10 Surprising Facts About E.B. White
By Suzanne Raga
Born on July 11, 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, E.B. White wrote books, essays, and poems for both children and adults. Although you’ve probably read (and re-read) his books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, there’s so much more to learn about White. In honor of his birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about the author of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time.
1. E.B. White went by "Andy."
Although children around the world know him as E.B. White, his friends and family called him Andy for most of his life. Born Elwyn Brooks White on July 11, 1899, he got the nickname Andy while he was a student at Cornell University. He shared a last name with Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder and first president of Cornell, and Cornell tradition dictated that all students with the last name White were given the nickname Andy. This suited Elwyn just fine; he once said, "I never liked Elwyn. My mother just hung it on me because she'd run out of names. I was her sixth child." It stuck, and he went by Andy for the rest of his life.
2. E.B. White wrote an obituary his dog for The New Yorker.
White’s love of animals is evident in his writing, and his dog Daisy was no exception. In 1932, he wrote an obituary for Daisy after a New York City cab hit her in front of a florist’s shop on University Place. Published in The New Yorker, the obituary describes Daisy’s life, from her birth to her untimely death at 3 years old: “Her life was full of incident but not of accomplishment … Once she slipped her leash and chased a horse for three blocks through heavy traffic, in the carking belief that she was an effective agent against horses … She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”
3. E.B. White married his editor.
White began writing for The New Yorker in the mid 1920s. In 1926, he met Katharine Sergeant Angell, the magazine's fiction editor. Reminiscing about his first meeting with Katharine in the lobby of the magazine, he told The New York Times that she "had a lot of black hair and was very beautiful." Six years older than White, Katharine was a divorced mother with two kids, but the couple married in 1929 and eventually moved to a farmhouse in Maine.
"I soon realized I had made no mistake in my choice of a wife," White later said. "I was helping her pack an overnight bag one afternoon when she said, 'Put in some tooth twine.' I knew then that a girl who called dental floss tooth twine was the girl for me." Katharine continued to work remotely for The New Yorker, and the two were married until her death in 1977.
4. E.B. White's style guide for writers became a huge success.
The Elements of Style, a book that teaches people how to write effectively, clearly, and succinctly, is arguably the most famous writer’s bible in America. White’s English professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., originally wrote the book’s rules of grammar and composition in 1918. In 1959, White revised the book, and it has since sold millions of copies. In an interview with The Paris Review, White said: "My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar."
5. e.b. White was a hypochondriac.
Throughout his life, White was a hypochondriac who worried that, for example, his sunburn was a brain tumor or an ant bite was fatal. In a piece for The New Yorker, his stepson, Roger Angell, posited that White’s anxieties were due to his childhood. White was the youngest of six kids (his parents were in their 40s when he was born), so minor ailments—such as a cough or stomachache—would likely elicit more parental attention and nurturing as the cherished baby of the family.
6. e.b. White struggled with anxiety.
In addition to his hypochondria, White suffered from a general anxiety that began in childhood. He described himself as "frightened but not unhappy … I lacked for nothing except confidence." As an adult, he was anxious about subways crashing, meeting new people, and speaking in public. At restaurants, he was overly cautious about accidentally eating clams (he claimed one had poisoned him once). He skipped weddings, parties, his Presidential Medal of Freedom awards ceremony, and even his wife’s (private) burial service, describing his anxiety as a "peculiar kind of disability."
7. e.b. White was an avid sailor.
Despite his massive success as a writer, White disliked reading indoors, much preferring outdoor activities. "I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book," he remarked. That is, unless that book was about one of his favorite topics: sailing. “But when I latch onto a book like They Live by the Wind, by Wendell P. Bradley, I am glued tight to the chair. It is because Bradley wrote about something that has always fascinated (and uplifted) me—sailing." White injected his love of sailing into his book Stuart Little, which contains a sailboat race, and his son Joel became a world-renowned boat designer. Once, Joel made a boat named in honor of his daughter Martha, and White carved four dolphins on each side of the bow and sailed it afterward.
8. e.b. White fought to keep Hollywood's adaptation of Charlotte's Web true to the book.
In 1973, the animation studio Hanna-Barbera released an animated musical film version of Charlotte’s Web. The studio wanted to change the book’s ending by not having Charlotte die, but White pushed back against a happier ending. Although the studio obliged, White and his wife reportedly hated the animated Charlotte’s Web, regretting that it was made and calling it a travesty.
9. E.B. White was a major procrastinator.
White was open about his struggles with writing and procrastination. In an interview, he revealed that he would walk around his house, straightening picture frames and rugs, before sitting down to write. "Delay is natural to a writer," White admitted. But he cautioned that writers have to somehow conquer procrastination: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."
10. E.B. White fought Alzheimer's disease with grace and humor.
Before White died in October 1985, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. His son read his father’s books and essays aloud, and White usually enjoyed hearing his writing. Because he didn’t remember that he was the author of the words, he would pooh-pooh some passages, saying that the writing wasn’t good enough. But when he liked other passages, he would ask his son, Joel, who wrote the words. "You did, Dad," Joel said. White replied, "Well, not bad."