Essays of E.B. White

E.B. White

Like the majority of American liberal artists, I know E.B. White principally from his editorial work. The Elements of Style was the principal explicit force behind my own understanding of the sentence and the essay, and I assumed its writer would possess that bright cogency that tickles the alert reader into giggles.

I also knew E.B. White as the author of books for children, and though it has been nearly two decades since I read Charlotte's Web, I remember vividly the story and the prematurely deep emotion it aroused.

Lastly, I knew E.B. White was the resident essayist for years at the New Yorker, and I had read a piece or two of his during college and graduate writing programs, and found them—as I expected from the editor of the Elements of Style—to be refined and distinct, even if I believed they were too patricianly contented for my taste.

Now, I've worked my way through this collection concurrently with David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and I couldn't think of a more illuminating contrast. Both artists reside within a tiny honored circle of American essayists. Both artists, per William Strunk's instruction, labor to omit needless words. Both artists ask that every word tell. But Wallace crams his sentences full of meaning, each written as though it would be his last and only, while E.B. White seems to let some sentences breathe the open air. What's more, Wallace often mercilessly whips his essay, even his day-to-day accounts, in pursuit of his philosophical rabbit. He is as methodical as the baseline tennis player of his teenage years, piling precise sentence on sentence, calculating and increasing the advantageous angles, till triumph is inevitable. E.B. White seems, by contrast, to be at times an amnesiac playing billiards with one hand: scattering the balls, then studying them, judging their position anew, and firing away.

In his missives from Maine, for instance, White will digress into accounts on the weather, reports on egg production, measurements of snowfall and the tides, before meandering to his point. But when White finally finds the balls aligned to his liking, he strikes with such a devastatingly beautiful, caroming shot! Consider his essay, "Death of a Pig," filled with mournful puns (such a thing is possible!), portraits of gruff veterinarians and sympathetic neighbors, explanations of his farm's terrain. It seems a sweet, orchard-smelling essay, but comes around to a gorgeous and devastating final sentence comparing the curious spirit of his daschund Fred and the haunting regret he, as a failed caretaker, feels at his pig's inescapable death: "The grave in the woods is unmarked, 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." Even pulled from context, the lovely pace and light, precise kiss of this sentence takes away your breath. Within the slow, sad, wandering story, it is devastatingly melancholic.

Or, consider the lively and humorous essay on the 1939 World's Fair in Queens, NY, which pokes gentle fun at the antiseptic world of tomorrow. And at the end, the essay arrives the peculiar image of a couple of bare-breasted "Amazon" girls sitting in a robot automaton's giant rubber palm: a silly image, ripe for the simple, sly irony and gentle humanism that characterizes an essay filled with tots making long distance phone calls, cracks about the rainy weather. But White opts, in the last sentence, to just put aside the nibbles of soft irony and just take one voracious bite. And so, from nothing: "Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aseptic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast."

And just one more, to really amaze you, the final two paragraphs of an essay ostensibly about Ford's discontinuation of the Model T line, the car of White's (and, in a sense, modern America's) youth:

"Springtime in the heyday of the Model T was a delirious season. Owning a car was still a major excitement, roads were wonderful and bad. The Fords were obviously conceived in madness: any car which was capable of going from forward into reverse without any perceptible mechanical hiatus was bound to be a mighty challenging thing to the human imagination. Boys used to veer them off the highway into a level pasture and run wild with them, as though they were cutting up with a girl....

The days were golden, the nights were dim and strange. I still recall with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises when you drew up to a signpost and raced the engine so the lights would be bright enough to read destinations by. I have never been really planetary since. I suppose it's time to say good-bye. Farewell, my lovely!"

Well, what about that!

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