Home » Pearls from EB White: Writings From The New Yorker 1927-1976

Pearls from EB White: Writings From The New Yorker 1927-1976

EB White, Writings From The New Yorker

On Monday, man may be hysterical with doom and on Tuesday you will find him opening the Doomsday Bar & Grill and settling down for another thousand years of terrifying queerness.

I picked up an old copy of E.B. White’s Writings From The New Yorker 1927-1976 from a rack at the Berkeley Book Fair, and this is the best $2 I have spent all year.

I said in a recent post that Tim Krabbe’s The Rider is my most frequently gifted and recommend book of all time but — upon further reflection — this is not true. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White is actually my most gifted book, because I’ve bought a copy for everyone I’ve ever hired. It’s the most practical book on grammar I’ve ever read.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”  – The Elements of Style

I digested E.B.’s little snippets over the course of a couple weeks, a few at a time over breakfast and before bed, or just whenever I had a couple minutes. Part of the enjoyment was retrieving this book as it drifted all around my house.

It’s remarkable how fresh these editorials feel. Many are older than the microwave oven and could easily fit into the magazine today. White has a keen sense for the cultural undulations of society but, more often than not, he sets all that aside to focus on the universals, such as weather or breakfast.

Like John McPhee, another prolific contributor to the New Yorker and one of my favorite nonfiction writers, White charms readers with a blend of honest sarcasm and common sense wisdom, as much today as 90 years ago.

Reading White’s editorials is also nostalgic. There is a nostalgia for journalism — a feeling for a time when dignified staff writers of dignified publications ruminated on their work “in the deep noonday shadows of the Roosevelt Grill” and readers savored the nooks and margins of those publications over their own lunches, commutes, and in their afterdinner livingrooms. There is a nostalgia for the romantic vision of old New York (a proxy for the romantic vision of old America). These editorials are a time capsule of the city in the same way Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days are capsule of the same city almost a full century earlier.

Below are a few pearls from Elwyn Brooks — Writings From The New Yorker 1927-1976.

If you like these, Essays of E. B. White is an excellent collection of his longer writing. Many of these essays and others are available online at The New Yorker for free.

All beginnings are wonderful. – EB White

It is a wearisome thing to be overdressed in the early morning. – EB White

No one can talk knowingly of weather who walks bent over on wet days. – EB White

College students are quick to explore any ethical concept which has the double bloom of intellectuality and sin. – EB White

[On the New Yorker’s editorial style] The system is this: We write as we please, and the magazine publishes as *it* pleases. – EB White

The more devious the motives of his employer, the more difficult for a writer to write as he pleases. – EB White

A person really flows as a satirist when he first slips *out* of control, and a working satirist (of whom there are woefully few in any country) careens as wildly as a car with no brakes…for the spirit of satire is the spirit of independence. – EB White, 1949

Americans are willing to go to enormous trouble and expense defining their principles with arms, very little trouble and expense advocating the with words. – EB White, 1950

Misinformation, even when it is not deliberate, is at the bottom of much human misery. – EB White, 1950

Nothing is so suspect as humor, nothing so surely brands a work of art or politics as second-rate. – EB White 1952

“Walden” is the only book I own, although there are some others unclaimed on my shelves. – EB White

The value of the liberal in the republic I not that he is logical but that he is inquisitive. – EB White, 1948

The independent liberal, whether walking by his wild lone or running with a pack, is an essential ingredient in the two-party system in America–as strange and vital as the trace elements in out soil. – EB White, 1948

The liberal holds that he is true to the republic when he is true to himself. – EB White

The dog often influences the course the man takes, on his long walk; for sometimes a fog runs into something in nature so arresting the not even a man can quite ignore it, and the man deviates. – EB White

The total collapse of public opinion polls shows that the country is in good health. – EB White, 1948

It is paradoxical that the more secure a person gets in a material way, the less secure he may become in other ways. The least secure fellows you see around, in any age or period, are the big fellows, with their personal empires and kingdoms and all the responsibilities and ulcers that go with kinging. – EB White

Liberty is not secure. Democracy does not thrive unassisted. – EB White

People will hold together and continue to hold together, even in the face of abrupt and unfounded charges calculated to destroy. – EB White

The world is in the odd position of being intellectually committed to war, spiritually committed to it. – EB White

There out to be a healthy debate going on today–a debate between capitalism and socialism, between individualism and statism. The curtain has prevented this debate from taking place, and although there is plenty of talk in the forum, we are really stuck with the fact of having no discussion. – EB White

Any husband who loses interest in the drama of family life as it unfolds isn’t worth his salt. – EB White

I think its probably more fun being a friend of writers and artists in America than in the Soviet Union, because you don’t know in advance what they’re up to. – EB White

At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again after a decade or two of conservatism. – EB White

Science cannot possibly serve people well till it belongs openly to all and associates itself with wisdom and sense–those contaminating but healthful influences. – EB White

That is the whole secret of the sun–to receive it willingly. – EB White

To pursue truth, one should not be too deeply entrenched in any hole. It is best to have a strong curiosity, weak affiliations. – EB White

A healthy university in a healthy democracy is a free society in miniature. The pesky nature of democratic life is that it has no comfortable rigidity; it always hangs by a thread, never quite submits to consolidation, is always being challenged, always being defended. – EB White, 1949

If dog continues to eat dog, there will only be one dog left, and he will be sick to his stomach. – EB White

Advertisers are the interpreters of our dreams–Joseph interpreting Pharaoh. Like the movies, they infect the routine futility of our days with purposeful adventure. Their weapons are our weaknesses: fear, ambition, illness, pride, selfishness, desire, ignorance. All these weapons must be kept bright as a sword. – EB White, 1936

Fundamentally, toys don’t change as much as we imagine. – EB White

The human race has done nothing much about changing its own appearance to conform to the firm ad treasure if its appurtenances. – EB White

The [Museum of Modern Art] has a rather dreadful knack of giving an oversoul to a ripsaw and imbuing the future with undigested beauty. – EB White

Like radio, televise hangs on the questionable theory that whatever happens anywhere should be sensed everywhere. If everyone is going to be able to see everything, in the long run all sights may lose whatever rarity value they once possessed, and it may well turn out that people, being able to see and hear practically everything will be specially interested in almost nothing. – EB White, 1948

Possessions breed like mice. A man forgets what a raft of irrelevant junk he has collected about him until he tries to move it. – EB White

Certainly no other animal fouls his nest so cheerily and persistently as Man, or acts so surprised and sore about it afterward. – EB White

Truly, a nation in search of a frontier is in the devil of a fine fix. – EB White, 1939

On Monday, man may be hysterical with doom and on Tuesday you will find him opening the Doomsday Bar & Grill and settling down for another thousand years of terrifying queerness. – EB White


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