E.B.White Essays

_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 Harpers 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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Essays of E.B. White

very now and then they give us reviewers a break, and this week is one of those occasions. They've brought out "Essays of E. B. White" as a companion volume to his recently published "Letters." "To assemble these essays," writes the author in his foreword, "I have rifled my other books and have added a number of pieces that are appearing for the first time between covers." This means that a reviewer gets to read or re-read "Farewell to Model T" and "Here is New York," which came out as little books in 1936 and 1949, respectively; all but three chapters of "One Man's Meat" (1944); selections from "The Second Tree from the Corner" (1954) and "The Points of My Compass" (1962); the introductions to "A Subtreasury of American Humor," Don Marquis's "Lives and Times of archy and mehitabel," and "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr.; as well as several previously uncollected pieces that have appeared in magazines and newspapers along the way. They call the reviewing business work, but in this particular case it is pure pleasure.

I know: There are who would say that E. B. White is pass�--a square, too neat and correct in his respect for the niceties of the language, the prototypal New Yorker writer of the era before the magazine got greened. They would say that Mr. White's sensibility represents the 1950's, and that it was precisely to his sort of stylistic cautiousness and his brand of political liberalism that the 60's were reacting. They might even seem to have a case, if it were possible to turn back the clock and read this collection in the mood of, say, 1969.

Relevant to Times

But surprise! Reading E. B. White in 1977, one finds him highly relevant to the times. In his politics he long ago came to stand for what many have admired about the Carter Administration: a tougher-minded attitude toward the Soviet Union, a respect for the absolute rights of human beings everywhere and a healthy skepticism for the liberal nostrum of universal disarmament. ("If modern weapons make war unlikely," Mr. White wrote in 1960, "had we not better keep them until we have found the political means of making war unnecessary?")

In his respect for ecology, he was way ahead of the counterculture. He came to understand early in his life that faster and bigger and more are not necessarily better, that nature has her secret ways of compensating for what humankind does to her, and that, at least for him, a life close to the land is the one best suited to the rhythms of the human temperament. As for his prose style--well, the simple truth is that the times have come around to him again. The schools are now busy compensating for the romantic excesses of the 60's, trying to teach students once again to spell, and parse a sentence and recognize the ironclad laws that govern coherent prose. In their quest they could do worse than consult "the little book," William Strunk Jr.'s "The Elements of Style," which Mr. White revised, introduced and plighted his troth to back in 1959.

But then E. B. White will always be coming back into style. That's because, as he himself observes of Thoreau, he writes sentences that resist the destructiveness of time. Besides, he's an essayist's essayist. With his relaxed serendipitous technique of seeming to stumble on his subject by way of the back door, he lends you confidence that you don't really have to know much about a thing to write about it intelligently; you need only possess the skill to write, along with a lot of sanity. Thus, if you've got the hang of it, you can arrive at the subject of disarmament by way of Mary Martin's furniture, or at the prospects of American democracy by the route of a dachshund named Fred.

Of course, it's only an illusion that Mr. White gets by alone on skill and sanity. He happens to know a great deal about a lot of things--about birds and boats and literature, and, best of all, about how silly it would be to worry about the strictures against anthropomorphism and the pathetic fallacy that children's-book librarians and French new-wave novelists tried to impress upon us in the 60's.

Charming Passages

Thank God he has had no truck with those prohibitions, else how could he have written some of the most charming passages in this volume--about "possessions lying naked in the street, the light of day searching out every bruise and mark of indoor living. . .end tables with nothing to be the end of, standing lamps with their cords held up in curlers, bottles of vermouth craning their long necks from cartons of personal papers, and every wastebasket carrying its small cargo of miscellany." Or about his dachshund, Fred, with his "look of quiet amusement (at having caught somebody in bed during the daytime) coupled with his usual look of fake respectability."

Nor is it true that these essays are really serendipitous. They may go here and there, happily discovering Maine winters and the climbing habits of raccoon and the way a pig seems to smile when it is upside down. But at the still center of them is a haunting preoccupation with timelessness and a tragic sense that no matter how often the stunt horseback rider in the circus goes around in a circle or a boy and his father return to a pond that seems always to remain the same, time continues to tick away.

As he concludes an account of returning with his son to a haunt he himself used to visit as a boy with his father: "Languidly, and with no thought of going [swimming], I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death." That may be a surprising passage coming from the man we tend to think of as a gentle humorist. But it is a sounding-line to the true depth of these essays. Meanwhile, its author may feel the chill, but his sentences will live on warmly.

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