By Liat Faver
E. B. White’s Essays of E. B. White had me looking forward to its pages like a well executed five-course meal with my favorite companions. White’s escapades from New England to Florida, Alaska, Seattle and New York City, are awe-inspiring. We find him immediately accessible as he describes the whimsy he enlists on choosing what clothes to wear to address his typewriter, when, “familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots” (9).
White is fascinated with the fauna of his Maine environment, and inducts us into this world with tales of local characters, and the view from his favorite window. On the routine of watching a raccoon leave a tree, White discovers that “the secret of its enchantment is the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the performer is clearly visible and is part of day, and when, ten or fifteen minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadow and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena; a man is lucky indeed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window” (36). Coonset, indeed.
White shares, with many of us, the awareness of a future bereft of the alluring stirs of natural wilderness, in the ever-growing technological melting-pot called progress, and his words of 1956 are relevant today. He says we may depend on cheap power for success in the future, but success will “depend to a greater extent on our ability to resist a technological formula that is sterile: peas without pageantry, corn without coon, knowledge without wisdom, kitchens without a warm stove. There is more to these rocks than uranium; there is the lichen on the rock, the smell of the fern whose feet are upon the rock, the view from the rock” (42). Amen, Mr. White, and by the way, “they” are still not listening.
My favorite chapter, The Years of Wonder, sets young White adrift on the Alaska-bound Buford, a ship on which our protagonist is transported “from all my yesterdays to all my tomorrows” (180). We see ourselves in his innocent flirtations with destiny, and the desire to “throw myself into any flame that was handy, to see if I could stand the heat.” Only a brave young man would tempt fate this way, and the reader couldn’t be happier that he did.
I haven’t space here to impart all the joyous merits of Essays. Let the reader beware: If you don’t wish to learn anything new about your world and a master among writers, don’t bother with it. And if you don’t want to be drawn into a book you can’t put down, do not read this one: “It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat” (244).
White, E. B. Essays of E.B. White. New York: Harper Collins. 1977. Print.