Finding more about an author that you really enjoy can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you might get new insights into that author’s work. But what do you do when you discover that someone whose writing moves you deeply is actually not a particularly nice person or has beliefs that are diametrically opposed to your own? In one instance, reading some of a favorite fiction writer’s political writings left me unable to continue to read his novels. The question of whether an author’s (or a musician’s or an artist’s for that matter) personal life should influence our reading of, listening to, or viewing of their work is an interesting one. Time and distance seem to play a role here. Does it matter if Shakespeare was perhaps a distant father and husband or if Benvenuto Cellini was a braggart and a thug? Maybe to some, but probably not to many. Their art has outlasted their personal lives. If you are willing to take the risk of having your favorite writer’s reputation diminished, reading someone’s collected letters is one of the best ways to get a view into that person’s life. This week, BFGB will look at several collections of letters from noted writers.
E. B. White is perhaps best known for his children’s books; Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little have delighted generations of readers. He was also a masterful essayist as well as a writer of light verse. During his years with The New Yorker, White had a hand in a wide variety of types of writing.
White was also a prolific letter writer, and this collection includes letters written between 1908 and 1976. Over the course of his 70-year epistolary history, White wrote to family, friends, agents and editors, fans, and other writers. The letters in this collection not only give a history of White himself but also present a view of the literary and cultural history of the U.S. in the 20th century. Of particular interest are the letters to those writers, editors, and staff at the newly launched New Yorker. White’s letters open up a new vista on the development of a magazine and on the passion and wit of the people that Harold Ross brought together in the 1920s. White’s letters of support to other writers are also fascinating. He excelled at giving a boost, or sometimes a kick, when it was needed.
Like his essays and his fiction, White’s letters reflect his concern with writing clear, spare prose. “Omit needless words” was his battle cry (learned from his Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr., whose Elements of Style White later reissued). Anyone who enjoys E. B. White’s writing for adults or children will find something to enjoy in this fascinating collection of letters.
Check the WRL catalog for Letters of E. B. White