Cover image for E.B. White : the emergence of an essayist
E.B. White : the emergence of an essayist
Root, Robert L.
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Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, [1999]

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244 pages ; 25 cm
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PS3545.H5187 Z86 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Traces the literary career of 20th-century American essayist, E.B. White. The book explores the milieu in which White began writing the Notes and Comments section of the New Yorker, and puts in perspective the influence of popular colyumists like Don Marquis and Christopher Morley.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Dividing White's career as essayist into "four fairly pronounced periods," Root sets out to carefully analyze every stage in the development of one of America's best-known essayists, and the man who put the New Yorker on the literary map. The first period consists of White's first 12 years at the New Yorker, to 1938; the second covers his columns for Harper's, through 1943; the third is defined by his return to the New Yorker as the writer of the Comment page (he also wrote Charlotte's Web in 1952); and the fourth, which includes his famous revision of The Elements of Style, begins with his 1957 retirement to Maine. Two themes dominate Root's study: one is White's method of composition, his revision process and the effect of deadlines on his work; the other is the hybrid quality of many of White's essays, which combine elements from his short columns and letters with literary influences from Montaigne to Thoreau. Root's close readings, replete with lengthy citations and charts, may seem more meticulous than much of today's flighty critical fare. But readers outside the academy may find the title misleading, for Root trains his eyes on the nuts and bolts of White's paragraphs and publications, but provides only a threadbare account of the life that shaped them. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Root's fine book builds on Scott Elledge's E B. White: A Biography (CH, Jun'84) but focuses specifically on White's style and method. Root (Central Michigan Univ.) asserts that White developed as a great essayist through his journalistic production of many "constricted forms," which he "pushed toward the freedom of the essay." White learned his craft by writing to strict deadlines, as a "paragrapher" for The New Yorker, a columnist for Harper's Magazine, and later as correspondent and editorialist. Once freed from the clock, White developed his essay style slowly, and his characteristic personal "I" emerged in part as revolt against the constraints of the urbane, editorial "we." Root provides interesting, detailed demonstrations of White's organic processes as he sought his subject by finding and hearing it in the words he was writing--e.g., "Once More to the Lake," "Sound," "The Eye of Edna," and his evolving reflections on his teacher, Will Strunk. Often funny, with choice quotes, Root's volume offers a brief account of cosmopolitan US humor, including White's debts to Don Marquis, James Thurber, and Thoreau. Includes helpful tables of White's production from 1926 to '76. For all academic, public, and professional libraries. J. J. Wydeven; Bellevue University



Chapter One "THE FAINT SQUEAK OF MORTALITY" The Emergence of an Essayist I don't remember now how I happened to be reading One Man's Meat or even whether I'd read E. B. White before, but I remember the effect that "Once More to the Lake" had on me. I was the recent father of a son, visiting friends who also had a new son. I was reading in bed, in the guest room of their old farmhouse near Lake Ontario, the house quiet, everyone else asleep. When I came to the ending of the essay -- "As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death"-- I gasped and choked up and tears pooled in my eyes. In that instant I felt more in touch with another writer than I had ever felt in my life. In the morning, as I packed my family to leave, I left my copy of the book behind, with pages dog-eared, telling Bill emphatically, "You have to read this essay."     I bought another copy for myself but put off reading it until I could give it undivided attention. I hoped to discover more essays like "Once More to the Lake" and wanted nothing to interfere with my connecting with the author again. Eventually, I read all of E. B. White's nonfiction and found other essays that reverberate with a similar sensibility and authorial presence -- "The Ring of Time," "Death of a Pig," "The Flocks We Watch by Night," "Morningtime and Eveningtime." But what surprised me in all that reading was how often I encountered nonfiction that seemed to be something other than an essay. Despite the similar sensibility, despite the authorial presence, so often what I read seemed to come short of an essay -- a miniessay, perhaps, or a protoessay or an essayistic ... something else. If White was an essayist, he seemed not to be writing essays as I'd come to think of them or as anybody else had written them before. But if he wasn't an essayist, I didn't know a satisfactory term that would describe what he was.     I have been a long time trying to figure out what it was about E. B. White's nonfiction prose that unsettled me. Now, after reading and rereading his magazine publications, books, letters, and manuscripts, 1 think I know why, as he himself might have put it, a careful search of his premises reveals far fewer essays than the admiring reader of "Once More to the Lake" might reasonably expect. His nonfiction is less influenced by the grand tradition the term "essay" conjures up and more influenced by popular journalistic forms outside that tradition; the literary forms in which he worked spilled over into one another in ways almost impossible to separate or isolate. E. B. White was not simply, in Irwin Edman's phrase, "our finest essayist, perhaps our only one" ("Earthy" 2) but instead was unique among American essayists. He did not start his nonfiction writing career as an essayist but rather emerged as an essayist from the career he had already established. The influences of the other nonfiction forms in which he worked suffused his writing of essays, and he broke free only in a handful of them. Yet the work he did under those influences not only challenges literary classification but also points the way toward nontraditional forms of the essay, forms whose limits are still being tested.     The image of E. B. White as an essayist really centers around "Once More to the Lake." Even Joseph Epstein, who once identified White and Ralph Waldo Emerson as "two American essayists who are elsewhere much revered but to whose virtues I am apparently blind" ("Writing" 33), singled out "Once More to the Lake" as "his most beautiful essay" and described it as "dazzling and devastating, art of a heightened kind that an essayist is rarely privileged to achieve" ("E. B. White" 316-317). Phillip Lopate, although leery of what he calls White's "sedating influence on the form," has also declared, "No one has written more consistently graceful, thoughtful essays in twentieth-century American language than White" ("What" 80). Both essayist/editors include "Once More to the Lake" in their large anthologies of historic and essential personal essays. This essay and a few others widely reprinted in trade anthologies and classroom collections have secured E. B. White's place as an essayist, reinforcing it with a tower of authenticating reprints and scholarly articles.     Because White has been so venerated, and because certain of his essays have been so universally used to exemplify the form, readers perhaps tend to assume that the rest of his essays are similar to "Once More to the Lake" -- that is, unified in design, theme, and tone, with a similar authorial voice. To identify a writer as an essayist is to locate him in the essay tradition of Montaigne, Emerson, Thoreau, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Woolf, a still viable and presently flourishing tradition with which White only identified himself late in his career. The various influences upon the style, structure, and voice of his writing came principally not from the practitioners of the self-contained familiar essay but from the columnists and commentators of periodical journalism. His more immediate predecessors and contemporaries, whose work has faded into obscurity, provided the context out of which White's career blossomed. His essays are intimately related to other forms of nonfiction writing that he wrote regularly. When we encounter his essays in isolation, one or two at a time in massive anthologies, or when we read them in his own collections, we have little sense of the milieu in which they were originally published; such encounters give us no understanding of the ways their shape and substance were influenced by the kinds of writing he did and the conditions under which he wrote. An approach to the essays as monuments on display ends up overlooking the question of how any of these works came into being. It reduces the value of these essays as models for aspiring essayists and obscures a richer understanding of the breadth and complexity of White's nonfiction art.     E. B. White did not begin his writing career as an essayist, nor did he particularly set out to become one. Rather, he emerged as an essayist through a variety of interrelated journalistic forms. To appreciate fully the kind of essayist he became, it is necessary to understand how he worked in such initially distinctive forms as the paragraph (the form of the early Notes and Comment page), the column, the editorial, and the New Yorker Letter (or correspondent's department). When we trace the path of his development we see that his work in the essay was more random and more confused with other forms than we might have expected. Only in his later years was his identification as an essayist unquestionable; throughout his career the boundaries of White's essays were blurred with the boundaries of other forms.     White seems to have first revealed himself as an essayist not in the literary forms of his published work but rather in the sensibility or the attitude he brought to much of his writing. In his foreword to Essays of E. B. White , a retrospective collection published in 1977, he defined the essayist in terms of his own example: "The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new `attempt,' differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays" (vii). The self-deprecation of "childish belief," "congenitally self-centered," and "effrontery" masks the more elevated implication that the essayist is a kind of "Everyman." This concept is as old as Michel de Montaigne's admonishment to his own readers. It was Montaigne who established the essay's freewheeling form: a shifting combination of autobiography and memoir, literary and cultural criticism, personal narrative and philosophical treatise. His term, essai , meaning an attempt or a trial, identified the essay as a tentative, speculative form. Montaigne also established the tone of modest demurrer, the open admission of self-involvement and ego, the atmosphere of introspection and reflection. "I am myself the matter of my book," he wrote to the reader. "I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray" (2). Like Montaigne, White too takes the pose of self-involvement, of ordinariness, artlessness. It was a pose similar to the self-effacing posture of the humorist, a role he was also familiar with from his early prose and poetry.     More tellingly, White identifies the essayist as a writer capable of many roles -- "The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter -- philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast" (vii). The pairs of opposed personalities in this list suggest not only the various roles White recognized himself as having played but also the oppositions and range that may appear in any individual role.     White sees these roles as dimensions of a "self-liberated" and "self-centered" writer. He worries that some people may think it "presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader." He admits: "I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egotistical; to write of myself to the extent that I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit. But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor" (viii). The allusion to mothballs is a typical White turn toward self-deprecation following a serious remark, yet the allusion to Montaigne protects White against the charge of egoism and self-absorption. It aligns him with the principal progenitor of this literary form, the identity behind all of any essayist's assumed identities.     In addition to associating himself with his literary forebears, White also acknowledges the impulse to take an essayist's approach from the very beginning of his writing life. At one point he writes: "I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper. I early broke into print in the pages of St. Nicholas . I tend still to fall back on the essay form (or lack of form) when an idea strikes me" (vii).     As a child White had published in the children's magazine St. Nicholas ; he wrote about the experience in a 1934 New Yorker article, "The [St. Nicholas League," hut never reprinted the piece until Essays of E. B. White . As he compiled the collection, White may have retrospectively recognized the essayistic impulse as a dominating one in his writing. In this sense, his pushing other forms toward the essay was a consistent, if not always self-conscious, attempt to draw upon his instincts toward the personal, the familiar, the pronounced first person singular. These instincts underlay most of his impulses toward writing (including his semiautobiographical children's books).     White recognized this impulse early in his career. In a January 1929 letter to his brother Stanley White he observed: I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace. As a reporter, I was a flop, because I always came back laden not with facts about the case, but with a mind full of the little difficulties and amusements I had encountered in my travels. Not until The New Yorker came along did I ever find any means of expressing those impertinences and irrelevancies .... The rewards of such endeavor are not that I have acquired an audience or a following, as you suggest (fame of any kind being a Pyrrhic victory), hut that sometimes in writing of myself -- which is the only subject anyone knows intimately -- I have occasionally had the exquisite thrill of putting my finger on a little capsule of truth, and heard it give the faint squeak of mortality under my pressure, an antic sound. ( Letters 84-85) Written only a few years into his career at the New Yorker , these comments reverberate in the comparisons with Montaigne in the introduction to Essays , nearly fifty years later. The "small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living," the "writing of myself ... the only subject anyone knows intimately" all sound the Montaignian note ("I am myself the matter of my book").     They also echo the opening pages of Henry David Thoreau's Walden . Thoreau warned the reader, "We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well." He added, "I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives" (3). Thoreau was the one major literary figure to whom White referred throughout his writing, and his centennial essay on Walden was one of the major catalysts for the turn toward the essay that dominated the last portion of his career. White himself would later couch some of his career decisions in terms of a "search for the first person singular." The impulse toward the essay may have arisen early, but the emergence of the essayist within White was in some sense the labor of his whole writing life. While White's comments about being an essayist may help explain what he thought, retrospectively, he was doing in the form, they do not reveal what he thought the nature of that form was. It is a truth too seldom appreciated by scholars and critics that writers themselves do not have to define or delineate the forms in which they work -- they simply have to follow their best instincts about what satisfies their sense of unity or design and fulfills their need to write at all. Scholars and critics are the ones who worry about definitions and categories; they are the ones who try to establish boundaries between forms and to notice when the borders have been either crossed or straddled. Aristotle's rules for tragedy are not those Euripides would have written. Perhaps then it is not surprising that White should realize in retrospect how often the essayistic impulse had motivated his writing throughout his career and yet almost never use the term "essay" to describe his writing before that realization. It also is not surprising that, at the time White began his career, hardly anyone noticed that the essay was in a period of transition.     From very early on essayists themselves had tried to differentiate their essays from their other nonfiction writing. Montaigne and Bacon both distinguished between essays and more scholarly writing; Joseph Addison claimed his essays differed from his "methodological discourses"; Samuel Johnson defined the essay in part by what it was not -- he called it "an irregular, undigested piece, not a regular, orderly performance." But because the essay allowed for considerable latitude, most practitioners simply let their own idiosyncratic examples serve for definition, as Charles Lamb did. By the turn of the twentieth century, scholars and critics had a wealth of material that they could use to categorize and subcategorize the form, to draw up its borders, and to illustrate or exemplify their definitions.     Collections published as White finished college and began searching for a career offer instructive illustration of how editors interpreted the essay. A typical example is Benjamin A. Heydrick's categorizing in Types of the Essay (1921). He exemplifies the personal essay with work by Steele, Lamb, and Hazlitt; the descriptive essay with work from Ruskin, Stevenson, and Thoreau; the character sketch with Goldsmith's "Man in Black"; editorial essays, which "are really brief arguments," entirely from Addison and Steele; the reflective essay ("its subjects are general, often abstract, and its tone is serious" [xiii]), with Bacon on studies, Emerson on self-reliance, and Carlyle on books. Heydrick clearly identifies the essay with the great tradition and defines it partly by citing Bacon's distinction between the essay and the treatise and by insisting that the essay "is brief, and does not attempt to treat a subject either completely or systematically" (vii).     Similarly representative of this approach is Bernard L. Jefferson's Essays and Essay Writing (1929), which extends the great tradition on the British side from Montaigne (in Florio's translation) and Bacon to Maurice Hewlett, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Lynd, and G. K. Chesterton, and on the American side from Franklin, Irving, and Emerson to Agnes Repplier, Samuel McChord Crothers, Robert Cortes Holliday, and Henry Seidel Canby. Jefferson emphasizes personal or familiar essays in which "we may expect to find the minds of interesting men unfolding themselves in various engaging moods" and writing "of their fireplaces, their gardens, journeys they have made, their experiences in childhood, their views of men and of the universe, or of anything which they love or hate" (xii). The emphasis here, as so often in discussions of the essay, is on the identity of the essayist, whom Jefferson views as someone with "a warm, human quality -- ... courtly grace, or an aristocratic mental outlook, or a care-free gallantry, or an all-pervading whimsicality, or an idealistic fire, or some other engaging quality or mixture of qualities." The form is identified as "the familiar essay" because the essayist "makes familiar to us the peculiar stamp of his personality and the rarities of his temper" (xiii). Typically, Jefferson finds in these essays "an individualistic touch which one does not find in the informative article and in the scholarly or scientific treatise," which are "impersonal, ... dispassionately correct and systematic" (xiii). His most interesting assertion, in the light of White's comments about the essayist rather than the essay, is that it is possible to write "in the essay spirit, although, strictly speaking, it may not be in the essay form" (xiv).     Heydrick and Jefferson are representative of a number of editors and compilers who regard the essay as a current and continuing genre, extending a long tradition. They present the writers in this tradition as if their currency were timeless, unaffected by changes in world view, prose style, or literary form. Even when such editors take a less historical approach to the essay, the essayists selected tend to be squarely in the tradition, writing of personal experiences, travel, books, and occasional subjects. For example, in The Writing of Informal Essays (1928) editors Mary Ellen Chase and Margaret Eliot MacGregor collect such traditional practitioners as Agnes Repplier, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Robert Lynd, and Alice Meynell; Charles Lamb and Michel de Montaigne are each subject of an essay.     Although such trade or textbook anthologies resolutely reinforce the traditional models, these collections are misleading about the state of the essay in their own time. Their emphasis on traditional approaches tends to eliminate examples that conflict with, or at least fail to conform to, the models of the historical masters. In actual practice the decline of the literary periodical and the rise of popular journalism had put pressure on the essay as a literary form, and editors who emphasized current practitioners provide a more immediate context for the ways essays were being written at the time.     For example, the two collections edited by Christopher Morley, Modern Essays (1921) and Modern Essays, Second Series (1924), are made up of pieces selected to fit Morley's concept of the essay. He claims in the preface to the first volume that the essay "may be severely planned, or it may ramble in ungirdled mood, but it has its own point of view," and that it can be identified by "a tendency to generalize, to walk around the subject or the experience, and view it from several vantages" (v). He also identifies the persona of the essayist as a requisite component: "The fine flavor and genius of the essay ... is the rich bouquet of personality. But soliloquy must not fall into monologue. One might put it thus: that the perfection of the familiar essay is a conscious revelation of self done inadvertently (vi)." Morley asserts that "as brilliant and sincere work is being done to-day in the essay as in any period of our literature" and identifies the diversity of the pieces: "There is the grand manner; there is foolery; there is straightforward literary criticism; there is pathos, politics, and the picturesque." Claiming that "every selection is, in its own way, a work of art," he makes an important distinction about the authors: "the greater number of these essays were written not by retired aesthetes, but by practicing journalists in the harness of the daily or weekly press" (vii).     Morley was himself a practicing journalist, with a popular column called "The Bowling Green," then running in the New York Evening Post and soon to be transferred to a new weekly magazine, the Saturday Review . He was a prolific writer, producing novels and short stories (he is best known for The Haunted Bookshop and Kitty Foyle ), poems, plays, prefaces, and introductions (including one for The Complete Sherlock Holmes ), edited works (such as Modern Essays and two editions of Barlett's Familiar Quotations ), and various other nonfiction books. He collected sixteen volumes of essays and related material from his newspaper and magazine work, principally reprinted from his columns. His familiar essays ran the gamut from literary criticism to travel, from character sketches to memoirs -- in fact, in their more traditional anthology Chase and MacGregor reprinted Morley's essays in four different subcategories.     Modern Essays is made up of both British and American authors and includes a number of names recognizable more for work in poetry or fiction -- Rupert Brooke (on "Niagara Falls"), Joyce Kilmer, Joseph Conrad, A. A. Milne, James Branch Cabell, Stewart Edward White, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, John Crowe Ransom -- as well as many obvious choices in nonfiction -- William Allen White, Hilaire Belloc, Stephen Leacock, Max Beerbohm, H. M. Tomlinson, Louise Imogen Guiney, Robert Cortes Holliday, W. H. Hudson, Maurice Hewlett, Alice Meynell, and Llewelyn Powys (with an essay on Montaigne). Among the journalists, Morley includes Alexander Woollcott, Henry Seidel Canby (his editor at the Saturday Review ), Simeon Strunsky (his editor at the New York Evening Post ), and two important fellow columnists, Heywood Broun (with "The Fifty-First Dragon") and Don Marquis (with "The Almost Perfect State").     The emphasis that Morley places on the current state of the essay and his insistence on locating it in "the daily or weekly press" are suggestive for the course the essay would take for the next several decades and for establishing the context of E. B. White's writing during that period. The popular magazines eventually became the principal outlet for the essay in all its forms. A number of magazines published literary and cultural criticism, political and social analysis, observations on current events and daily living, and regular columns in more-or-less-specific subject areas. The increasing competition among magazines tended to highlight popular writers and repeat popular features, and a number of writers found themselves writing weekly or monthly columns rather than randomly composing essays. The nature of periodical journalism imposed exigencies on writers that affected the kind of prose they produced. Because most of E. B. White's writing was done for a weekly or monthly magazine, as part of a regular department or feature, it is not surprising that his approach to writing tended to be journalistic rather than literary and that the way he composed had to adapt to various kinds of constraints of form, content, audience, and time imposed by his employment.     Morley's selections also help us understand how some journalistic elements influenced the development of the twentieth-century essay by loosening its already flexible concept of unity and coherence. Many of the columnists of the period did not simply fill their columns with essays but rather included essays among the components of their columns. We will examine in more detail some specific habits of the columnists and "colyumists" in the next several chapters, but for now it should be said that the demands of filling weekly or monthly column space made the writers in charge of them (often referred to in the period as "colyum conductors") draw upon a freewheeling sense of structure, not only writing essays but often appending unrelated notes and comments to them to fill up the assigned space in the newspaper or magazine--indeed, some colyums may have been nothing but notes and comments. This "disconnected" series of items paved the way for the "disjunctive" essay now widely practiced and discussed, and opened the door for the essay to turn away from the single-unit form, Whether tightly argumentative or ramblingly reflective.     Morley points the way for this shift in structure with two selections in the first volume of Modern Essays . For the most part the selections are single, unified works, even if some have the sort of Roman-numerated sections typical of longer and more argumentative essays and articles. But the selection by Don Marquis is introduced not as a unified work but as "two of Mr. Marquis's amiable meditations on the `Almost Perfect State'" taken from his "Sun Dial" column. The two are printed as sections I and II and could be taken as two linked parts of a single work, but they were not necessarily printed consecutively in Marquis's column or in his later collection of all the column items on that theme. The other "disjunctive" selection is titled "Trivia," made up of several "miniature essays" taken from a "remarkable little book" of that name by Logan Pearsall Smith (297). The selection includes several individually titled sections: "Stonehenge," "The Stars," "The Spider," "L'Oiseau Bleu," "I See the World," "The Church of England," "Consolation," "The Kaleidoscope," and "The Poplar"; each runs from one to three paragraphs in length. They have been assembled at random by Morley and are not necessarily consecutive in the original book.     The idea that a selection may be tentative or inconclusive is not a new one -- the traditional essay has almost by definition been that way. The idea of printing a partial essay is not new either -- excerpts had been popular in much earlier textbooks, and through our own time college anthologies have routinely reprinted sections of essays and articles or have presented portions of book chapters as if they were self-contained essays. But it is new to draw together tangential or disconnected elements and present them as a satisfactory representation of a whole; that is, to offer a collection of comments and paragraphs as the equivalent of an essay. In the anthologies mentioned earlier, few selections are segmented in any way, and then only as subdivisions of a larger argument. Heydrick presents only two essays with subdivisions; Chase and MacGregor, only one. All use Roman numerals to set off distinct sections of a unified and lengthy whole, and two of the pieces are from recent magazines. Jefferson cites "an interesting development ... in the direction of a kind of essay sequence comparable to a sonnet sequence" in which the writer "composes a series of brief essays somewhat loosely strung together in the development of a common theme or of somewhat related themes. The different divisions may be set apart from one another by some such transitional device as Roman numerals" (xv). His chief example is two sections taken from "First Study" in Charles Dudley Warner's Backlog Studies , but because both are about the pleasures of sitting by a fireplace, they read very much like a subdivided whole. Morley's collection is the only one to present essays as segmented, even fragmented, compositions.     The milieu of the essay that White was introduced to at the end of his college years and the beginning of his writing career was in transition; the most influential voices were those of essayists in the popular press, usually the celebrated and established columnists. White's emergence as an essayist would be shaped by these forces, these voices, and they would make him a distinctly individual voice in the long history of the essay. E. B. White's essays form a smaller portion of his nonfiction than his reputation as an essayist might suggest. He worked prolifically in other parallel or tangentially related forms and was principally a paragrapher or columnist or editorialist for most of his career. He emerged as an essayist sporadically, intermittently, usually within or alongside those other forms, White often created essays that are unlike the work of any other essayist, and their uniqueness, their idiosyncratic nature, often arises from the circumstances under which he wrote them. To understand those circumstances we will have to follow two alternate and interwoven strands: the first is the trajectory of White's career as a nonfiction writer during four distinct periods of magazine writing; the second is the manuscript evidence, where we can find it, of White's composing processes for representative works in each period.     E. B. White was born on July 11, 1899, in Mt. Vernon, New York, and died on October 1, 1985, in Maine. For most of his eighty-six years he was a writer, beginning with the journal he kept in childhood and a poem published at the age of ten in Ladies' Home Journal and ending with correspondence to family and friends and an occasional letter to the editor of his local paper or the New York Times . A bibliography of his writing compiled by Katherine Romans Hall lists 2,242 items, including poems, short stories, parodies, sketches, parables, editorials, paragraphs, essays, introductions, reviews, articles, advertisements, obituaries, children's novels, and a textbook. With only a few important exceptions, most of his writing appeared first in magazines and newspapers. White periodically reprinted the best of it in a series of "clipbooks." The three most prominent collections, One Man's Meat, The Second Tree from the Corner, and The Points of My Compass , together only include 157 items out of that bibliography, and White's two retrospective anthologies, Essays of E.B. White and Poems and Sketches or E. B. White , contain mostly previously collected work. White lived a writing life, begun at a very early age and carried on through every event of his life, defining his work, his play, his relationships with his wife and family, his public and private life.     The major portion of White's work was written for the New Yorker magazine, to which he began contributing in its first year of publication, 1925. Hall has observed that, during the fifty-three-year period of New Yorker publication her bibliography covers, "the magazine has used approximately 450 signed EBW pieces, 1,350 identifiable unsigned pieces, and hundreds of anonymous remarks in the form of Newsbreaks, Answers to Hard Questions, captions to drawings, etc." (226). It was from the beginning of White's regular employment at the magazine that his career really began. Working there set in motion habits of thought and expression, ways of working at writing and shaping individual pieces, that influenced his development as a nonfiction writer and his emergence as an essayist.     White's nonfiction career can be divided into four fairly pronounced periods. They are differentiated by the kind of magazine writing he was doing, the voice or personality he adopted for it, the constraints of form and writing circumstances that were imposed on it. The periods are generally summarized in the anthologies or "clipbooks" of previously published work that he occasionally compiled. One question that runs through this book is, How do the essays of E. B. White differ from the other forms of writing in which he routinely engaged? A related question is, How did those other forms influence White's essays? To pursue these questions, it will be necessary to explore the nonfiction forms that predominated in White's writing in each of these periods and to determine the forces that influenced how he handled these forms. Both manuscript evidence (when available) and testimony from White and his fellow practitioners will help uncover how he composed his nonfiction -- that is, the sources of his subject matter, the nature of his drafting and revising, the constraints of specific assignments and work circumstances on what he wrote.     The first nonfiction period encompasses the first dozen years of White's employment at the New Yorker , from 1926 to 1938. Almost all of White's writing in this period appeared first in the New Yorker , except for poetry published intermittently in "The Conning Tower," Franklin P. Adams's New York World column, and in Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do (1929), a parody of psychological and sexual self-help books cowritten with James Thurber. His other books of this period reprinted previously published material: The Lady Is Cold (1929) collected poems from the New Yorker and the New York World; Ho Hum (1931) and Another Ho Hum (1932) collected newsbreaks (comic column filler reprinting or reacting to mistakes in newspapers) from the New Yorker , in both cases with a foreword from White rather than credit for authorship; Alice through the Cellophane (1933) reprinted a three-part series commenting satirically on business. The later poems of the period were collected in The Fox of Peapack and Other Poems (1938), and his best stories and sketches were published in Quo Vaditaus? or The Case for the Bicycle (1939). Most of this work established and maintained his reputation as a humorist -- he and Thurber were both strongly influenced by Robert Benchley and Clarence Day in their early work for the magazine, and as a writer of light verse White was ranked with Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash. His editing of A Subtreasury of American Humor with his wife, Katharine, was in many ways a capstone for this period, but by the time it was published in 1941, he had essentially shifted both the tenor and the temperament of his writing.     In spite of the notable light verse and humorous or satirical prose he produced in the period, his most constant and prolific work was the widely admired paragraphs published anonymously in the New Yorker's Notes and Comment section each week. In 1934 he compiled and published a generous sampling of them in Every Day Is Saturday , a collection that helped identify him as the principal author of that section. The Comment paragraphs established White's reputation as a wit and as a prose stylist, and they also influenced much of the longer writing he did over the years.     The ways in which writers compose and the nature of the writing they create are strongly influenced by the circumstances in which they work. White's circumstances changed several times during his career. His first decade at the New Yorker demanded that he be witty, concise, current, and prolific. As both rewrite man and original composer of the Notes and Comment page, his productivity was aided by the demands of the paragraph form: lightness of tone allowed for slightness in focus and thought; brevity restricted the complications of development and argument; currency prevented the need for sustained identification of subjects and encouraged highly spontaneous and extemporaneous responses; volume demanded both speed in achieving an acceptable draft and a willingness to accept a certain level of unsustained archness as sufficient. White's ability to adapt to the demands of the Comment page made him its preeminent paragrapher; it also locked him into habits of writing that both frustrated and sustained him throughout his career.     In this early, period White published only two essays, "Onward and Upward with the Arts: St. Nicholas League" and "Onward and Upward with the Arts: Farewell, My Lovely!" He would later include both in Essays of E.B. White . The second essay was published as a small illustrated book, Farewell to Model T (1936), and its popularity may have encouraged White to write longer, more personal, and less formulaic nonfiction than paragraphs. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 the University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved.