`A truth discerning': E.B. White is a writer, wit for the ages

July 22, 1999|By Ronald Thorpe

IF THERE's ever a national vote for the nation's man or woman of letters of the 20th century, one of my top choices would be Elwyn Brooks White, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month.

He was, as he himself said, "a writing man," whose job was "the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment." But he was far more than a steward.

White had a gift for making things personal. He is the quintessential "everyman," rich in dignity, devoid of pretense, a Charlie Chaplin of the printed page. He shows us the truths that are right in front of us but would escape our sight if not for him. Most of all, he helps us see ourselves.

White gave us three of our most beloved children's books, "Charlotte's Web," "Stuart Little" and "Trumpet of the Swan," among other volumes. There was also the revising and expanding of Will Strunk's "The Elements of Style," now a classic and still the only grammar and writing guide that is both useful and enjoyable.

But primarily, White was an essayist, a person who, in his own words, "is sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest."

That definition, along with humor and his insistence that all things be kept within proportion, allows White's writing to reach us so intimately. He is our fellow traveler, and like us a struggler against the elements. A dog or a goose or some unknown burglars might be the source of his trouble; a pig or a spider the source of his solutions.

My favorite essay is "Death of a Pig." White was raising a pig for its commercial and practical value, but the tide turned when the pig got sick.

During the last days of the pig's life, White found himself "cast suddenly in the role of the pig's friend and physician -- a farcical character with an enema bag for a prop . . . the sort of dramatic treatment that instantly appealed to my old dachshund, Fred, who joined the vigil, held the bag, and, when all was over, presided at the interment."

Few of us will ever give a pig an enema, but White's description brings our empathies entirely to him. Having to do something that we don't know how to do and really don't want to do often leads to some totally human predicament.

Through White's words we know with certainty that there but for the grace of God go we. Yet somehow, White is resourceful enough never to embarrass. In fact, he leaves us proud, even relieved to identify with him.

White also had a startling capacity for tenderness. At the end of "Charlotte's Web," after the death of Charlotte, White writes: "Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

I don't know a parent who can read those lines to a young son or daughter without a catch in the throat or eyes welling.

His words have inscribed much of the past century. They promise to do the same in the next. Like Charlotte, he is in a class by himself.

Ronald D. Thorpe is a vice president of the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence. He wrote this for the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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