Approximately 40 years ago, a young high school student penned a letter to one of Cornell’s most celebrated alumni, author E.B. White 1921, to say that his faith in education and writing had been restored after reading White’s work. That high school student grew up to be a writer and comedian: Conan O’Brien.
On Dec. 5, O’Brien posted a picture of his letter to his Twitter account. In a subsequent tweet, O’Brien shared that White had written a young O’Brien back — a letter he now has framed in his home.
A few weeks ago on my podcast, I mentioned a letter I wrote to E.B. White when I was in high school. The good people at E. B. White's archives in @Cornell_Library managed to track that letter down. pic.twitter.com/bLivTJrEA2
— Conan O'Brien (@ConanOBrien) December 5, 2019
After mentioning the correspondence on his podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” staff working for the E.B. White Collection in the Carl A. Kroch Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections managed to trackdown the decades-old letter.
“A library colleague and I are fans of the ‘Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend’ podcast and noticed that in an episode with Zach Galifianakis, Conan brought up the fact that he wrote White a letter while he was in high school,” Mauren Morris, a Research and Learning Services Librarian, said in an email to The Sun. “We reached out to Katherine Reagan, the curator for the collection, and asked if we could investigate.”
After combing through approximately thirteen boxes of letters with a group of volunteers, Morris found the original letter from O’Brien, along with White’s response.
“We were excited to find it,” Morris explained. “In addition to the success of locating the letter, we also all really enjoyed engaging with this collection and getting to see the thoughtfulness that White had in responding to his readers.”
In the letter sent to White, a young O’Brien wrote, “Whatever the reason, I thought I should tell you that I enjoyed both your letter and your essays very much,” telling the esteemed author that while he too had considered becoming a writer, he worried about not taking criticism well.”
O’Brien continued the letter by praising White’s essay “Walden,” noting that White was able to tackle a difficult topic in perspective and even “held an 11th grader’s attention.”
To conclude the letter, O’Brien asked for a response from the Cornell alumnus and said that White had restored his faith in education and essay writing.
In January of 1980, White wrote back to O’Brien.
“I thank you for your letter and am pleased to learn that I restored somebody’s faith in education,” White wrote. “You, on your part, restored mine — by writing a legible and well-constructed letter.”
White ended his letter by telling O’Brien that if he does not take criticism well, he will have a “rough time” as a writer.
White, a Mount Vernon, New York native, served as an Army private before coming to Cornell, where he was nicknamed “Andy” after Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, according to the Division of Rare & Manuscript Collection’s website.
A former editor-in-chief of The Sun, White went on to gain recognition as a columnist for the New Yorker Magazine. Some of his best-known published work include “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.”
White died in 1985 after a battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Twenty years before his death, he had agreed to keep his literary and personal papers in one of Cornell’s Library. Today, the collection holds more than 250 boxes of various letters, drafts and artifacts from White’s life, according to Katherine Reagan, the Ernest Stern Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts.
“When important authors save their papers, and transfer them to rare book and manuscript libraries, they enable scholars to study their work for generations to come,” Reagan said in an email to The Sun. “It serves as a source of scholarship, inspiration, and enjoyment for faculty, students, alumni and members of the public.”