'On Democracy': E.B. White's works remain relevant

By Gabriel Blodgett | May 14, 2019
Courtesy of: White Literary LLC Martha White and her grandfather E.B. White on his dock in Allen Cove about 1956.

Rockport — In two decades as literary executor of E.B. White’s estate, Martha White has become very familiar with her grandfather’s works.

The job has led her on several journeys to his alma mater, Cornell University, where she said there is a wall of shelves in the library containing “virtually everything he’s ever done.” She has edited a collection of letters, compiled a book of quotations, and even assembled "E.B. White on Dogs."

“I thought I was done at that point,” she said with a wry smile.

She planned to refocus on her own writing career, which has included 17 years as a contributing editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac and freelance work for a number of national publications.

In the aftermath of the “pretty discouraging” 2016 election, however, White found herself continually thinking back to pieces she had read that speak to the tumultuous political climate.

Noting his “uncanny ability to write in a way that remains very current,” she said she began writing letters to newspaper editors and politicians quoting passages she felt were particularly relevant to current events, but felt that she wanted to do more.

So she began assembling "E.B. White On Democracy," a collection of more than 50 essays, letters and poems that touch on freedom, truth, nationalism, free press and fascism, among many other topics related to democracy that continue to play a significant role in the national conversation. The book was released May 7 and is available online and at local book stores.

E.B. White was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1899 and was raised with an earnest belief in the superiority of democratic rule and the personal freedom it provided, according to his granddaughter and the introduction written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian Jon Meacham.

"On Democracy" begins with quotations from each of White’s three popular children’s books; "Charlotte’s Web," "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet of the Swan," which Martha White said show how an overarching belief in fairness and democracy permeated all his literary works.

The quotations also demonstrate his unique ability to write about complicated concepts in accessible terms, something White said was one of his greatest attributes.

“He saw things in a day-to-day way,” she said, and was able to communicate not only the political ramifications of global events, but the personal impact: “This is what it would mean if we lost our freedoms.”

This ability to connect to a wide range of audiences also shows in the diversity of his writing style. The book includes essays, largely from the New Yorker, where he was a contributing writer for more than 50 years, as well as letters to numerous publications, such as the Bangor Daily News and Ellsworth American. White also chose to include poetry in the book, in part to further illustrate her grandfather's “unconventional ways of telling important stories.”

“He would have loved to be a poet,” she added; often the poems were funny and satirical pieces he wrote never knowing if they would amount to anything.

His life and writing career spanned a number of seismic changes in American culture, but through it all he maintained a self-admitted childlike optimism about the potential of democracy. Even as he routinely questioned the path of the country, calling out such threats as more concentrated ownership of the press, overzealous nationalism and the spread of fascism, his idealism regarding the institutions of democracy remained intact.

“Democracy,” he wrote in 1943 “is the recurrent suspicion that over half the people are right over half the time.”

In “Intimations,” an essay written shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he discussed the idea of supranationalism, a system of democratic world government, which he later expanded on in "The Wild Flag," excerpted in "On Democracy.". While most of the critiques of the system were based on its apparent impracticality, White refers to his faith as “intuitive rather than reasonable.”

Martha White views this as an example of his idealism and belief that just because “you couldn’t figure out how to make it work, didn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

Although there are undoubtedly cautionary aspects, White said she believed the book would provide a hopeful message to readers, who will find reassurance in the notion that “we’ve been here before.”

She concluded by saying the letter she receives the most requests for permission to quote is a March 1973 letter White wrote to Mr. Nadeau, a fan who wrote to him discouraged about the course of the Vietnam War. In his response White wrote, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate… things can look dark, then a break in the clouds, and all is changed, rather suddenly.”

Martha White will appear at the Space Gallery in Portland Tuesday, June 11, at 7 p.m. as part of a panel put on by the gallery and Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance to discuss the book.

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