White History

E.B. White -- perhaps best known for Charlotte's Web or Strunk and White's Elements of Style -- was responsible, more than any other writer, for creating the distinctive voice of The New Yorker magazine. For the most part, he did this in the magazine's "Notes and Comment" section, which he wrote, with varying regularity, for fifty years.

Here are some excerpts from his "Notes and Comment" pieces:

5/28/27 : Lindbergh

The lonely Mr. Lindbergh made the hop without a cup of coffee. This fact alone startled fifty million Americans who have never been able to get through a working day without one. Furthermore, the flyer came down in France without saying that he did it for the kiddies -- un-American and unusual. We loved him immediately.

We noted that the Spirit of St. Louis had not left the ground ten minutes before it was joined by the Spirit of Me Too. A certain oil was lubricating the engine, a certain brand of tires was the cause of the safe take-off. When the flyer landed in Paris every newspaper was "first to have a correspondent at the plane." This was a heartening manifestation of that kinship that is among man's greatest exaltations. It was beautifully and tenderly expressed by the cable Ambassador Herrick sent the boy's patient mother: "Your incomparable son has done me the honor to be my guest." We liked that; and for twenty-four hours the world seemed pretty human. At the end of that time we were made uneasy by the volume of vaudeville contracts, testimonial writing and other offers, made by the alchemists who transmute glory into gold. We settled down to the hope that the youthful hero will capitalize himself for only as much money as he reasonably needs.

12/4/48 : Television

Like radio, television 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. Already you can detect the first faint signs of this apathy. Already manufacturers are trying to anticipate it, by providing the public with combination sets that offer a triple threat: radio, record playing, and television -- all three to be turned on at once, we presume.

Television, when it gets going, will almost certainly pick up and throw into one's home scenes it didn't reckon on when it set up its camera. There have already been examples of this. In London not long ago, a television broadcaster was giving his impressions of the zoo when a big lizard bit him on the finger. The technicians in charge of the broadcast, delighted at this turn of events, kept their camera trained on the spurting blood. Thus what had begun as a man's impression of an animal ended as an animal's impression of a man, and a few drops of private blood gained general currency and became a great pool of public blood, and the world immediately contained more persons who had seen a lizard bite a man.

11/30/63 : J.F.K.

When we think of him, he is without a hat, standing in the wind and the weather. He was impatient of topcoats and hats, preferring to be exposed, and he was young enough and tough enough to confront and to enjoy the cold and the wind of these times, whether the winds of nature or the winds of political circumstance and national danger. He died of exposure, but in a way that he would have settled for -- in the line of duty, and with his friends and enemies all around, supporting him and shooting at him. It can be said of him, as of few men in a like position, that he did not fear the weather, and did not trim his sails, but instead challenged the wind itself, to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.

7/26/69 : Moon

The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers who kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.