Omit Needless Words
A visit to the Maine home of E.B. White, author of "Charlotte's Web" and "The Elements of Style," two of the most beloved books in the English language.
- Story and photos by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
He wrote in his boat house, hauling a typewriter in a wheelbarrow at day’s beginning and end. A commute, if you will.
If you are not sure where to begin a search, go to the library. As is the case in most of Maine’s tailored towns, Friend Memorial Public Library was the loveliest building in the burg of Brooklin. You have to trust a region that values its libraries enough to make them shine.
E.B. White is one of my literary heroes. He wrote thousands of well-chosen words for the New Yorker Magazine over five decades. He wrote books for children, including the classic Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. There are thick collections of his memorable letters.
But the book I hold dearest is The Elements of Style, which White co-authored with his former Cornell University professor William Strunk Jr. “No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume,” The Boston Globe raved upon the publication of the third edition of the perennial bestseller.
It is true. Better than grammatical rules reviewed is the “style approach” White made simple. Write with nouns and verbs. Do not overwrite. Avoid fancy words. And so on.
It is the bible of spare, understandable writing. If you’ve ever written so much as a letter, you need this book. Beware, however, it will make you a vicious critic of some of the over-wrought writing in vogue these days. Pat Conroy, for instance, would have struggled in Strunk’s class or under a White edit; Donna Tartt would have flunked and fled.
I found White’s grave at the back of the big city cemetery simply by figuring he’d take the same approach to death as he had to writing. Keep it simple.
There he was – Elwyn Brooks White – beneath a plain Jane marker next to his wife, Katharine Angell, also of New Yorker fame. Name, date of birth, date of death. That’s it. I half expected to see someone’s worn copy of “Elements” on top of the grave, but White’s devotees would never part with their copies. I have the one I bought at Auburn in 1971 and my late husband’s dog-eared copy.
The librarian was helpful and pointed out gifts from the Whites. There were two original Garth Williams drawings from the Stuart Little manuscript. The library has a small garden outside named for Katharine and E.B. White, who supported it with both money and hard work. Katharine helped with the garden design.
I went to the general store across the street and bought a scone and a t-shirt. I doubt if White hung out there much as he avoided strangers who felt like they knew him.
James Thurber wrote White would use the fire escape to get away from The New Yorker office whenever visitors he did not know arrived.
“He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea and the Stork Club. His life is his own….”
He’s been dead since 1985, but it still felt awkward hunting E.B. White. But I wanted to pay respects, that’s all. So many times he’s saved me from myself.
Rather, very, little, pretty – these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words….
That’s the kind of advice that helps a writer, day after day, word after word.
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