The warm reception of Letters of E. B. White in 1976 has led to the most welcome publication of a collection of thirty-one of White’s essays, most of which appeared originally in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other magazines over a span of more than forty years. The essays range in length from the two-page “Riposte,” answering J. B. Priestley’s assertion that Americans believe hen eggs are good only if they are white, to a twenty-six-page account of a voyage, remembered many years later, by a youthful and naïve Elwyn Brooks White from Seattle to Alaska and back in 1923. The arrangement of the book, as White says in a brief Foreword, is “by subject matter or by mood or by place, not by chronology.” There are seven groups of essays: “The Farm,” “The Planet,” “The City,” “Florida,” “Memories,” “Diversions and Obsessions,” and “Books, Men, and Writing.” Several essays have not been published before in book form.
“A loose sally of the mind,” wrote Dr. Johnson defining essay in his Dictionary, “an irregular indigested piece; not a regular or orderly composition.” The form (or lack of form) permits quick shifts from one topic to another and, in White’s practice, not only allows veering or tacking as with a whimsical wind pushing his sailboat on Penobscot Bay, but also includes many parenthetical interruptions not limited to a mere word or phrase. White likes parentheses, and his frequent use of them helps to make his essays sound like amiable talk from an intelligent, urbane man with some interesting comments to make and an often amusing way of making them. In “Coon Tree” he remarks that his doctor has ordered him to put his head in traction for ten minutes twice a day, and he parenthesizes: “Nobody can figure out what to do with my head, so now they are going to give it a good pull, like an exasperated mechanic who hauls off and gives his problem a smart jolt with the hammer.”
White’s parentheses usually contain no more than one sentence, if even that, but occasionally he needs more room. In enumerating and describing the changes that have “modernized” his old kitchen in Maine, he complains that there is no longer a tub to wash his dog in. Then he adds a parenthesis: “I give our current dachshund one bath a year now, in an old wash boiler, outdoors, finishing him off with a garden-hose rinse. He then rolls in the dirt to dry himself, and we are where we started.”
White has often been praised for his prose style, which is so easy and flowing that it seems effortless, but the casualness is deceptive; it has been carefully attained. Literary echoes sound occasionally, yet they are natural, not pretentious. As he listens to a farm helper spading rocky earth for the burial of a pig that has died after long suffering, White says somberly to himself, “Never send to know for whom the grave is dug, it’s dug for thee.” One winter in Maine he recalls how a Florida beach he used to enjoy visiting has been “developed” and thus has been ruined for him, and he indulges in a rueful biblical pun, “And if the surf hath lost its savor, wherewith shall we be surfeited?”
White’s occasional figures of speech reflect his experience of both rural life and city life. He looks at bundles of fir-balsam wreaths ready to be trucked from Maine to Boston or New York for the Christmas trade, and to him they are “aromatic dumplings [for] hungry dwellers in cities.” Young firs are also ready for the long haul, “standing as close together as theatergoers between the acts.” On another occasion he watches an old gander that has lost a fight with a young gander and has sat alone in the hot sun for two hours. “I felt deeply his sorrow and his defeat,” writes White. “I had seen his likes often enough on the benches of the treeless main street of a Florida city—spent old males, motionless in the glare of the day.”
When he was young, White tried writing verse and once had published in a Louisville newspaper a sonnet on a horse that won a race at Churchill Downs (beating a horse that White had bet on). In later years White occasionally returned briefly to verse, several examples of which he reprinted in The Second Tree from the Corner (1954), but he recognized early that his normal medium was prose. Yet the music and even the rhythm of poetry still sound in phrases and sentences of his later prose, as in “A Report in January,” written from his Maine home in 1958:The days ahead unroll in the mind, a scroll of blessed events in garden and in barn. Wherever you look, you see something that advertises the future: in the heifer’s sagging sides you see the calf, in the cock’s shrill crow you hear the pipping egg, in the cache of topsoil down cellar next the furnace you see the seedling, and even on the darkest day the seed catalogue gives off a gleam from some tomato of the first magnitude.
White and his beloved wife Katharine, who, following a long illness died shortly after Essays was published, had a number of homes during their forty-eight-year marriage. There were several apartments in New York—the opening essay, “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” describes the leaving of one of these—but “home” in the essays usually means the white farmhouse in North Brooklin, Maine, which the Whites bought in 1933 and in which White still lives, having, as he remarks in the Foreword to Essays, “finally come to rest.” This farm house is the scene of many of the best...
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