In March of 1961, nine years after the publication of Charlotte’s Web, author E. B. White received a letter from a young fan named Cathy Durham who wanted to know when, if ever, his next children’s book would see the light of day. He replied, in part:
“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.'”
White’s letter soon found its way into the hands of Cathy’s librarian, who immediately sent it back to him and complained of his “cruel” tone. Some weeks later, White responded to the librarian with the following letter.
North Brooklin, Maine
May 7, 1961
Dear Miss B.,
I’m sorry this letter has been put off for so long, but there has been serious illness in my family and I have let things slide in consequence.
I was surprised when my letter to Cathy Durham was returned to me by you. Of the thousands of letters I have written to children, it’s the only one that has bounced, and I don’t feel quite sure what happened. I assume you were disinclined to exhibit it, but I think the letter belongs to Cathy and if you’ll send me her address I’ll return it—she might like to have it about twenty years from now when she can fully understand what it is all about.
Cathy, as I recall it, asked me why I had not written another book for children, so I told her. (I don’t always tell the exact, whole truth to children, but my tendency is to do just that.) Then I made what I considered was a little joke: I suggested a movement in America called “Don’t write to E. B. White until he produces another book.” In all this I see nothing ungracious or cruel. I do see that I raised a question that should be of interest to librarians and school teachers, namely, should they, in their zeal to put children in touch with books, also attempt to put them in touch with authors?
The practice of having youngsters write to authors is now widespread. It is an innocent, and perhaps laudable, diversion; but it has arithmetical consequences that teachers and librarians seem unaware of. The author is hopelessly outnumbered. You, as a librarian, tend to think of your exhibit as an isolated case, but it is one of thousands. The result is the author swamped with mail. Letters now come to me faster than I can answer them. Many of the letters contain requests—for an autograph, for a dust jacket, for an explanation, for a photograph. This to me presents a real problem. I have no secretary here at home, and if I am to deal with my mail I must do it myself; if I am to mail a book I must find the wrapping paper, the string, the energy, the right amount of stamps, and take the parcel to the post office up the road. This can occupy a whole morning, and often does.
I haven’t solved this problem and don’t really know what I shall do. I may give up answering letters, or, as some writers do, throw them back on the publisher—which seems to me evasive and unsatisfying.
About four years ago, I had an idea for a story for children. It seemed like such a pleasant idea that I spent my spare time for several weeks doing research and making notes—the raw material of a book. I put everything in a folder and there it still lies, awaiting a spell when I feel enough caught up with life to tackle the writing. Every once in a while I take this folder out and examine it, hungrily. But then I look at my desk where the unanswered letters and the undone things lie in accusing piles, and I stick the folder back in its corner.
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.)
Margaret Mitchell once remarked: “It is a full-time job to be the author ‘Gone With the Wind.'” This remark greatly impressed me, as being an admission of defeat, American style. (Miss Mitchell, incidentally, was not overstating the matter—she never produced another book.) I don’t want being the author of “Charlotte’s Web” to be a full-time job or even a part-time job. It seems to me that being an author is a silly way to spend one’s day.
If I caused Cathy any uneasiness by telling her a literary truth that is perhaps beyond her immediate comprehension, I am indeed sorry. But the letter, I think, properly belonged in your exhibit and you should have boldly stuck it on the wall, where it might have stirred the interest of visitors concerned with school and library practice.
E. B. White