july: notes on e.b. white

August 14, 2009

white in the garden

There has been a lot of new folks poking around this blog lately; I hope this post doesn’t make you run for the hills! It’s part of a little project I’ve undertaken, a year-long attempt to read twelve essayists in depth, and to study their styles. You can read more about the project here.

I’m late at posting this entry, but it’s meant more time with E.B. White, so I’m not complaining. He’s absolutely charmed me.

random notes:

In his introduction to White in The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate writes: “In 1925 he joined the staff of The New Yorker, and he maintained a lifelong association with that magazine. The persona that he created in his essays and “Talk of the Town” pieces–a friendly, gentlemanly family man, curious about nature and city life, undidactic, modest, civic-minded, mildly nostalgic and elegiac–set the tone for the periodical. At times White’s persona threatens to become irksomely bland in its genial self-effacement, but his intelligence and humor save the day.”

And in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2008, Adam Gopnik has more to say about that self-effacement: “The language of littleness and self-deprecation rises even from masters like Max Beerbohm and E.B. White, who practice competetive self-disparagement the way novelists practice competitive self-praise. I’m but a wee thing with a wee craft, the essayist says. Look to the novelists for largess.”

Well, yes. White seems to feel a bit sheepish about placing himself at the center of his writings, so he does like any polite person and puts himself in his place. Here’s what I came to realize about him: if I could play that game in which I choose three people from history to invite to dinner, E.B. White might very well be on my list. I’d pull in some bigger, flashier characters too, but I’d want White around. Because he wouldn’t monopolize the conversation, or draw attention to himself. He would compliment the home-grown tomatoes I served, and would ask how I was faring as a first-year beekeeper. Yet something tells me that by the end of the night, White would be the one charming the table with his humor, his wit, and his stories. And I’ll bet he’d even send a hand-written thank-you note.

Let’s see if I can convince you of White’s potential as a dinner guest. And master essayist.

a few lines to love:

He starts off his essay, “Death of a Pig” like this:

“I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.”

Already you get a sense of his voice. The polite formality, the subtle humor.

“I discovered, though, that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotypical roles. The pig’s lot and mine were inextricably bound now, as though the rubber tube were the silver cord. From then until the time of his death I held the pig steadily in the bowl of my mind; the task of trying to deliver him from his misery became a strong obsession.”

As I’ve said before, how can you not love a man who cares so much for pigs?

“There had been talk of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and my wife and I had gone over the list of sensible dogs, and had even ventured once or twice into the company of sensible dogs. A friend had a litter of Labradors, and there were other opportunities. But after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!’ She had had a glass of wine, and I could see the truth was coming out.”

Love that last line.

From “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street”:

“On one of the mornings of the disposal, a man from a second-hand bookstore visited us, bought several hundred books, and told us of the death of his brother, the word “cancer” exploding in the living room like a time bomb detonated by his grief. Even after he had departed with his heavy load, there seemed to be almost as many books as before, and twice as much sorrow.”

Beautiful description of the effects of grief.

The first lines of  “Once More to the Lake”:

“One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was place in the world like that lake in Maine.”

I like the chatty quality of this opening, and the details.

Here’s an example of the self-deprecating quality that Lopate and Gopnik write about:

“It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable, and I have failed, as I knew I would. But I have discharged my duty to my society: and besides, a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.”

Of course, if you read the essay–“The Ring of Time”–it’s clear that White did not fail in his duty, but we’ll indulge him his humility. It’s part of his persona.

From the wonderful essay, “Here is New York”:

     “There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and aceepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is the third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”

I fell for this quote and highlighted it in my book, but later when I searched for it on the internet so I didn’t have to retype it myself, I saw that it was cited widely. Yet those citers almost always cut out the section about the specific settlers. How could they leave out the Corn Belt boy with “a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart”? That’s my favorite part!

And look at this paragraph which appears toward the end of the same essay.  It’s quite eerie considering 9/11, and considering that it was written in 1949.

“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

Can you believe that one? Talk about insight.

The following quotes are for Susan, who wrote in a comment, “Will you reread Elements of Style and note every time E.B. violates his commandments to good effect? I am out of love with him as a theorist of style but I love his writing.” For those of you who don’t know, White revised and added to The Elements of Style, which was a small writing handbook that one of his college professors had written. He wrote an essay on that professor, Will Strunk, and it does explain a few things. (And entertain as well.) In the introduction to the essay, White writes, 

“I discovered that for all my fine talk, I was no match for the parts of speech–was in fact, over my depth and in trouble. Not only that, I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.”

And within the essay, there’s this:

“The professor devotes a special paragraph to the vile expression “the fact that”, a phrase that causes him to quiver with revulsion. The expression, he says, should be “revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.” But a shadow of gloom seems to hang over the page, and you feel that he knows how hopeless his cause is. I suppose I have written “the fact that” a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while.”

Can you forgive him, Susan?

I appreciate White’s talents at ending his essays. I highlighted many final paragraphs, but I’ll share just one:

“With so much that is disturbing our lives and clouding our future, beginning right here in my own little principality… and extending outward to our unhappy land and our plundered planet, it is hard to foretell what is going to happen. I know one thing that has happened: the willow by the brook has slipped into her yellow dress, lending, along with the faded pink of the snow fences, a spot of color to the vast gray-and-white world. I know, too, that on some not too distant night, somewhere in pond or ditch or low place, a frog will awake, raise his voice in praise, and be joined by others. I will feel a whole lot better when I hear the frogs.”

Beautiful all round, but it’s the plainspokenness of the last line that gets me, following the more poetic ones. Quintessential E.B. White.

the plan for august:

I’ve been reading Pico Iyer. Very different voice from White. I’ve stumbled across a few of his writings lately, here and here, and am intrigued. The fact that he writes so often about traveling seems fitting for August. One last fling before fall.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tara Reese August 14, 2009 at 10:46 am

I’ve been having a bit of an E.B. White affair this season, as well. Many years ago, i bought “Here is New York” for a friend when he was moving to Manhattan, and he told me that it was one of the best gifts he’d ever received. For some reason, that still wasn’t enough to get me to read his work, other than the children’s classics. I picked up a used essay collection on the road trip and he’s been the perfect companion to my summer. I love the nostalgia of it all, without it being overly sentimental. He seems to always be paying attention.
And don’t you just hate it when integral quotes have bits taken out of them while being cited? I find that often happens with M.F.K. Fisher ramblings that I love entirely. You are absolutely correct about the corn belt boy part, (perhaps because I’m a corn belt girl).
I love this series, Tricia. (and slightly off topic, Paris to the Moon is one of my favorites, too.)

Reply

patricia August 15, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Yes, I do hate it when quotes have bits taken out of them–especially when it messes with the overall meaning. It was strange to see that again and again the settlers were removed from that quote, when the settlers seemed to be the point of the quote.

And, oh, I love M.F.K Fisher. I was fully intending to have her be one of my summer essayists, but Molly Wizenberg hopped in and took the foodie slot. But I may get to her in the fall.

Paris to the Moon is one of my very favorites. I don’t know if you read my intro to this project, but my admiration for Adam Gopnik is what inspired the project. I’m planning to end with him in December…

I’m so glad you like the series. I’m sure lots of folks don’t quite know what to do with it. Analyzing writing on a blog is strange enough, but essayists? How obscure!

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susan August 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm

I love the sensible dog passage. And you are right–excise the boy from the corn belt! How could they? It is so slyly apparently about random people.

Oh, and the passage about vulnerable NY is astounding.

You have made me think I must definitely not throw out the baby with the bath water. Especially when he admits, as you point out, that he doesn’t have “any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” And, that he “writes by ear,” which is as it should be…and boy is his prose lovely on the ear.

Thank you so much for responding to my request. You have reminded me that the right way to study style is not to read a manual but to read great stylists and analyze the writing as you are doing. Who cares about Strunk and White? Just read White. Next thing I’ll be starting my own year of excellent essayists. And many thanks for the link!

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patricia August 15, 2009 at 11:20 pm

I was relieved to read his words about writing by ear and not knowing what’s going on under the hood too. I’m holding on to those quotes for when I talk to parents about kids and grammar. Kids don’t need to study grammar–they need to read good writing and write lots themselves. They’ll soak up the grammar without realizing it.

If White of Strunk & White didn’t know what was going on under the hood, the rest of us don’t need to know either. Unless we’re English teachers.

P.S. We were driving through Berkeley tonight and I saw you lined up outside of Ici, but couldn’t get your attention. So you wrote your comment on a happy stomach, apparently…

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stefaneener August 15, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Ah, thanks for the inclusion of the conclusion.

Stopping essays is always a chore for me (pause here so all who know me can nod sagely and say, “Boy, do we know about that!”) and I admire the graceful enders. However, until now I’d not thought of the rhetorical methods by which those neat endings are wrought.

Perhaps a classic course of rhetoric is what I need. Any Great Courses lectures on it?

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patricia August 15, 2009 at 11:27 pm

I admire the graceful enders too. Endings are so very important–and so very hard to do.

I don’t know much about rhetoric. But whenever I have an ending to rewrite–and I always rewrite my endings about 57 times–I pick up books by my favorite essayists and read all their final paragraphs. And I suppose it’s a little like White: I don’t quite understand the rhetoric of what they’re doing; I don’t get what’s going on under the hood. But after reading several masterful endings, you start to internalize something.

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melissa s. August 18, 2009 at 6:16 pm

I’m embarassed to admit that I didn’t know EB White was the ‘White’ in ‘Strunk & White.’ He is a breath of fresh air indeed. Still loving your series, btw!

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patricia August 21, 2009 at 6:35 pm

I’ll bet a whole lot of people don’t realize that the author of Charlotte’s Web was also one of our country’s finest essayists either! I know I didn’t realize it until fairly recently. But we should cut ourselves some slack–he was a little before our time.

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