E. B. White’s most important literary influence was Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), the only book White really cared about owning. The influence of Thoreau’s subtle humor and individualistic philosophy can be seen in White’s writing, including his short fiction. Like Thoreau, White believed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” that most people spend their lives getting ready to live but never actually living. White’s short stories usually deal with the quiet desperation of life in the big city, where human beings trapped in an unnatural environment are beset by stress and anxiety, often temporarily alleviated by alcohol, meaningless social activities, and unfulfilling work.
Whereas Thoreau wrote about the joy of living close to nature, White, as a New Yorker contributor, had to deal with the reverse side of the picture—the anomie of life in one of America’s most crowded, most competitive cities. When he managed to effect a Thoreauvian escape from New York to the peace and quiet of Maine, White lost interest in writing short stories.
White, like Thoreau, never lost his sense of humor even when dealing with depressing subjects. Most characteristic of White’s short stories is their strange mixture of humor and emotional distress. In this he resembles his friend and collaborator James Thurber, who defined humor as “emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity.” Thurber was a major influence on White, just as White was a major influence on Thurber. White’s stories would seem too morbid without their leavening of humor. White and Thurber were both admirers of Henry James, and that older writer’s high literary standards and dedication to his craft are obviously reflected in White’s short stories.
White’s most frequently anthologized story is an interior monologue reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness technique pioneered by James Joyce. White’s harrowing but courageously humorous story concerns a lonely individual having a nervous breakdown. The only other character is an unnamed receptionist who says, “We could take your name and send it to you.” Her unnerving—and ungrammatical—statement suggests that the protagonist, having lost his identity, must wait for someone to tell him who he is. He feels disoriented in a city whose friendly landmarks are being replaced by cold, forbidding modern buildings without character. He mentally equates the city with those cages in which psychologists condition laboratory rats to behave according to certain arbitrary rules, then drive them crazy by changing the rules. The protagonist goes on to reflect that he is not the only victim of “progress.” and I am not the only one either, he kept thinking—ask any doctor if I am. The doctors, they know how many there are, they even know where the trouble is only they don’t like to tell you about the prefrontal lobe because that means making a hole in your skull and removing the work of centuries.
“The Door” is a very personal story. White tried psychotherapy after a nervous breakdown but...
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