E.B. White’s Selected Essays

Essays Of E.B. WhiteIn the Foreword to his Selected Essays, Elwyn Brooks White – celebrated writer for The New Yorker, author of the beloved children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and contributor to the infamous English style manual The Elements Of Style – begins our introduction to his work with characteristic modesty: “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. […] Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” He is, at best, telling only a half-truth, for if the writer is sustained in his efforts by his ego, his audience will be far more exacting, demanding wit, insight, consolation and a style worthy of their time and attention. If he delivers all of this as expected, he may even be permitted to criticize his readers, challenge their assumptions, risk making them uncomfortable.

As if to prove his own assertion, White begins this volume with essays on moving out of his New York apartment, driving home at night, and the death of a pig, bringing to each piece a “natural candour” (a phrase White borrows from the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy, who was speaking of Montaigne), an authenticity of thought and emotion, that sustains us through subject matter that is certainly not “of general interest.” Here, for example, is the opening paragraph in the “Death Of A Pig” essay:

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. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty affects me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.

The drama of the telling isn’t in the events themselves – the title has already foreclosed that avenue – but in White’s reaction to them: his sympathy for a dying pig that he had purchased to slaughter himself; his identification with the animal, and the intimations of his own death conjured by its suffering. “He had evidently become precious to me,” White writes, “not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.” There is, of course, something somewhat absurd in this sympathizing with a pig, particularly one already marked for death, but White is aware of this, and winks at us through the page. After a particularly bleak landscape description following the pig’s death, he gives us this: “Everything about this last scene seemed overwritten – the dismal sky, the shabby weeds, the imminence of rain, the worm (legendary bedfellow of the dead), the apple (conventional garnish of a pig). Just how much of this is matter-of-fact reporting or authorial prerogative is uncertain, but by drawing our attention to its seeming overwritten, he has kept us on his side, won our confidence, so to speak. And a man who can hold our attention and win our sympathies over the death of a pig can be trusted to speak to us about the horrors of nuclear proliferation, the evils of racism or the joys of living in New York.

There is no single literary form that more clearly transmits the writer’s personality through the page than the essay, and so much of the joy produced by a good essay comes from our encounter with the author. White has a good-natured eccentricity, an appreciation for the smallest of life’s pleasures, and a disdain for artificiality wherever he finds it. In an essay about his life in Florida, for example, he launches into a rant about “Color Added” oranges:

The dyeing of an orange, to make it orange, is man’s most impudent gesture to date. It is really an appalling piece of effrontery, carrying the clear implication that Nature doesn’t know what she is up to. I think an orange, dyed orange, is as repulsive as a pine cone painted green. I think it is about as ugly a thing as I have ever seen, and it seems hard to believe that here, within ten miles, probably, of the trees that bore the fruit, I can’t buy an orange that somebody hasn’t smeared with paint.

His complaint here is of a piece with his position on nuclear weapons – which, at the time of his writing, were being tested with no regard for their impact on the environment – and on pollution more generally, and though the stakes are certainly higher when these issues come into play, the origin of his contempt remains his love of the natural world.

I think man’s gradual, creeping contamination of the planet, his sending up of dust into the air, his strontium additive in our bones, his discharge of industrial poisons into rivers that once flowed clear, his mixing of chemicals with fog on the east wind add up to a fantasy of such grotesque proportions as to make everything said on the subject seem pale and anemic by contrast. I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management.

That sardonic phrasing, “the corporate earth,” brilliantly deploys the language of the contaminators – the language of profits and production, as opposed to the more abstract language of nature – against their purpose, for the earth is self-evidently not a corporation, and the very idea of making it one repulses us.

The essay form is personal by its very nature – enlarging the author’s role, rather than diminishing it – but a handful of essays in this volume relate events from White’s past in great detail. “The Years Of Wonder,” about his early failures as a writer and their culmination in a sea voyage to Alaska, is particularly beautiful, and demonstrates his willingness to shine his mocking spotlight on himself:

I was a literary man in the highest sense of the term, a poet who met every train. No splendor appeared in the sky without my celebrating it, nothing mean or unjust took place but felt the harmless edge of my wildly swinging sword.

The older White, it turns out, never stopped celebrating, never stopped swinging his sword; the old impulses survived, found new attachments, new enemies. But the sword was considerably sharpened.