A Lucky Man and The Voice of An Undertaker: E.B. White and Jean Stafford

Writers E.B. White and Jean Stafford were born in July, he in 1899 and she in 1915; he in Mt. Vernon, a suburb of New York City, and she in California. Their life stories were as different as their writing, although each was touched by greatness, and much in their lives unfolded in the midtown Manhattan offices of The New Yorker magazine.

E.B. White needs no introduction, but it is sad to write that Jean Stafford may. Stafford published three novels (Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and The Catherine Wheel) in the 1940s and 1950s, and published wonderful short stories in The New Yorker containing characters like Lottie Jump in “Bad Characters.” Her habits served her private life on a platter, and at times overshadowed her talent during her life, and certainly after her life, since her biographers tended to embrace what Joyce Carol Oates termed “pathography.” Stafford’s alcoholism was described as the stuff of legends, and is generally recorded in anything written about her in the first or second sentence, often overshadowing her great talent as reported by those with much less. Anything written about her first husband, poet Robert Lowell, generally begins with a phrase like “brilliant but mentally unstable,” and only eventually reveals the story of his drunken car crash in which Stafford nearly died (he walked away unscathed).

In spite of all the turmoil, she continued to write and publish, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970. Describing her writer’s voice as “the voice of an undertaker,” Stafford may have referred to the authorial vivisection she practiced with wry humor, to the great enrichment and pleasure of her readers. There are few better examples of this talent than the non-fiction book she wrote about Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, A Mother In History. A remarkable book, it was written using the interviews Stafford conducted while living with Mrs. Oswald, as they sat in the kitchen, each in their dressing gowns.

In mid-life, Jean Stafford enjoyed a good marriage with journalist and New Yorker regular A.J. Liebling. He died a few years later, and she was not saved from her progressive illness, but she continued to write, although she never wrote fiction again. They are buried together in the Green River Cemetery, East Hampton, New York.

E.B. White had the perfect life. His childhood was idyllic (he and his siblings were raised by tolerant and affluent parents in a large house and yard from which he was free to roam, and the family spent every August together on a lake in Maine), and he enjoyed an adulthood nearly free from health problems and scandal (except when he married the divorced Katharine, and published, with James Thurber, Is Sex Necessary?), his one, long marriage a good one, with a family that included a son, a stepson, stepdaughter and grandchildren.

His writing was broad ranging, successful, and still cherished today; the clarity and simplicity of his writing is the perfect communication of his depth of feeling and the unique variety of his knowledge and interests. White wrote for The New Yorker (where he met his wife Katherine Angell, then the fiction editor, and later the author of Onward and Upward in the Garden), but he also wrote children’s classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and essays “Death of a Pig” and “Here is New York,” among so many other essays and letters. He also introduced the world to his Cornell professor’s grammar and style textbook, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., with White’s own several revisions, introduction, and a new chapter. Hence the birth of “the little book.”

E.B., or “Andy,” spent much of his life in small boats, from sailboats to canoes, fishing or hanging on by his fingernails when the crosswinds hit. He enjoyed everything about his large, old farmhouse and barn in Maine, including the inconveniences, his wife’s garden, the humor in the disasters, his constant observance of nature, and the long summer nights; everything, until his wife died. His biographer, Scott Elledge, reported that White responded personally to the hundreds of letters of condolence he received, many from those who had known his wife only through the Letters of E.B. White. To one he wrote, “I don’t know what I ever did to deserve a wife with Katharine’s qualities, but I have always had a lot of luck, and she was the most notable example.”


3 thoughts on “A Lucky Man and The Voice of An Undertaker: E.B. White and Jean Stafford

  1. This essay highlights the surprising fact that great creative talent takes root and emerges through strikingly different pathways. How different could the lives of these two writers be? Yet, both produced works of great meaning for readers. It is also a spur, for those of us who are not familiar with them, to read Stafford’s writings. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. I also appreciate the nudge to turn to Jean Stafford, a writer I have always connected with angst and pain – without knowing her works at all. Judging a writer without reading his/her works is a mistake, and keeps us from the possibility of riches. Jean and Mrs. Oswald in their dressing gowns – what an detail! I have a whole new view of her life – and work. Which I will now confirm by actually reading her work.

  3. What a sensitive knowledgeable piece of writing. Of course I know E. B. White pretty well but have only heard of Jean Stafford. I can see that I have a lot to enjoy. Thank you Constance!

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