The Simply Elegant 'Letters of E.B. White' Letters of E.B. White collects the correspondence of the writer and his family. His stepson, New Yorker editor and author Roger Angell, says the letters reveal more about a "modest" and "exacting" writer who "wanted to get things right."
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The Simply Elegant 'Letters of E.B. White'

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The Simply Elegant 'Letters of E.B. White'

The Simply Elegant 'Letters of E.B. White'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, a new generation's interest in Edith Piaf, France's "Little Sparrow." But first, the writer E.B. White once cautioned a biographer not to refer to him as beloved.

I'm an old advertising man, wrote Mr. White, and I know that people would rather buy a book about a writer everybody hates the guts of. Well, it would be a shame to miss this one.

A new revised edition of E.B. White's letters has just been published. Mr. White was the writer who took the personal essay to new heights of elegance, wit and pith. He loved writing about his life on a farm in Maine. Yet no writer has ever been more eloquent about New York City.

His style was often called compressed and plain, yet few writers ever had a style that was more extravagantly admired. He wrote for perhaps the most sophisticated popular magazine in America and he charmed young readers of all ages in books that included "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little."

This new edition of his letters begins almost a century ago, in 1908 when at eight years of age he writes his older brother Albert, I'm sure it is a long time since your post came, but I have been waiting for something to say; to one of the last, in 1984, when he tells a friend who's just 85, Stay on your feet, it's the place to be.

Now, John Updike has done the introduction to this collection of E.B. White's letters. We're joined now from New York by Mr. White's stepson, Roger Angell, senior editor at The New Yorker, for which E.B. White wrote for so long.

Mr. Angell, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROGER ANGELL (Senior Editor, The New Yorker): Nice to be with you.

SIMON: And Andy, as you called E.B. White, was your stepfather.

Mr. ANGELL: That's right.

SIMON: Married to Katherine Angell White, your mother. Did he ever talk to you about what made him want to become a writer?

Mr. ANGELL: No, and he was not writerly in that sense. I never heard him talk - I heard him talk about how hard writing was. I heard him talk about that all the time. It was always a long, hard slog through the day and to meet a deadline, and I could just see how hard it was. He didn't complain more than writers do.

SIMON: Did he use letters to work things out in his mind?

Mr. ANGELL: I think he was always working things out. There's a tone of involvement in all these letters, involvement with himself, with what is going on in his mind. When he mails off "Charlotte's Web" he's full of doubt about that. He was a very modest writer, a very exciting writer, and expected a lot of himself, not for ambitious writing, but he wanted to get things right.

SIMON: If I could ask you to turn to page 182 in the book.

Mr. ANGELL: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: First of March 1939, he writes to Eugene Saxton, where he encloses the unfinished manuscript of a book called "Stuart Little."

Mr. ANGELL: You will be shocked and grieved to discover that the principal character of the story has somewhat the attributes on appearance of a mouse. It does not mean that I'm either challenging or denying Mr. Disney's genius. At the risk of seeming a very whimsical fellow indeed, I'll have to break down and confess to you that Stuart Little appeared to me in a dream - all complete with his hat, his cane and his brisk manner.

Since he was the only fictional figure ever to honor and disturb my sleep, I was deeply touched and felt I was not free to change him into a grasshopper or a wallaby. Luckily, he bears no resemblance either physically or temperamentally to me. I guess that's a break for all of us. Stop in here for a drink some fine afternoon. We're enjoying room service and would like to see you.

SIMON: I guess living...

Mr. ANGELL: Staying at the Gram mercy Park Hotel.

SIMON: Yeah. Would things come to him that way? Maybe not in his sleep, but...

Mr. ANGELL: Well, coming - things coming to him in a dream, I would say no. I mean I'd forgotten that Stuart Little came to him as a dream. It is not typical. I never heard him spring up from bed and say I had a dream last night and then start to write.

SIMON: How would ideas come to him? Do you know?

Mr. ANGELL: Well, "Charlotte's Web" came from him watching a spot here on this place in Maine. I think it was this spot down on his boathouse where he once went down to work on the newsbreak, those little page fillers at the bottom of the column in the New Yorker, which he'd edited for some 57 years.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ANGELL: The extraordinary thing about him was that when he arrived, he started to become a farm person in the mid-'30s when they bought this place in Maine. And at first he's quite self-conscious about and said - and thought he was not good at this, but he was immensely good at the daily chores, the hundreds and hundreds of little things that you have to do to keep a place in the country going.

And this sort of thing went into his writing. When he came - I think he wrote "Charlotte's Web" after he knew enough country things, knew enough about animals and how a country place works that he could write about sheep and pigs and spiders with some confidence. Because he knew how they behaved.

SIMON: Did you have any strong thoughts, Mr. Angell, about what e-mail has done to the quality of personal correspondence?

Mr. ANGELL: Well, it's done a way with it, basically. I mean it's not the just lost to historians and to family members and to writers everywhere, but it's the loss of pleasure to the letter writer. We all used to - everybody used to write letters. And you wrote everybody; each person you wrote regularly you did it in a different tone of voice, which was your connection with them. I was away overseas in the Pacific for more than three years and I wrote every day to somebody. I mean I wrote to my wife, to my father and my mother and my stepfather and a lot of other people. And that's the way the war went by - people wrote letters. But now they're doing it in emails and it's not the same.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ANGELL: I think.

SIMON: May I ask, what's it like to know that other people read and learn from and enjoy and are warmed by your family's personal letters?

Mr. ANGELL: Well, I don't - I think it's fine. I don't sense any violation of privacy here at all, because in the first place he's edited a lot himself. There's a lot of Andy White that isn't in here. There's a lot about the family that isn't in here. He's both frank and discrete all the way through this. His fears were very real. And one of the interesting things about him is how often he writes about death. He doesn't do it in these letters very much, but certainly in some of his most famous essays. The great essay called "Once More to the Lake," which ends with an extraordinary feeling of death watching his young son put a bathing suit, put on a wet bathing suit as he has done and he did when he was a child. A wonderful book, "Here is New York," which ends with that remarkable passage about New York now being vulnerable to a flight of bombers. This was - it was written in 1948 and everybody went to it right after 9/11. It was such a premonitory thing. This mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.

SIMON: Roger Angell of The New Yorker, a revised collection of his stepfather's letters. "Letters of E.B. White" has just been published by Harper Collins. Mr. Angell, always a pleasure talking to you. Thanks.

Mr. ANGELL: Thank you so much, Scott. Bye-bye.

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