Essays of E. B. White

by E. B. White

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Essays of E. B. White

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2271

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 pieces in Essays, whether they were written there or not.

Readers of White’s volume of letters or of most of his earlier books may remember that he finds nature’s creatures—from insects all the way up the evolutionary ladder to man—by turns entertaining, amusing, or enlightening and sometimes saddening or almost maddening. Animals and birds, both wild and domesticated, often appear as characters, either major or minor, in his verse, his fiction, and his essays. He once wrote a seriocomic ode on a cow that had died from a bee sting, and the protagonists of all three of his books for children are nonhuman, although Stuart Little combines the appearance of a mouse with the speech and other characteristics of a highly intelligent and well-mannered boy.

In the early 1930’s White had a Scotch terrier named Daisy (“an opinionated little bitch”) who purportedly wrote several letters to Mrs. White reporting on the activities and troubles of her husband. One of Daisy’s newsy letters is included in Letters of E. B. White, and her obituary appears in White’s Quo Vadimus? (1939). Of the whole series of dachshunds that show up in White’s writings over the years, Fred is the chief, an energetic, troublesome, and yet endearing dog (Fred’s dead now, dammit, as White once wrote) who is as unforgettable to White’s readers as he is to his former master. Fred furnishes the comic relief in “Death of a Pig,” which is reprinted in “The Farm” section of Essays. The piece is a sad and ironic story of a pig which is bought to be fattened and then slaughtered for his pork but which White goes to extraordinary trouble to try to save from dying of an undetermined illness that finally destroys him. During the several days and nights of the struggle, Fred is all over the place, observing and supervising (“his stethoscope dangling”) as White and two veterinarians try vainly to cure the pig; and Fred staggers along behind White and his helper Lennie as they drag the pig’s body to its burial place. “The grave in the woods is unmarked,” writes White in conclusion, “but Fred can direct the mourner to it unerringly and with immense good will, and I know he and I shall often revisit it, singly and together, in seasons of reflection and despair, on flagless memorial days of our own choosing.”

A mother raccoon plays the principal role in “Coon Tree,” a little nature comedy enacted mostly in or on the trunk of a tree in front of White’s Maine home. As White meticulously describes the coon’s “thorough scrub-up” before her nightly foraging and her slow and careful descent of the tree, one is reminded of the close and patient observation of animals and birds by Henry David Thoreau—one of White’s favorite authors—who in the nineteenth century found in nature the same kind of pleasure that White has experienced in the present one. Another comic nature essay is “The Geese,” though it ends in pathos. White ingeniously arranges to have eggs from a super-laying goose hatched by her less productive sister and then somewhat later observes sadly as the elderly gander who fathered the goslings is beaten and run away by the goslings’ young and vigorous uncle on the maternal side.

White is skeptical about much of what has been and is being done by modern scientists and technologists, and he wonders about their predictions regarding the kind of world that is being projected for future generations. “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man,” he says, “if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” Again, in “Sootfall and Fallout,” in which a troubled, anxious, fearful tone predominates, he comments, “I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management.” Even as early as 1939, when he wrote “The World of Tomorrow,” a report on the New York World’s Fair, he complained that there was too much technology and too little life in what he saw.

“Here Is New York,” one of White’s best-known essays, was written in the summer of 1948 and appeared first in Holiday in 1949 and later as a small book. Although it pictures a New York quite different from the present one, White has included the essay in his collection because he remembers the former city “with longing and with love.” It is a beautiful memorial to a city that was.

White goes back to the 1920’s to compose a fond memorial to the Model T Ford in “Farewell, My Lovely,” which was first published in The New Yorker over the pseudonym Lee Strout White. Suggested by a manuscript sent in by Richard Lee Strout, the essay nevertheless draws largely upon White’s own memories of the Ford, since he and a friend, Howard Cushman, traveled across the United States in 1922 in a Ford roadster that White had bought for about four hundred dollars. White comments on the many gadgets that could be bought from Sears Roebuck to equip or decorate the car, which “was born naked as a baby”; and he mentions some of “the lore and legend that governed the Ford,” including what to do about the “extravagantly odd little device” called a timer. White once tried spitting on his timer to remove a possible hex. The essay will stir the memories of those who drove the old Model T, and it may pique the curiosity of jaded younger drivers bored by the modern car, which needs only a turn of the ignition key to start and which then moves forward smoothly to driving speed without even a manual changing of gears.

The three authors White recalls with affection and respect in his final group of essays are Don Marquis, Will Strunk, Jr., and Edward Howe Forbush. Marquis was the creator of Archy, a poetic cockroach who typed his poems in lower case because he couldn’t manage the capital key, and Archy’s racy feline friend Mehitabel, whose mottos for living were “toujours gai” and “wotthehell wotthehell.” The essay was first written as an introduction to a 1950 edition of the lives and times of archy and mehitabel.

Will Strunk was the professor who taught White English usage and composition at Cornell, using his own little text, The Elements of Style, and issuing his oral imperatives in triplicate, as when he laid down Rule Thirteen: “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!” White’s adulatory essay on Strunk led to a publisher’s request that White prepare an updated edition of The Elements of Style, and the book has enjoyed considerable success as a text.

Edward Howe Forbush was an ornithologist who died in 1929 just before completing his master work, Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. In “Mr. Forbush’s Friends” White writes of his pleasure and profit from “reading around” in his set of Birds of Massachusetts over two decades. He particularly enjoys Forbush’s “immense enthusiasm for anything that has feathers,” the abundance of well-organized information he gives, and the use the author makes of his “large company of informers, or tipsters” who feed him such information as that furnished by a Massachusetts lady who heard a catbird sound “Taps” and who “Believes bird picked it up from hearing it played at burial services in nearby cemetery.”

E. B. White will never win a Nobel Prize for Literature. As he says in his Foreword, essayists are considered second-class citizens. White has won a whole group of lesser awards, however, the earliest being several honorary degrees in the 1940’s and 1950’s and the latest a special Pulitzer citation in literature and the arts in April, 1978. He richly deserves every award.

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