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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

E. B. White, What a Writer

Because a friend on Goodreads raved so passionately about Melissa Sweet's Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White that I could not wait to get my hands on a copy, and because said copy was not immediately available at the local branch of the blessed New York Public Library, I found myself drawn to a languishing edition of One Man's Meat. It is ridiculous to review a seventy-five-year-old book, but that hasn't stopped me:

One Man's Meat by E. B. White

This house, this house now held in Sunday's fearful grip, is a hundred and twenty years old. I am wondering what Sabbaths it has known. Here where I sit, grandfather H. used to sit, they tell me—always right here. He would be surprised were he here this morning to note that the seams in the floor have opened wide from the dry heat of the furnace, revealing the accumulation of a century of dust and crumbs and trouble and giving quite a good view of the cellar. (46)


For the last six days, I have been inhaling my mother's 1944 edition of E. B. White's volume of heavenly essays, written between 1938 and 1943 when White was both farming in Maine and doing his duty as a watchman to support the War effort.

My edition lacks a dust cover but has an inscription dated 10/27/45 from a long-dead friend to my now-dead mother, Edna, on the occasion of her twenty-fourth birthday. This browning tome has been on my shelf for decades. And when I finally took it down and began to read, I almost drowned in the accrued feelings: This book, this book is seventy-five years old. And I am wondering about all the hands that held it—from the printer's to warehouse workers' to bookstore clerks' to my mother's dear friend Tommy, to young, optimistic Edna, a budding writer, who—once we were both finally grown up enough to be friends—often mentioned E. B. White and kept this book through marriage, popped fantasy bubbles, and numerous dwellings. We never talked much about books, and although I remember her expressing reverence for White's writing, in my arrogance, ignorance, and youth, I never thought to explore his work beyond Stuart Little, which was enough to make him my hero for life. (I didn't see the need to read Charlotte's Web until a few years ago when it beckoned from my top shelf and ended up being a driving force in my own novel, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg—so it was research. I blush at my oblivion.) Edna died in 1990 at age sixty-eight, the age I will turn in two days, and I want her back so we can talk: "I get it! I get it!" I cry. "If only I had known more when you were alive so we could share our love for Andy White."

E. B. White was all of forty-four, or thereabouts, when he wrote these anthologized essays for Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker. A "personal record," he calls it in the Foreword. "It is a collection of essays which I wrote from a salt water farm in Maine while engaged in trivial, peaceable pursuits" as an "over-age male" who was restless during the war. He was only a few years older than I was when my mother died, and yet he knew so much more than I ever will. He is a writer's god and his voice is so vital that one senses him, as if both of you are hanging out in the 1940s, talking about farm animals in spring, barn building, and Hitler as a contemporary person of interest, and, although you may blanch at occasional casual linguistic racism, there is nothing at all awkward about this time jumping. In fact, White articulates the very sensation of normal time-jumping in a stunning essay, "Once More to the Lake," about feeling as if he were inhabiting his own father when he took his son to his own boyhood fishing haunt: "There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn't know which rod I was at the end of. (248)"

E. B. White is some writer!

Some quotes:

[Regarding a writer who has sworn off writing anything that is not good and significant:] Having resolved to be nothing but significant, he is in a fair way to lose his effectiveness. A writer must believe in something, obviously, but he shouldn't join a club. Letters flourish not when writers amalgamate, but when they are contemptuous of one another. (Poets are the most contemptuous of all the writing breeds, and in the long run the most exalted and influential.) Even in evil times, a writer should cultivate only what naturally absorbs his fancy, whether it be freedom or cinch bugs, and should write in the way that comes easy. (43)

In a free country it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty. Only under a dictatorship is literature expected to exhibit an harmonious design or an inspirational tone. A despot doesn't fear eloquent writers preaching freedom—he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold. (43)

Above two quotes written in January 1939


Monday. The cat, David, is lying beside me, a most unsatisfactory arrangement, as he gives me hay fever.

My sensitivity to cats defeats the whole purpose of a cat, which is to introduce a note of peace in a room. (60)

April 1939

The cells of the body co-operate to make the man; the men co-operate to make the society. But there is a contradiction baffling to biologist and layman alike. On the same day last spring that I saw a flight of geese passing over on their way to the lonely lakes of the north (a co-operative formation suggesting a tactical advantage imitated by our air corps)—on that same day cannibalism broke out among my baby chicks and I observed the brutality with which the group will turn upon an individual, literally picking his guts out. This is the antithesis of co-operation—a contrariness not unobserved in our own circles. (I recently read of a member of an actors' union biting another actor quite hard. I believe it was over some difference in the means of co-operation.) (89)

July 1939

I just want to tell before I am slowed down, that I am in love with freedom and that it is an affair of long standing and that it is a fine state to be in, and that I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war. From such adaptable natures a smell rises. I pinch my nose. (168)

July 1940

In this spring of 1941 a man tends his [brooder—to keep chicks warm] fire in a trance that is all the deeper because of its dreamlike unreality, things being as they are in the world. I sometimes think I am crazy—everybody else fighting and dying or working for a cause or writing to his senator, and me looking after some Barred Rock chickens. But the land, and the creatures that go with it, are what is left that is good, and they are the authors of the book that I find worth reading; and anyway a man has to live according to his lights even if his lights are the red coals in the base of a firepot. (236)

April 1941

[Right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor] To hold America in one's thoughts is like holding a love letter in one's hand—it has so special a meaning. Since I started writing this column snow has begun falling again; I sit in my room watching the re-enactment of this stagy old phenomenon outside the window. For this picture, for this privilege, this cameo of New England with snow falling, I would give everything. Yet all the time I know that this very loyalty, this feeling of being part of a special place, this respect for one's native scene—I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world's wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find such people for the next society. (276)

December 1941


Thursday In time, ownership of property will probably carry with it certain obligations, over and above the obligation to pay the tax and keep the mortgage going. . . . [P]eople are beginning to suspect that the greatest freedom is not achieved by sheer irresponsibility. The earth is common ground and we are overlords, whether we hold title or not; gradually the idea is taking form that the land must be held in safekeeping, that one generation is to some extent responsible to the next, and that it is contrary to the public good to allow an individual merely because of his whims or his ambitions, to destroy almost beyond repair any part of the soil or the water or even the view. (333-334)

The trend toward the ownership of land by fewer and fewer individuals is, it seems to me, a disastrous thing. For when too large a proportion of the populace is supporting itself by the indirections of trade and business and commerce and art and the million schemes of men in cities, then the complexity of society is likely to become so great as to destroy its equilibrium, and it will always be out of balance in some way. But if a considerable portion of the people are occupied wholly or partially in labors which directly supply them with many things which they want, or think they want, whether it be a sweet pea or a sour pickle, then the public poise will be a good deal harder to upset. (334)

The trouble with the profit system has always been that it was highly unprofitable to most people. The profits went to the few, the work went to the many. I think our phrase "common man" came to mean the man who never managed to get his hands on anything but a pay envelope, and sometimes not that. You became uncommon when you had capital to invest or an idea to develop. Usually you had neither, and were common as dirt. Profits flowed into closely guarded channels which led into a mysterious sea. (339)

So wrote E. B. White from his farm in Maine in November of 1942, as he made his contribution to the war effort, while simultaneously disparaging the buzz from the "ad men" who distorted the grueling reality.

Included in these essays is one about the inundation of children's books White suffered every year when his wife, writer and editor Katherine, received review copies of new books. He is funny and sarcastic, but also he is clearly studying them—interesting, because this book was compiled several years before Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web were even an idea. (Here is a letter to his editor about the true Charlotte who inspired Charlotte's Web.)

 






 

 

 





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