Even E.B. White Felt Overwhelmed by His Inbox

In a 1961 letter, the author of "Charlotte's Web" revealed that he hated how his "morning mail" kept him from actually doing work.


E.B. White is, by all accounts, a rather ideal human specimen. An apparently kind and considerate and funny fellow, he spent most of his life writing for the New Yorker, is known now popularly for his children books, and he lives on intellectually as the stern but caring steward of the English language who co-authored the Elements of Style.

In all things, he seems non-neurotic: A respectful, responsibile, reasonable, healthy person, sanely observing the world.

So today's post on the Letters of Note blog, kept by Shaun Usher, attracted my attention. Nine years after Harper & Brothers published White's Charlotte's Web, in the early spring of 1961, a girl named Cathy Durham asked him when his next children's book would come out. He replied:

I would like to write another book for children but I spend all my spare time just answering the letters I get from children about the books I have already written. So it looks like a hopeless situation unless you can start a movement in America called 'Don't write to E. B. White until he produces another book.'

The letter somehow got into the hands of Ms. Durham's librarian, who wrote to Write to protest its cruelty. White replied. Usher has that reply in full, which is well worth reading, but the paragraph that most drew my attention was:

When I was a child, I liked books, but an author to me was a mythical being. I never dreamed of getting in touch with one, and no teacher ever suggested that I do so. The book was the thing, not the man behind the book. I'm not at all sure that this separation of author and reader isn't a sound idea, although there are plenty of teachers and plenty of writers who would disagree. It is somewhat a matter of temperament, I guess. A lot of writers thrive on a rich diet of adulation and inquiry and contact; they like to read from their works, sign their name on flyleafs, and take tea. Other writers are very anxious to do anything that will promote the sale of their book, and they spend much time and energy fanning any spark of public interest. As for me, as soon as I get a book out of my system, I like to forget about it and get on with something else. So in the long run, although I'm not immune to praise and to friendliness, I get impatient with the morning mail, because it is, in a sense, my enemy--the thing that stands between me and a final burst of creative effort. (I'm sixty-one and working against time.)

The equanimous E.B. White, lord of language, couldn't manage his inbox either. In fact, his inbox made him so cantankerous he complained to little children about it.

It's a reminder that the perils of too much information have been with us for much longer than the Internet. (For another example, see Percy Bysshe Shelley fretting over information overload two centuries ago.) We are not alone in our despair over our runaway time, and the technology of email, at least, is not to blame.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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