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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_This year is The New Yorker’s eighty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, over eighty-five weekdays we will turn a spotlight on a notable article, story, or poem from the magazine’s history. The issue containing that day’s selected piece will be made freely available in our digital archive and will remain open until the next day’s selection is posted.
Today’s selection is E. B. White’s “Comment” from August 18, 1945.
In a 1969 Timesinterview, the American essayist and stylist E. B. White was asked what he cherished most in life: “I cherish the remembrance of the beauty I have seen. I cherish the grave, compulsive word.” Grave is not typically a term associated with White, who for fifty years was the whimsical, intellectual soul of The New Yorker. From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899, the youngest of six children. After attending Cornell University, where he acquired the nickname Andy, he worked as a reporter for the United Press and then the Seattle Times, before returning to New York to work at an advertising agency. During this period, he sold a number of poems to Franklin P. Adams’s “The Conning Tower” column. In 1925, he submitted several pieces to The New Yorker, and the following year he took a job at the magazine editing newsbreaks. Ross soon approached White about writing Comment, and it was there that he quickly established the editorial voice of the magazine. As White’s good friend James Thurber observed, in 1938,> Harold Ross and Katharine Angell, his literary editor, were not slow to perceive that here were the perfect eye and ear, the authentic voice and accent for their struggling magazine…. His contributions to the Talk of the Town, particularly his Notes and Comment on the first page, struck the shining note that Ross had dreamed of striking.
In addition to Comment, White also contributed light verse, casuals, longer essays, and captions for cartoons (most famously, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”). His intimate essays, which his stepson, the New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell, once said “took down the fences of manner … and pomposity in writing,” were remarkable examples of White’s ability to relate the quotidian to the topical. In a 1985 Postscript in this magazine, John Updike observed,> The least pugnacious of editorialists, [White] was remarkably keen and quick in the defense of personal liberty and purity of expression, whether the threat was as overt as McCarthyism or totalitarianism or as seemingly innocuous as … Alexander Woollcott’s endorsement of a brand of whiskey. American freedom was not just a notion to him; it was an instinct, a current in the blood, expressed by his very style and his untrammelled thought, his cunning informality, his courteous skepticism, his boundless and gallant capacity for wonder.
White married Katharine Angell in 1929, the same year that he and Thurber published their satire on Freudianism, “Is Sex Necessary?” In 1938, White and Angell left New York and settled in Maine, where White wrote a monthly column, “One Man’s Meat,” for Harper’s magazine. White began writing Comment again for The New Yorker in the spring of 1943, and he also took up writing what would later become a children’s classic, “Stuart Little” (1945), which was soon followed by another classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” published in 1952. Of his children’s writing, White once said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” White continued writing for the magazine until the late seventies, and he was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 1978. He died in Maine, on October 1, 1985, at the age of eighty-six.
Today we highlight a Comment that ran in the issue of August 18, 1945. The essay examines White’s visceral skepticism about the beginnings of the atomic age. In this excerpt, White questions just how far man is willing to go in his pursuit of victory:> We thought back over the whole long war, trying to remember the terrible distances and the terrible decisions, the setbacks, the filth and the horror, the bugs, the open wounds, the fellows on the flight decks and on the beaches and in the huts and holes, the resolution and the extra bravery—and all for what? Why, for liberty. “Liberty, the first of blessings, the aspiration of every human soul … every abridgment of it demands an excuse, and the only good excuse is the necessity of preserving it. Whatever tends to preseve this is right, all else is wrong.” And we tried to imagine what it will mean to a soldier, having gone out to fight a war to preserve the world as he knew it, now to return to a world he never dreamt about, a world of atomic designs and portents. Some say this is the beginning of a great time of peace and plenty, because atomic energy is so fearsome no nation will dare unleash it. The argument is fragile. One nation (our own) has already dared take the atom off its leash, has dared crowd its luck, and not for the purpose of conquering the world, merely to preserve liberty.
In England the other day a philosopher and a crystallographer held a debate. The question was whether a halt should be called on science. The discussion was academic, since there is no possibility of doing any such thing. Nevertheless, it was a nice debate. Professor Bernal, the crystallographer, argued that children should be allowed to play with dangerous toys in order that they may learn to use them properly. Joad, the philosopher, said no—science changes our environment faster than we have the ability to adjust ourselves to it.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when a blind girl in Albuquerque, noticing a strange brightness in the room, looked up and said, “What was that?” A bomb had exploded a hundred and twenty miles away in the New Mexican desert. And people all over the world were soon to be adjusting themselves to their new environment. For the first time in our lives, we can feel the disturbing vibrations of complete human readjustment. Usually the vibrations are so faint as to go unnoticed. This time, they are so strong that even the ending of a war is overshadowed. Today it is not so much the fact of the end of a war which engages us. It is the limitless power of the victor. The quest for a substitute for God ended suddenly. The substitute turned up. And who do you suppose it was? It was man himself, stealing God’s stuff.
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