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'Life of the Imagination': 15 Quotes From E.B. White

E.B. White was a writer, editor, and children’s author — and, according to his friend and fellow New Yorker contributor James Thurber, a fan of fire escapes as a means to avoid awkward interactions. Noting that White preferred anonymity to celebrity, Thurber once wrote, “Most of us, out of a politeness made up of faint curiosity and profound resignation, go out to meet the smiling stranger with a gesture of surrender and a fixed grin, but White has always taken to the fire escape.” It’s an ironic fact, given that White’s work is so influential: His children’s novels — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan — have all become staples in libraries, and his 1948 essay “Here Is New York” is still heralded as a quintessential depiction of the isolation and anonymity that the city offers.

Originally from Mount Vernon, New York, E.B. White was born Elwyn Brooks White, though his closest friends knew him later in life as “Andy.” (This was based on a tradition at the writer’s alma mater, Cornell University, that gave the moniker to anyone with the last name “White” in honor of Cornell cofounder Andrew Dickson White.) White’s unadorned prose appealed to readers of all ages, and frequent topics included rural life, animals, and nature. In addition to penning award-winning children’s novels and contributing to The New Yorker for several decades, he is also known for updating and editing The Elements of Style, a guidebook that is still used in composition classes today. Needless to say, the impact of White’s words have carried on long past his time on Earth. Below, we’ve rounded up 10 of his most insightful quotes, spanning everything from his attitude toward hope to the role of imagination in art.

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.

A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered.

Life's meaning has always eluded me and I guess it always will. But I love it just the same.

Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

Semicolons only prove that the author has been to college.

I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.

[Children] are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.... Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words and they backhand them across the net.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed.

But real life is only one kind of life — there is also the life of the imagination.

​Necessity first mothered invention. Now invention has little ones of her own, and they look just like grandma.

If a man is in health, he doesn't need to take anybody else's temperature to know where he is going.

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. Hope is the one thing left to us in a bad time.

Once in everyone's life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep.

I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn't know where else to go.

Photo credit: New York Times Co./ Contributor

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About the Author
Joyce Chen
Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and community builder based in Seattle, Washington.
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