There is something commercially characteristic about columnists, those who write essays for regular consumption, like Dorothy Parker’s witty contributions to The New Yorker or Christopher Hitchens’ intellectually weighty output for Vanity Fair. Approachable. Digestible. Concise. These Essays of E. B. White included.
Beloved American essayist E. B. White (1899 – 1985) wrote for fifty years at The New Yorker. New York City was White’s residence, a place he understood thoroughly (like filmmaker Sidney Lumet) but never called “home.”
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town.
Essays of E. B. White has the dry humor and self-effacing ploy of an English author (he wasn’t) and the loving detail of a highly observant and philosophical man. It is also steps apart from time. His essay about the 1939 World’s Fair and thoughts on the poison of the future could be republished every fifty years on the hour.1
It is all rather serious-minded, this World of Tomorrow, and extremely impersonal. […] When the night falls in the General Motors exhibit and you lean back in the cushioned chair (yourself in motion and the world so still) and hear (from the depths of the chair) the soft-electric assurance of a better life—the life which rests on wheels alone—there is a strong, sweet poison which infects the blood. I didn’t want to wake up.
My favorite piece in Essays of E. B. White is “Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street,” an essay of leaving New York for good. White tears through all of the little collections that amass in homes—”as much paraphernalia as an aircraft can hold,” the things we’ve made precious by caring. What to get rid of, what to keep, disposing of the indispensable. It is an essay about abandonment.
I kept hoping that some morning, as by magic, all books, pictures, records, chairs, beds, curtains, lamps, china, glass, utensils, keepsakes would drain away from around my feet, like outgoing tide. But this did not happen. […] You can whittle away at it, but to empty the place completely takes real ingenuity and great staying power.
It is easy to become enamoured by the deceptively blithe musings of these essays and question how this man also created Charlotte the Spider and perhaps one of the best books on writing style ever written.2
Writing ties it together; it ties White together. He is delighted by writing, spell-bounded by writing, and he uses writing to enable and expand the best parts of his himself.3
There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person according to his mood or subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast.
Like Hemingway, a writer born the same year as White, who wrote truth must be the point of origin of all writing, White believed “Candor […] is the basic ingredient.” It might not always be interesting, but one should still look, write, and present. In a word, care.
White finds meaning through a narrow and often domestic lens on life. Couple his relaxed, engaged writing with Italo Calvino’s ruminations on sand, maps and language or Patti Smith’s slow wandering around her home and space. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote it is wisdom to see the miraculous in the commonplace. That is the essence of White.