In the opening minutes of the film version of E. B. White's first children's book -- Stuart Little ( the prequel to film, Stuart Little 2, that's in theaters next next week) Mr. and Mrs. Little go to an orphanage and end up adopting a new child who is a mouse. But, that's not quite how it happens in the novel. White was, after all, one of the authors of that small masterpiece of economy about English language usage, The Elements of Style, and in his characteristic, no-nonsense prose he simply states the premise of the book in its opening lines: "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way." And with that White, and the resourceful, endearing Stuart are off and running.
Hollywood, of course, will rarely allow itself to be so direct or so inventive.
But Elwyn Brooks White, who was born today in 1899, had no such qualms
about stretching himself, or in adopting what his legendary boss at The
New Yorker, Harold Ross, declared as a first and founding principle
of that magazine: "It will hate bunk." Born and raised in New
York state, White's first jobs after graduating from Cornell in 1921,
were as a newspaperman, and then, in 1927, after a brief dalliance in
advertising, as a staff writer at The New Yorker. A few years later, he
had married Katharine Angell, who also worked on the magazine, and by
the end of the thirties, they were dividing their time between Manhattan
and their farm in Maine, which would become the inspiration for White's
Charlotte's Web, published in 1952. In her review of that book,
Eudora Welty would write that it "is about friendship on earth, affection,
and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery,
pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just
about perfect." That, too, is no bunk. But don't take any one else's
word for it: just put White's three novels -- Stuart Little, Charlotte's
Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan -- on the required summer
reading list for the family, and you'll see for yourself.
Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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