E. B. White

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What is White's purpose in the essay "Once More to the Lake"?

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In this emotionally complex essay, White processes a trip he took with his own son to revisit a lake where his family vacationed when he was a child.

The return to a place of childhood memories is complicated because he is now the parent of a son the age he was when he first vacationed at the lake. His memories of being a carefree child on the lake are now overlaid with the realization that he has taken on the role of his father. He sees in memory the boy he once was and also sees superimposed over that the reality that his son has now assumed his childhood role. He both remembers his father and realizes that he now is playing his father's role.

The fact that he is no longer a carefree boy playing on the lake with an endless vista of future ahead brings home to White the reality of his own mortality. Time passes. All people grow up, grow old, and die. Memories become bittersweet because they reinforce that time has passed and can't return.

White impresses on us that repeating what you did in childhood as an adult is likely to bring up a complicated set of emotions because of the different perspectives you bring to bear on the same scene.

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E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake" is a deeply personal essay and clearly has more than one purpose. One reason for writing is to record his memories of a place he loved as a child and the experience of revisiting it as an adult. Another is to mark the change in his impressions—from a feeling that everything is exactly as it was when he was a child (the dragonfly which alights on the tip of his fishing rod creates this impression) to a slow realization that many things about the lake have changed (brought on by the jarring note of the outboard motors).

Another purpose of the essay is to meditate on the transience of human life and to find some comfort in the face of death. White is alarmed that he is now the father watching his son as his father, not so long ago, watched him. He attempts to find some solace in the continuity of experience—his son is feeling the same sensations and emotions as he did, so far as he can tell, but he returns to the chill of death as the ineluctable central fact one faces in considering the passage of time.

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E.B. White wrote such classic children novels as Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. White was quoted about writing:

I find that writing is difficult and bad for one's disposition."

Strange thoughts from an award winning author.  Mr. White changes his genre to essay in "Once More to the Lake" written in 1941.

His essay is easily readable, and his diction is simplistic.    His descriptions and imagery include White's past and present memories. The narration is first person through the eyes and voice of the author. On the other hand, White's theme is more illusive. This retrospection allows the reader to slip behind the wall of time and memories to watch a son and father enjoy the America dream, a vacation.

Reflecting on childhood memories, the author recalls  a trip back to the place where he had spent summer vacations with his parents and siblings.  This event, both pleasurable and melancholy, challenges White to look back at his relationship with his own father.  Now that he has returned, White realizes that some things do not vary, and other things a person cannot stop from changing.  He and his son stay in the same cabin near the same dock on the same lake as White had done in his childhood.  Over and again, the author comments that "there has been no years gone by." Apparently, he felt that he had traveled back in time; and though several decades had passed, everything was the same. 

Often, White experiences the feeling of being in the boy's place. He  remembers a path used by a horse-drawn carriage that had three tracks.  Through technology, there were now only two tire tracks left.  For a moment, he misses terribly the middle alternatives.  This time spent with his son has a spiritual quality.  To the narrator,  the woods and its surroundings were like a cathedral. 

The last image that White relates explains the theme of his essay.  It occurs during a rain shower, symbolic of a rebirth.  His son slips on his swim trunks, and the author feels himself doing the same thing years before. Suddenly he feels a "chill of death" come over him. The memories of his father and his own mortality shudder through his body.

The author experiences with his son the same as he encountered with his own father a generation before.  The role of technology, the nature of memory, and the passage of time--these all impact White's identity as the father now and the child decades before.  The contrast between his pleasant memories with the complex emotions bring the author peace and yet confusion.

This joyful time White and his son spend together lapses into the author focusing on his own mortality and accepting that some day he will only be a memory like his own father. White does not drown his reader with sentimentality but reminisces about the past and revels in the present time with his son.


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