E. B. White: Notes and Comments by Author
By Israel Shenker, Special to the New York Times
North Brooklin, Me.-- Writing is an affair of yearning for great voyages and hauling on frayed ropes. Every blank page conceals perils for the unwary, but E. B. White is the kind of sailor--deft, controlled, ready to deal with storms and calms--whose craft graces the waters.
In a trade frequently built on large egos and small principles, Mr. White stands modest and upright. He is solicitous about colleagues, concerned about friends and worried about the whole world. When he hears others proclaim a duty to be courageous or good-natured or happy, he suggests quietly:
"Everybody should be lucky."
A Versatile Mariner
For many years he wrote "Notes and Comment"--the opening pages of The New Yorker-- celebrating things in general. In collections of essays ("One Man's Meat," "The Second Tree From the Corner"), in poetry ("The Lady Is Cold"), in children's books ("Stuart Little" and "Charlotte's Web"), and in a writing manual ("The Elements of Style," whose co-author was William Strunk, Jr.) his mastery of form and perspective gave pause to those who sailed in his wake.
With his wife, Katharine, and a barn full of sheep and a coop full of chickens and a dog named Jones, he now lives here the year round, fighting the miseries of age and savoring timeless pleasures.
"The Bible has me dead (70 years old) on July 11," he noted, "and I believe everything I read in print."
He does most of his writing at the water's edge in an old boathouse, sitting in Spartan solitude on a wooden bench. Writing has never come easy, and it took him years to realize that spikes were sticking in his back. Mr. White has now built himself a broader bench and screened in the boathouse and chased off the foxes that burrowed into the ground below.
But he is not doing much writing now. "All I have to do is one English sentence and I fly into a thousand pieces," he said in a recent interview.
Even writing a simple letter is almost more than he can bear these days.
"I wish instead I were doing what my dog is doing at this moment, rolling in something ripe he has found on the beach in order to take on its smell," he said. "His is such an easy, simple way to increase one's stature and enlarge one's personality."
"A pianist achieves a certain tone through the use of his hand, his mind, and his heart," Mr.
White continued. "I presume a writer arrives at it in much the same way. I have always tried to say the words and transmit the emotion, if any, and without too much horsing around.
A Stickler for Taste
"It has never struck me as harmful to make a conscious effort to elevate one's thoughts, in the hope that by doing so one's writing will get off the ground, even if only for a few seconds (like Orville Wright) and to a low altitude. I am an egoist, inclined to inject myself into almost everything I write. This usually calls for good taste, if one is to stay alive. I'm not against good taste in writing, however unpopular it may be today.
"I was a flop as a daily reporter. Every piece had to be a masterpiece--and before you knew it, Tuesday was Wednesday.
"My deadline now is death. Thurber once said it's remarkable how many people are up and around."
"How should one adjust to age?" Mr. White asked, and replied: "In principle, one shouldn't adjust. In fact, one does. (Or I do.) When my head starts knocking because of my attempt to write, I quit writing instead of carrying on as I used to do when I was young.
"These are adjustments. But I gaze into the faces of our senior citizens in our Southern cities, and they wear a sad look that disturbs me. I am sorry for all those who have agreed to grow old. I haven't agreed yet. Old age is a special problem for me because I've never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself--a lad of about 19.
No Time to Be Sick
"A writer certainly has a special problem with aging. The generative process is slowed down, yet the pain and frustration of not writing is as acute as ever. I feel frustrated and in pain a good deal of the time now; but I try to bear in mind the advice of Hubert Humphrey's father. 'Never get sick, Hubert; there isn't time.'"
Parents should adjust to their children, said Mr. White, by staying young. "And by talking to a youngster as though there were no age gap. The gap is real enough--it is as old as the human race. It is natural that there be a gap, and not a bad thing, either.
"I lived in an age when parents weren't scared of their children; they commanded respect, enforced discipline and maintained an orderly household. It can still be done, but the motor car and the TV have clearly added to the burden of the task of discipline and of communication."
"I'm very sympathetic to what young people say," he added. "One day they're defending the flag and the next day they're tearing the ivy off the walls."
Trouble in Remoteness
Trouble in Remoteness
He has no simple solution for student dissent or nonconformity.
"I've never been an administrator," he noted, "never been a member of a faculty, never been under fire. It's not easy to keep the true dissenters (those who want to improve something) separate from the phony dissenters (those who want to destroy the whole business). The two intermingle in the heat of campus controversy.
"Universities have become very big, and with the bigness comes remoteness, inaccessibility. This is bad, and it causes trouble. When I was an undergraduate, there were a few professors who went out of their way to befriend students. At the house of one of these men I felt more at home than I did in my own home with my own mother and father. I felt excited, instructed, accepted, influential, and in a healthy condition.
"Apparently, most students today don't enjoy any such experience, and they are ready to dismantle the Establishment before they have either defined it or tasted it. In a democracy, dissent is as essential as the air we breathes. It's only when students form an elite society, immune from ordinary restraints, that I worry about dissent."
Reluctant on Advice
He was asked what counsel he would give to those who dissent against the draft.
"I seldom peddle advice to the young," he replied. "Most of them seem better informed than I am, and they have their own special problems.
"I'll say this, though: Every country is entitled to a few mistakes. The Vietnam war is a mistake. The Selective Service is inequitable. Yet even a country that is in the midst of a mistake must have an armed force loyal to its basic beliefs and prepared to defend its general principles. If that were to go, all would go."
His formula for Vietnam: "I think we should withdraw our troops."
Mr. White's prescription for the New York battlefield--about which he wrote "Here Is New York," (1948)--is not withdrawal, but moratorium.
"Someone could suggest that since Manhattan is a small island, unexpandable, it poses a limit to building and to population," he said.
"Nobody ever suggests this--it would be heresy to suggest it. Yet most of the ills of New York are attributable to a too great concentration in too small a space. Every time you look up, somebody has erected another tall office building or another tall apartment building.
Homes are disappearing. Traffic grinds to a halt. New York is an inspiring city, a fantastic city, but I think it is crowding its luck. Structural steel can be its undoing. Without homes, a city loses its quality. It is no longer a city, it is just a happening."
In "Here Is New York," Mr. White wrote of an "inviolate truce" between the races. He recalls that this was a pre-Civil Rights Act truce, noting:
"The truce has been violated of late, obviously, and for good reasons, since it was a truce based on an essential injustice, crying for correction. New York, however, still seems to have the knack of rolling with the punches to a greater degree than most large cities, probably because the punches come with greater frequency and from more directions."
What bothers him about the world at large is "its seductiveness and its challenge."
"If the world were merely seductive," he noted, "that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."
In the days to come he hopes to get at his journals. "Some of them are tremendously pretentious in the way they're written," he said, "tremendously callow, the kind of things that go with youth. But I was observing myself very sharply and very shrewdly.
"I was never a reader. I was arriving at conclusions almost independently of the entire history of the world. If I sat down to read everything that had been written--I'm a slow reader--I would never have written anything. My joy and my impulse was to get something down on paper myself.
'Portions Cry for Salvage'
"Right now the note says that the journal has got to be burned as soon as I die. But if I could work on it myself, I might be able to salvage portions that cry for salvage."
What disturbs him now about himself? "I am bothered chiefly by my little fears that are the same as they were almost 70 years ago. I was born scared and am still scared. This has sometimes tested my courage almost beyond endurance."
"I have no heroes, no saints," he said, "I do have a tremendous respect for anyone who does something extremely well, no matter what. I would rather watch a really gifted plumber than listen to a bad poet. I'd rather watch someone build a good boat than attend the launching of a poorly constructed play. My admirations are wide-ranging and are not confined to arts and letters."
These are the kind of people who give him the willies; "Subtly corrupt people. Vaguely fraudulent people. Talkative people who have nothing to say. Power-hungry people. Creative people with their ear to the ground. People whose names begin with W."
Asked what he cherished most in life, Mr. White replied: "When my wife's Aunt Caroline was in her nineties, she lived with us, and she once remarked: "Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.' I cherish the remembrance of the beauty I have seen. I cherish the grave, compulsive word."