Here is a richly detailed and vivid biography of the man who wrote Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little; the White of "Strunk and White"; the writer whose style and humor were so important in distinguishing The New Yorker's first thirty years. Included are some fifty photographs and drawings, as well as manuscript facsimiles.
Since E. B. White, master of the "personal essay," has written about himself in great (if usually self-deprecating) detail, much of this stolid, bland biography consists of excerpts from the White canon; and many readers will probably feel that they'd rather just re-read his essay-collections and his Letters (1976). Still, those curious about White's more private life may appreciate the research on display here, if not the earnest, academic approach to White's children's books. Elledge lingers over White's youth in some listless opening chapters: though raised in a comfortable, loving N.Y. family, Elwyn "was never without fears and never fully self-confident"; he loved nature early on; he excelled at Cornell (editor of the Daily Sun) but moved from one newspaper job to another, traveled West, and wound up on the Seattle Times - where a short-lived "Personal Column" foreshadowed his metier. His first years back in N.Y. were lonely and frustrating, too. But then, after getting light verse published in "The Conning Tower," he had a short piece printed in the brand-new New Yorker - where he was soon offered a $30-a-week staff job; it grew, of course, until White became Harold Ross' most valuable (unsigned) writer - providing editorials, "casuals," "newsbreaks," cartoon captions. He also fell in love with married New Yorker editor Katharine Angell: an affair led, after much stewing (Elledge cites White's immaturity, insecurity) to their 47-year-marriage. He remained frustrated, however, wanting more recognition, more serious formats. So, in 1938 he moved to Maine, switched to the Harper's column "One Man's Meat" - later returning to the New Yorker to write fast-breaking editorials during the war, chiefly re internationalism. But, though White continued to write essays and editorialize, his greatest acclaim would come for Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. Elledge dutifully explores the themes of White's children's books, the autobiographical resonances. ("He has never stopped trying to win the approval of the self he once referred to as 'a boy I knew.' ") He is candid about White's hypochondria and depression, about New Yorker backroom tensions. Nonetheless, the portrait here is lifeless for the most part - with a drab mix of half-hearted psychology and admiring platitudes. And even devoted White fans will find this journeyman treatment only occasionally involving or entertaining. (Kirkus Reviews)