Thursday, December 10, 2009

My E.B. White



 
I can't remember exactly when I first became aware of E.B. White. My Mom had been an admirer of The New Yorker since her youth (she grew up in Neena, Wisconsin in the 1930's), and all the magazine's original big name columnists and journalists were familiar names to her. For my 18th birthday, she gave me a subscription as a Christmas present. The first issue I received contained John McPhee's Profile of Bill Bradley, then a star basketball player at Princeton University, and later a Rhodes Scholar, and so on. In any case, working at the Napa City-County Public Library during my Junior and Senior years of high school, I routinely shelved books by White, and at some point--probably in my Junior year--I'd picked up a copy of The New Yorker at the local pharmacy store magazine rack, and was intrigued by its format. There was no table of contents, and much of its front matter consisted of extremely detailed accounts of happenings, events and goings-on in New York City. There were very sophisticated cartoons and strange little quotations at the tail end of longer articles (which were called "news breaks"). I'm not sure what I made of it at the time, but as I say, it was intriguing.  
  
At some point or other, my parents decided that we should read Stuart Little together. How old was I when that happened? Could this have been before 1960, when my little brother Clark was born? I have no idea now. On the jacket blurb for the book, White was quoted as saying that he'd begun the story as an entertainment for a niece, but that before he'd been able to finish it, she'd grown up and was reading Hemingway. This disarming modesty is characteristic of White; indeed, there probably wasn't a more self-effacing a writer of his stature in the 20th Century. 
  
White grew up in an upper-middle class home in Mt. Vernon, New York. He did a stint in the service before taking a degree at Cornell. Then he worked briefly as a journalist in Seattle, before joining the staff of The New Yorker, in the same year as James Thurber, just after its inception in 1925. He also met and married the recently divorced Katharine S. Angell in 1929, adopting her son Roger. They had one son, Joel, who became a noted designer of yachts in Maine. To judge from period photographs, Katharine was a beautiful woman. As an editor at the magazine, she was largely responsible for setting the standard of taste and the subtle tone it became famous for. For White, who had pretentions as a writer of light verse, and innocent humor pieces, the magazine afforded him the chance to exercise his talents in several directions at once--as humorist, as casual serious topical columnist [The Talk of the Town], as the inventor and author of the "newsbreaks" and, eventually, as a serious political and literary essayist.                 
 
       
 
Perhaps not surprisingly, the story of Stuart Little is an analogue of White's own life story. Born in the city into a comfortable family, Stuart soon feels the irresistible pull of Nature, whereupon he takes his leave of the Little family and sets out on his own in the world. White himself, after spending a little over a decade in the city as a successful periodical writer, grew weary of city life, and longed for the country. Following his instincts, he purchased a salt water farm on the coast of Maine, and he and Katharine began spending longer and longer periods of time there. This period in his life is chronicled in his most ambitious book of expository prose, One Man's Meat [1942, Harper & Brother], a collection of "letters" from the country, which are filled with his experiences and feelings about a rural, agricultural existence. Henry David Thoreau's ghost is a palpable presence throughout. The Whites eventually abandoned the city altogether, and though they both would continue their literary activities for several more decades, this early removal symbolized their semi-"retirement" from the hectic demands of city life, to a more sedate, pastoral existence.   
  
                                                                                    
 
This idealized separation between city and country is the governing trope in White's vision of the world. The quintessential, sophisticated New Yorker nurses a yearning for a simpler, more basic connection to the environment, to the smaller social scale of the country. The elegant, cocktail-sipping essayist prefers finding eggs in the chicken coop on cold Winter mornings. The opera performance may beckon, but that old shake roof on the barn needs patching before next season. This conceit about the gentleman farmer is exploited to the hilt, and forms the conceptual frame within which White's imaginary persona--both in his fictions and in his non-fiction prose--is constructed. White's only truly serious polemic involved his support for the creation and purpose of The United Nations [created in 1945], a series of pieces collected into The White Flag [1946, Houghton Mifflin]. White's earnest optimism may seem naive today, as "little" wars and terrorist attacks seem almost a daily item in international news reports, but White's generation had experienced two world wars, and that seemed ample justification to believe in the possibility of an international body, devoted to preventing conflict and encouraging cooperation around the world. 
  
Maintaining a safe distance from the urban bustle, also enabled White to take a more meditative, objective, relaxed view of important issues. From the remote aspect of his Maine farmhouse, he could mount little campaigns against the erosion of free speech, as in his piece against the underwriting of magazine articles by the Xerox Corporation: "I have great respect for all newspapers and magazines, and this Xerox-Esquire arrangement would mean that any rich corporation or rich individual could pick out a reporter and put $50,000 on him and that would be the end of freedom of the press."
  
My favorite White essay--though I have many--is "Bedfellows"--a piece from 1956, where he recounts the exploits of his late, sometimes lamented pet Dachsund Fred, and in which the ponderous pontifications of Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson are played against off against the amusing behavior of a dog:
  
"Fred was a window gazer and bird watcher, particularly during his later years, when hardened arteries slowed him up and made it necessary for him to substitute sedentary pleasures for active sport. I think of him as he used to look on our bed in Maine--an old four-poster, too high from the floor for him to reach unassisted. Whenever the bed was occupied during the daylight hours, whether because one of us was sick or was napping, Fred would appear in the doorway and enter without knocking. On his big gray face would be a look of quiet amusement (at having caught somebody in bed during the daytime) coupled with his usual look of fake respectability. Whoever occupied the bed would reach down, seize him by the loose folds of his thick neck, and haul him painfully up. He dreaded this maneuver, and so did the occupant of the bed. But Fred was always willing to put up with being hoisted in order to gain the happy heights, as, indeed, he was willing to put up with far greater discomforts--such as a mouthful of porcupine quills--when there was some prize at the end. Once up, he settled into his pose of bird watching, propped luxuriously against a pillow, as close as he could get to the window, his great soft brown eyes alight with expectation and scientific knowledge. He seemed never to tire of his work. He watched steadily and managed to give the impression that he was a secret agent of the Department of Justice. Spotting a flicker or a starling on the wing, he would turn and make a quick report. 'I just saw an eagle go by,' he would say, 'It was carrying a baby.' This was not precisely a lie. Fred was like a child in many ways, and sought always to blow things up to proportions that satisfied his imagination and his love of adventure. He was the Cecil B. deMille of dogs. He was a zealot, and saw in every bird, every squirrel, every housefly, every rat, every skunk, every porcupine, a security risk and a present danger to his republic. He had a dossier on almost every living creature, as well as on several inanimate objects, including my son's football. Although birds fascinated him, his real hope as he watched the big shade trees outside the window was that a red squirrel would show up. When he sighted a squirrel, Fred would straighten up from his pillow, tense his frame, and then, in a moment or two, begin to tremble. The knuckles of his big fore-legs, unstable from old age, would seem to go into spasm, and he would sit there with his eyes glued on the squirrel and his front legs alternately collapsing under him and bearing his weight again. I find it difficult to convey the peculiar character of this ignoble old vigilante...."
  
The photo above shows White at his typewriter, with Fred or his predecessor holding court over the proceedings. It takes little imagination to see how the aging politicians and their imprecations and warnings and cautionary predictions fare in comparison to the valiant old vigilante Fred.                 
   
       
  
White and Thurber, shown here in their salad days of the 1920's, did a parody of popular Freudian advice books, entitled Is Sex Necessary? [1929, Harper & Brothers]. Though both began as light-hearted humorists, White became the more serious writer, while Thurber continued to elaborate his sense of the absurd for the rest of his life.
 
The New Yorker, too, grew up eventually, taking on a more staid character, until by the early 1960's, when I first discovered it, it had become an institution, and was more responsible, and dogged, and serious than it had been in the early years. "The world grew up," someone once said, "and a damned shame, too." The world of White's early, lighthearted poems and essays [The Lady is Cold, 1928; Ho-Hum and Another Ho-Hum, 1931-32; Every Day is Saturday, 1934; The Fox of Peapack, 1938; and Quo Vadimus, 1939] seems to exist in a hazy past of innocent amusements, a slowly turning colorful carousel of dogs and sailboats and lady's hats and wacky wisecracks. White's later books--aside from the wildly successful children's titles [Charlotte's Web, 1952 and The Trumpet of the Swan, 1970], are serious essays, like letters from a rich uncle whose leisured regimen requires only of him that he send the occasional update to his extended family of legitimate eavesdroppers. You get the feeling, from White's later work, that he only grudgingly acknowledged the necessity for working, and would much rather have spent his time pottering around the back yard in his civvies. 
  
But White was such a good writer, that he could easily have entertained you even if he was only talking about spider webs in the rafters of his barn, which if you think about it, is sort of what he did. I've never been a big fan of children's literature, generally, but I think Stuart Little will live as long as Mother Goose, or Raggedy Anne, Winnie-the-Pooh, or the Oz books--primarily because it doesn't condescend to its presumed audience. There were those who criticized it, early on, as being too difficult, too "open-ended" and sad, for children. But the best literature communicates to those of all ages with equal pertinence. 

In retrospect, White's career is a record of half-reluctant reassessments, false starts, and forced resolutions. But each stage yielded fruit. He accurately estimated his skills, and made the most of them. He turned his private preoccupations into universal folk-tales, and made himself famous. This from a man whose privateness, modesty and naturally retiring manner seemed more typical of a sort of secular monk, than an elegant thinker. He's a distinctly American type, interested neither in laurels, nor notoriety, nor ostentation. A study of the common man, content to live a quotidian existence, tinkering on projects and inventing practical solutions to everyday problems. But of course he was much more than that--which is the contradiction of his personality.           
     
     

1 comment:

J said...

Discovering some of EB White's essays a few years ago, I was rather impressed with EBW's writing, the wit, and the occasional Thoreauvian tone, as with Once more to the Lake. Strunk and White's Elements of Style also assisted many a beginning essayist.

From what I hear EoS has been phased out of writing courses--for not being PC enough, or too pedantic, or showing signs of wit and intelligence, etc.