July 11

This Day in History

Literary

Jul 11, 1899:

"Charlotte's Web" author E.B. White born

On this day in 1899, E.B. White, the author of the popular children’s novels “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and “The Trumpet of the Swan,” is born in Mount Vernon, New York. White, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker magazine who was known for his graceful, witty prose, also updated and expanded “The Elements of Style,” an English usage guide that remains a standard text for many high school and college students.

Elwyn Brooks White was the son of a piano manufacturer and the youngest of six children. He attended Cornell University, where he edited the school newspaper and was dubbed Andy, a nickname given to students with the last name White, after Andrew D. White, the university’s first president. After graduating from Cornell in 1921, White worked as a newspaper reporter and a production assistant and copywriter for an advertising agency. In 1927, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, which had been founded two years earlier. White, along with his friend and fellow writer James Thurber, is credited with playing a central role in shaping the magazine’s tone and direction. For over 50 years, White contributed essays, poems and other pieces to the publication.

In the 1930s, White and his wife, Katherine Sergeant Angell, a writer and editor whom he met at The New Yorker, moved to a farm in Maine. In 1945, he published his first children’s novel, “Stuart Little,” about a mouse born into a human family. The book was followed in 1952 by “Charlotte’s Web,” about a pig on a farm who is saved from being slaughtered with the help of a spider named Charlotte. The story was inspired by life on White’s own farm. His third children’s book, “The Trumpet of the Swan,” about a swan born without a voice, was published in 1970. All three works were critical and commercial successes, selling millions of copies. The books have also been made into films.

In 1959, White reworked “The Elements of Style,” a handbook that was first published privately in 1918 by his former Cornell professor William Strunk. The book, which White went on to update several times for new editions, contains such practical advice as: ''Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary part.''

White received numerous awards during his career, including an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for the body of his work. He died at age 86 on October 1, 1985, at his home in North Brooklin, Maine, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. At a memorial service, New Yorker writer Roger Angell said of his famously shy stepfather: “If E.B. White could be here today, he wouldn’t be here.”

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