Friday, November 15, 2002

Lack of Appreciation for a Beloved Author

I'm not talking about these young whippersnappers who don't appreciate good literature. I'm talking about my lack of appreciation for same. And the author involved is E. B. White.

I know I should be talking about Charlotte's Web or one of White's other books for children. (Stuart Little, for instance). But I've never read any of them. The rumors I've heard about kids crying over Charlotte's death (which also may be only a rumor because, remember, I've never actually read the book) were a serious turnoff. But White was an essayist before he was a children's author, and we've been reading his essay collection One Man's Meat in my graduate class. Actually, we've finished with the thing. Though, I have to admit, I stopped around the halfway point.

One Man's Meat is about White's experiences after he left New York City to live on a farm in Maine. Think Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence except in Maine instead of the south of France. And instead of renovating a house White raised chickens. And instead of writing about great food White wrote about Nazis.

Usually I like personal essays, but White's are often just a little too much like random thoughts for my taste. In his defense, he was writing these for a column in Harper's magazine so the original readers of these essays got them in much smaller, easier to take, doses. Nonetheless, it's not unusual for White to be writing about, say, helping a neighbor drag a sheep home, use a few asterisks, and start writing about something else. This suggests to me that he had a certain number of column inches he had to fill each issue. The essays are interesting historically because they were written in the late 1930s and 1940s about topics people are still writing about today--big agriculture and big education, for instance. One essay on children's literature sounds as if it could be published in The Horn Book today and fit right in. But there's also an aspect to some of his writing that suggests that any thought he had was worth expanding and publishing. Since this is E. B. White we're talking about I'm sure there are many readers who will say that any thought he had was worth expanding and publishing. I, personally, don't know if western literature would be any the worse if he hadn't told us about the farm publications he happened to be reading the day he wrote his column or the state of his hen house.

Okay. I'm an awful person. I just bashed E. B. White.

1 comment:

Xtian said...

Saying that you don't like to read personal essays because they have too many random thoughts is like saying you don't like cowboy movies because there are too many horses and people carrying guns. The answer to that is, well, maybe you just don't like essays. Essays include randomness and are about making that randomness interesting. In my opinion, EB White is a master at exactly that. I have no interest in most of the subjects he touches upon, yet the language he uses, the rythm of his phrases, the way unexpected but precise words appear in his writing, etc. At the same time his writing is profound and warm, playful but never stupid, smart but not condescending. Try to do that as a writer and you will realize how difficult is to strike that balance.

Of course, you don't have to like EB White. You don't have to like Montaigne (who basically invented the genre and contains as much randomness). It is also true that EB White wrote in a different context, when we weren't flooded by the "personal" blogs, reports, etc. But that is exactly WHY I think reading him NOW is essential, because he found that fine line between being personal and intimate and not being invasive and vain.