunk, Jr. Where was his unassuming granddaughter going to find the nerve to omit even more words than he did and arrange the snippings topically in alphabetical order? Here’s a random sample:
”The curse of flight is speed.”
“The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men.”
“As a child I was told I should be seen and not heard. As an adult, I am making sure that I am being heard but not seen.”
So he wanted to be heard, at least, and Martha White is seeing to that. But she also sees the irony of dishing out for public speakers bon mots penned by a man who hated appearing in public.
“I agreed to do it after I looked at what was out there on the Internet . . . I was really appalled at all the things that were supposedly said by my grandfather, but weren’t — or they were badly mis-quoted.” So she snatched the time to put things right. The first entry sets the wry tone.
(See also Childhood, Youth)
“I was born in 1899, which was a big mistake. Should have waited.”
And he lived almost a century after that, leaving behind reams of wittiness. Martha White’s crow’s nest office is “cluttered,” as she notes in an affectionate, informative introduction, with “shelves of his books, boxes of Blackwing pencils; old family scrapbooks and photographs; and a wooden model of Flounder, the scow he built for my father, Joel, when he was ten.” Above the computer hangs a sweet photograph of her as a little girl with her grandpa. He loved telling people about how they first met when, on the way home from the hospital nursery, he used a jackknife to cut her bonnet ribbons entangled in the zipper of her sleeper suit without legs.
“Growing up, I never thought of him as a writer, and certainly not a famous one,” she says. “My brother and I would go to Sunday dinner in Brooklin and we had to be on our best behavior, especially for our grandmother [White’s wife, Katharine, was the esteemed and elegant fiction editor for the New Yorker]. But there were goofy times, too, playing softball or tending chickens. Martha White still remembers Greeno, the inflatable frog that her grandpa gave her and later rescued for her from an iced-in boatshed.
In boarding school (Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts), and later at Mount Holyoke, Martha White’s friends and teachers were sometimes surprised that she seemed unfazed by the family name and fame. But knowing Andy White the man instead of E.B. the icon has allowed her to mine his vast output for what he himself might like to be remembered for. Through his granddaughter’s eyes, White comes across not so much as the Pulitzer- Prize winner he was, but as a warm-hearted yet sharp-tongued curmudgeon. Here’s some of what he says, for example, about writing, which, unlike most topics, gets more than two pages in the collected quotations.
“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.”
Or even better, figure out a way to get a man — in this case the writer himself — to parcel himself out in short, usefully arranged bursts of prose and poetry. Put even smaller bits of it in print. Then if you are lucky — and Martha White does seem very lucky these days, as four thriving children leave the nest and time opens up like the spectacular view outside the house she and her husband built adjacent to his thriving Rockport boatyard — you might just write a novel of your own.
“Maine,” says Martha White, “was where it really all came together, where he was able to live his best life, and not be in the public eye or be expected to show up at a cocktail party and be all pithy and smart.”
But on these pages, you will find a pithy, smart, saltwater farmer who can turn a phrase more easily and naturally than a pitchfork. Left casually on a coffee table, this little volume could make the dullest cocktail party sparkle — at least for a minute or two. Better yet, kept on a bedside table, it could help you get a grip on turbulent times before you turn out the light.