I recently re-read Essays of E. B. White. Having done so, I am finally in agreement with those who call White the greatest essayist of the Twentieth century–at least of those that I have read. I returned to White in part to escape what seems to me a simpler time (a false notion, I’m sure, but it’s there nevertheless). What is it about White’s essays that so fill me with joy? In a biographical Afterword to the collection, Hal Hager quotes White himself with a reason:
“I discovered a long time ago,” White wrote in a letter, “that writing of the small things of the day, trivial matters of the hearth, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work I could accomplish with any serenity or grace.”
Writing today often feels like a race to make everything written seem the most important, most consequential thing out there. “Click bait” is but one symptom of this clamor for attention. It is a race fueled by clicks, views, and impressions, more the coinage of the Internet than Bitcoin will ever be. Sturgeon’s rule still applies: most of what is written is trivial (I am no exception), and much of it is poorly written. White’s writing provides me with a safe harbor from this clamor. His writing helps to quiet the mind, and slow the pace of life. In “Home-Coming,” for instance, White writes about his drive from New York to Maine, and how the scenery has changed over the years. He observed:
Steering a car toward home is a very different experience from steering a car toward a rostrum, and if our findings differ, it is not that we differed greatly in powers of observation, but that we were headed in different emotional directions.
Our drives to Florida and Maine reflect some of this need to slow down the pace of life. And there is a different experience driving home than to another destination that I don’t experience with other modes of transport, particularly airplanes. Up in the sky, I am too far removed from the world to see the details I see on the highways.
White’s essays show that it is the pace of life that changes, but the familiar remains the same. Writing about a hurricane in “The Eye of Edna,” White comments on the fever and frenzy of radio weather broadcasts:
It became evident to me after a few fast rounds with the radio that the broadcasters had opened up on Edna awfully far in advance, before she had come out of her corner, and were spending themselves at a reckless rate.
Inhabitants of any region that receives snow will recognize this behavior today, in a time when satellites and weather models can better predict the path of storms–and yet the weather reports still open up far in advance of the storm.
White can be prophetic. In his classic essay, “Here is New York,” he was frighteningly prophetic in his vision of how destructible such a dense city as New York has become. He’s not talking about fire, either.
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.
White finds joy in transportation. He laments the demise of the Model-T in “Farewell, My Lovely!” and while cars have improved dramatically in the decades since, with all kinds of innovations that simplify the act of driving, these same improvements have abstracted the simple mechanical basis of the automobile to the point where even a seasoned mechanic like my grandfather complained that he had difficulty working on the “newer” cars.
White waxes poetic over the joys of sailing (something still very simple and mechanical, but something that has grown increasingly expensive) in his essay, “The Sea and the Winds that Blow.” His essay “The Railroad” is a eulogy for what was once a majestic form of transportation. A similar eulogy is required today for the bygone days when airline travel was fun and original.
White’s essays provide me with an escape from everything that announces its self-importance. His language is careful, his tone casual, and his manner is always self-deprecating, but certain. In his essay on Don Marquis, White writes:
There are plenty of loud clowns and bad poets at work on papers today, but there are not many columnists adding to the belle lettres, and certainly there is no Don Marquis at work on any daily.
Nor is there, alas, another E. B. White.