While I'm At It - TPR Challenge #7: E. B. White

After getting all enraptured over Charlotte's Web the other day, I realized that E. B. White is on my TPR Challenge list, so I pulled out the interview and a collection I picked up for 75 cents: Poems and Sketches of E. B. White.  In skimming through and choosing a few to read, I found that most of his poetry doesn't offer me much.  There are a few I liked, but his "sketches" or brief essays/narrative sets are really something I approve of.  His humor is so quietly cutting, and the choice phrases seem so effortlessly but exactly placed to best shine.  In one piece ("The Rock Dove"), he answers a woman's swooning questions about New York City pigeons (not specifically addressed to him; they were published in Promenade) with a twinkling sobriety (he even drew pictures!) that lets you know he thinks this woman is simultaneously taking birds too damned seriously and not nearly seriously enough.  In "Calculating Machine," he ridicules a pocket calculating machine that measures one's writing in terms of "reading ease."  He thrashes the accompanying writing instruction pamphlets and concludes by quoting Thoreau and quipping:
Run that through your calculator!  It may come out Hard, it may come out Easy.  But it will come out whole, and it will last forever.
White is appreciative of a good final line.  He knows the importance of the last word.  In "Ghostwriting," where he expresses frustration with American University's new course in ghostwriting and the act of ghostwriting at all, he concludes
Lincoln probably had as much on his mind as the president of the motorcar company, but when an occasion arose, he got out a pencil and went to work alone.  His technique is as good today, despite electronics, as it was then.  Few men, however, have that kind of nerve today, or that kind of loneliness.  They're all too busy taking their ghost to lunch and filling him in.
Beautiful.  Simply beautiful.   I could go on as I have just spent a few more moments thumbing through and laughing at his "Two Letters, Both Open" where he writes to the ASPCA and the IRS in stunningly droll fashion.  And then an essay about the new checks his bank was requiring.   Oh, what a joy this little trip has been!

As for the interview, it too was a good thing.  (Can you read those words without hearing Martha Stewart's intonation?  I admit I struggle to do so.  Curse the omnipresence of that woman!)  I found it fascinating to learn that he was hardly a reader at all although he thought Rachel Carson's Silent Spring awfully impressive.  There is also his rather well-known words about writing for children:
Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time.  You have to write up, not down.  Children are demanding.  They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.  They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.
And then this commentary, which I was not previously familiar with and which speaks to so much more than just writers these days:
Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry.  There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger.  But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.  I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad.  I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.
I feel this pressure in so many arenas of life now - not just writing.  Especially in the world of public discourse (news channel roundtables, political debates, soundbites from analysts), we are driven by this animation of anger.  I can avoid most of it by just not watching T.V., but it is something that continues to plague some writers, journalists, and other purveyors of the written word, and I'm not sure they are doing themselves or their craft justice.   Observe here White making good on his promise:
I examined everything said yesterday in the council chambers of the mighty and could find not a single idea that was not trifling, not a noble word of any caliber, not one unhurried observation or natural thought.  The newspaper headline prophesying darkness is less moving than the pool of daylight that overflows upon it from the window, illuminating it.  The light of day - so hard at times to see, so convincing when seen.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't sampled White's poetry but I wholeheartedly agree with you about his essays, particularly the line "the choice phrases seem so effortlessly but exactly placed to best shine." Exactly - he makes it look so delightfully easy. That passage about mitigating anger strikes home for me as well.

    Plus, White was a dachshund owner - always a plus in my book. :-)