There is something commercially characteristic about columnists, those who write essays for regular consumption, like Dorothy Parker’s witty contributions to Vanity Fair or Christopher Hitchen’s output for the Atlantic. Approachable. Digestible. Concise. These collected Essays included.
E. B. White (1899 – 1985) beloved American essayist wrote for 50 years at the New Yorker. New York was his residence, 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.
White’s writing 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 timeless. 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.
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 is “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street” when he leaves New York for good. White tears through all of the little collections that amass in our 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.
It is easy to become enamoured by the somewhat 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 (check out the illustrated Elements of Style by fellow New Yorker Maira Kalman).
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.
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 that 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.