Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1292
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 was disappointed, as evidenced in another autobiographical story, “The Second Tree from the Corner.” “The Door” also shows White’s concern about the corruption of the English language through crass commercialism and general vulgarization of culture. He was appalled by the proliferation of ugly, newly coined words which this story mimics with his own coinages such as “flexsan,” “duroid,” and “thrutex.” For White such perversions of language were symptomatic of the destruction of human values by the blind onrush of science and technology driven by avarice and consumerism.
“The Second Tree from the Corner”
White described this story as “the one where the fellow says goodbye to sanity.” Here the nameless protagonist of “The Door” is called Trexler and has gotten past the receptionist into the psychiatrist’s inner sanctum. The humor is contained in the contrast between materialistic doctor and idealistic patient. Little is accomplished during five sessions, until the psychiatrist asks, “What do you want?” Trexler puts the doctor on the defensive by asking the same question. The doctor thinks he knows what he wants: “ a wing on the small house I own in Westport. I want more money, and more leisure to do the things I want to do.” Trexler refrains from asking, “And what are those things you want to do, Doctor?” The overworked psychiatrist has no idea what he really wants—and everyone is in the same boat. This insight ends psychotherapy. Outside, when Trexler notices the remarkable beauty of the second tree from the corner, he experiences an epiphany. Intentionally echoing the conclusion of Henry James’s short story “The Beast in the Jungle,” White writes:He felt content to be sick, unembarrassed at being afraid; and in the jungle of his fear he glimpsed (as he had so often glimpsed them before) the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage.
“The Second Tree from the Corner” is a humorous way of dramatizing Thoreau’s painful truth that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” White found contentment by moving from the bedlam of Manhattan to a farm in Maine. There he discovered what he really wanted: peace, quiet, and simplicity, work to occupy his hands, and a rational way of life close to nature.
White Preposterous parables wrote many satirical pieces he called “preposterous parables.” “The Hour of Letdown” is a spinoff of countless jokes in which a man brings a talking dog into a saloon. Instead of a dog, the stranger brings a chess-playing machine, which has many human characteristics, including a thirst for rye whiskey. White was foretelling the future. Computers do not yet need alcoholic beverages, but they can now beat world chess champions. Intelligent machines are becoming indispensable to modern society, while displacing millions from jobs and creating new problems as fast as they help solve the old. Electronic engineers are experimenting with improvements to make computers superior to humans in more ways. At the end of the story the stranger leaves in his car with the machine driving. This may have seemed absurd in 1951, but computers now operate automobiles on freeways and perform better in stressful traffic conditions than their owners.
“The Morning of the Day They Did It” is narrated by a space orbiter who survived the nuclear holocaust that destroyed all life on earth. It might be described as a cautionary science-fiction story, warning readers what would happen if science and technology advanced faster than human moral and spiritual development. White advocated a democratic world government to create universal peace and prosperity.
In “Quo Vadimus” (Latin for “Where are we going?”), two strangers stop on a Manhattan sidewalk and begin an impromptu philosophical discussion in the midst of pedestrians rushing in both directions. It turns out that one man was hurrying to deliver a note regarding a petty change in a salesman’s instruction book. The other confesses that he was on his way to the office to write an article about complexity, which nobody may have time to read. Both agree they have lost sight of what is essential and are trapped in lives of quiet desperation. The man planning to write the article predicts that modern life can only get more complicated. By implication, the scurrying pedestrians blindly jostling them on the sidewalk are all on equally trivial errands.
White’s “Preposterous parables,” like most of his stories, have a common theme: Man is becoming dehumanized by his own inventions. Progress is a double-edged sword. Consumerism does not lead to happiness but to anxiety and wage slavery. The problems that troubled White during the relatively simple period when he was writing for The New Yorker continue to grow more ominous and perplexing in the new millennium.
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