“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 the person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”
So begins White’s foreword to this collection of essays spanning forty years of his career with the effrontery to catalog a broad range of subjects including farm-life, city-life, environmentalism, writing and writers, and odd memories and obsessions. From this beginning foreword I quickly became aware that White was a different type of writer, one with a unique self-awareness and stylistic fortitude that was worth paying attention to.
I am not much of an essay or memoir reader, so I was thoroughly surprised at how much I enjoyed this collection. Many of the Essays are from the New Yorker, and prior to reading this book, I had no idea that E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little was a major contributor to the New Yorker for nearly half a century. As with any collection there are several gems and a few pieces that could be done without, but on the whole, this is a solid volume of work and one I imagine I may return to several years down the line. Why is this so? White is the White of Strunk & White and with his succinct, to-the-point writings he earns the merits required to edit the Elements of Style. White only became a children’s book author in his later life, and in the essay he displays a compassionate mind that is generally interested in life and all it has to offer. The breadth of his thoughts ranges a gamut of pondering, all with self-aware conservatism towards the valuable and good. He questions the odd behaviors of his fellow man with tongue-in-cheek as noted below in his observations regarding the racism of the South:
“I felt there were too many people in the world who think liberty and justice for all means liberty and justice for themselves and their friends.” (174, from On a Florida Key)
And he ponders the coming of age freedom of a young man as noted in his catalog of his journeys to Alaska aboard a cruise ship:
“…there is a period near the beginning of every man’s life when he has little to cling to except his unmanageable dream, little to support him except good health, and nowhere to go but all over the place.” (210, from The Years of Wonder)
And in a timeless manner, White exhibits trepidation towards the championed conveniences heralded by technological advancement as noted in his opus towards the decline of train travel:
“If our future journeys are to be a little different from flashes of light, with no interim landscape and no interim thought, I think we will have lost the whole good of journeying and will have succumbed to a mere preoccupation with getting there.” (271, from The Railroad).
In this volume of essays I have found an E.B. White that I admire and identify with. The collection is truly a gem and worth any reader’s effort, for it is hardly an effort to browse through such varying thoughts expressed with succinct clarity as though they were dialogues with an old friend.