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Writings from the New Yorker 1925-1976

E. B. White



  1. Nature

  2. The Word

  3. Thoreau

  4. Liberty

  5. Maine

  6. One World

  7. Body and Mind

  8. Science

  9. The Academic Life

  10. Business

  11. Curiosities and Inventions

  12. Christmas Spirit

  13. New York

  14. Whims

  15. Endings and Farewells

  Selective Bibliography

  About the Author

  Books by E. B. White


  About the Publisher


  While working on an independent study project at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1988, reading all of E. B. White’s New Yorker work, I kept discovering many delightful pieces of prose that had never been collected in any of his books. This collection presents some of that work.

  E. B. White is perhaps best known for his children’s books (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan), but he was primarily a writer for The New Yorker, where he wrote anonymously “Notes and Comment,” “Talk of the Town,” and newsbreaks, those fillers at the end of articles with wry comments on clippings from newspapers and magazines. He began sending contributions to The New Yorker in 1925 and writing “Notes and Comment” for it in 1926. When White moved to Maine in 1938, he started writing a monthly column, “One Man’s Meat,” for Harper’s Magazine and he wrote only occasionally for The New Yorker. After resigning from Harper’s in 1943, he resumed writing frequently for The New Yorker. The Whites divided their time between New York and Maine from 1943 until 1957, when they moved permanently to their home in Maine. He died in 1985 at the age of 86.

  In his New Yorker work, White commented on the news and people of the time, connecting them to broader concerns. He embraced the themes he noted as Thoreau’s, “man’s relation to Nature and man’s dilemma in society and man’s capacity for elevating his spirit,” and, like Thoreau, “beat all these matters together,” producing “an original omelette from which people can draw nourishment in a hungry day” (“A Slight Sound at Evening,” Essays of E. B. White). Like Thoreau, White delighted in exploring the fullness of life as an individual. Like Thoreau, he was divided between “the desire to enjoy the world (and not be derailed by a mosquito wing) and the urge to set the world straight.” Moreover, White, unlike Thoreau, felt an empathic bond with humanity, a certain bond with others that Thoreau did not feel. While he was often playful in his writing, sometimes delighting in the spirit of fun for its own sake, he also dealt with important subjects, and his writing is often quite lyrical—poetry in prose form. His humor, which permeated nearly all of his writing, is the type that “plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth” (“Some Remarks on Humor,” Essays). As we read White’s work in its variety of moods, we experience his vitality, his subtle irony, his gentle but pointed satire, his unpretentious manner and admiration of simplicity, his spirit of fun, and his compassion and concern.

  The pieces presented here were selected and arranged by the White family from selections and arrangements I proposed for this collection. The pieces are in roughly chronological order within each part to show a historical perspective on the United States from the Depression years through World War II and the postwar years, the evolution of The New Yorker’s editorial concerns, the development of E. B. White as a writer from his young voice and early promise to his more assured work and weightier subjects, and, over the years, his increasing refinement of writing style and humor.

  The early pieces (twenties and thirties) examine life’s little adversities and are short, frothy, witty, even sometimes flip-pant. The later pieces (from the forties on) are less whimsical and focus on more serious matters such as liberty, international affairs, and the environment, but even these have his graceful touch of humor. White’s pieces became longer and more intricate structurally in the fifties; most of his long essays have been collected in Essays of E. B. White, which makes a good companion to this collection.

  Most of the pieces are excerpts from “Notes and Comment,” each piece bearing the date of its publication in The New Yorker and transcribed as it was printed in the magazine. Be-cause “Notes and Comment” was an editorial column, White had to follow magazine policy of using “we” instead of “I.” He disliked the awkwardness of the practice, saying it gave “the impression that the stuff was written by a set of identical twins or the members of a tumbling act” (Foreword, The Second Tree from the Corner). Despite White’s preference for “I” over “we,” I have not altered any of his words from the text as it appeared in The New Yorker. The footnotes are editorial additions; I have tried to keep them to a minimum.

  Many of White’s New Yorker and Harper’s pieces are collected in his previously published books. His collected work, even counting this collection, contains only a small portion of the hundreds of paragraphs and essays he wrote over the years. Katherine Hall’s E. B. White: A Bibliographical Catalogue lists 450 signed pieces and 1350 identifiable unsigned columns in The New Yorker from 1925 to 1976, the last year he contributed a piece (the one titled “A Busy Place” in this collection). Her bibliography is based on manuscripts White donated to Cornell University’s Olin Library and on a scrapbook of his articles in various magazines put together and donated to the library by Scott Elledge, professor of English at Cornell and White’s biographer. Elledge, in turn, relied on the White scrapbooks in the files at The New Yorker, which are the basic source for identifying which parts of the unsigned columns are White’s work.

  Ebba Johnson, head librarian at The New Yorker from 1934 to 1970, now deceased, and Helen Stark, the current librarian, deserve appreciation as the curators of those White scrap-books. I also thank Katherine Hall, who, in her bibliography, has made information on White’s work readily available. I thank Bryant Mangum, Bill Griffin, and Terry Oggel of Virginia Commonwealth University for their advice to me on this project, and I thank my family for their support. In putting together this collection, I tried to imagine how E. B. White would have wanted it done. I relied on his family and Cass Canfield, Jr., of HarperCollins (the son of his editor at Harper & Row) for advice, and I appreciate their suggestions and enthusiasm for the project. Although White is not here to speak for himself, he deserves to have the last word. In a note in Hall’s bibliography concerning “Notes and Comment,” he wrote how he came up with ideas for the column: “People on the staff and other people who were readers of the magazine used to submit comment ideas, and I always had a folder of these ideas and suggestions on my desk, together with clippings and stuff that I would toss into the folder from my own reading.” He wished to acknowledge these “thousand mysterious and unremembered sources.”

  Rebecca M. Dale






  AT EIGHT OF A HOT MORNING, the cicada speaks his first piece. He says of the world: heat. At eleven of the same day, still singing, he has not changed his note but has enlarged his theme. He says of the morning: love. In the sultry middle of the afternoon, when the sadness of love and of heat has shaken him, his symphonic soul goes into the great movement and he says: death. But the thing isn’t over. After supper he weaves heat, love, death into a final stanza, subtler and less brassy than the others. He has one last heroic monosyllable at his command. Life, he says, reminiscing. Life.



  THE PLANT-PATENT BUSINESS is taking right hold, apparently. We know a man who received a birthday present of a nice little
azalea. Tied around the azalea’s stem, like a chastity belt, was a metal tag from Bobbink & Atkins, reading, “Asexual reproduction of this plant is illegal under the Plant Patent Act.” It was Number 147. Our friend, a man of loose personal habits, ripped the tag off angrily, fed it to his dachshund puppy, and sent the plant to a friend in Connecticut with instructions to bed it down warmly next to an old buck hydrangea.



  SUMMERTIME THIS YEAR is a ripe girl who finds herself forsaken by the boys, the ordinarily attentive and desirous boys. They are nowhere to be found; they have disappeared, the way males do, seized by some sudden mechanical flirtation, some new interest of a passing sort. Summertime is a girl who knows they will be back and who is conscious that she herself is irresistible over the long term, that her beauty and her accommodating ways have lost no fraction of their power. We had summertime practically to ourself the other afternoon, and in our guilt we lay with her in the name of all who were temporarily denied that privilege, admiring her incredible poise. The scent of her clothes was unmistakable; her sea, her sand, her sky wore the same look as ever; the insects which are her private minstrels sang the same seductive measure. We have never seen a discarded female more sure of where she stood than summertime.



  OUR FIRST COMMUNICATION of the year 1952 was a card from a seed company, and this seemed a good omen. A new bush bean, rich in flavor. A new pickle, early, dark green, delicious. A new muskmelon, thick orange flesh of top quality. A new petunia, giant fringed, dwarfish. So starts the year on a note of planning and dreaming. The card went on to chide us—said no order had been received from us since 1949. That is a fantastic accusation; we virtually supported that seed house last year and the year before and the year before, back into the dim, infertile past. However, we don’t expect seed companies to keep accurate records; the whole business is so wild, so riotous, so complex, it’s no wonder they forget who their own best friends are. If there is any doubt on that score, though, we will gladly send the management a jar of our wife’s green-tomato pickle from last summer’s crop—dark green, spicy, delicious, costlier than pearls when you figure the overhead.



  ONE OF THE MALE SPARROWS in Turtle Bay garden made a wonderful discovery at quarter past nine the other morning. He found a small length of blue confetti tied in a bow. The morning was springlike, although a trifle cool, and the combination of blue confetti and blue sky stirred him up. He carried his find to the branch of a large sycamore, where he sat waiting to be photographed. (It really looked as though he had on an outsize Windsor tie.) After a minute or two, he moved on to a willow, then to Dorothy Thompson’s gate, then to an ailanthus. Pretty soon the word got around and other sparrows of both sexes showed up, the ladies to admire, the men to jeer. It was fairly obvious that the owner of the blue bow tie was uncertain about his next move. He was undecided whether to start nest building, using a blue confetti bow tie as a sill piece (and face all the involvements and commitments that follow nest building), or whether just to wear the damned thing. He unquestionably was enjoying the fuss, and when the attention of the other birds flagged, he purposely dropped the bow, allowed it to spiral down almost to the fountain, then swooped and recovered it in midair. This drew a round of applause. We watched the act for twenty minutes, at the end of which time the sparrow dropped the bow again and flew away to a neighborhood saloon. It is a wearisome thing to be overdressed in the early morning.



  ALONE OVER A WEAKFISH in the deep noonday shadows of the Roosevelt Grill, we spelled out the strong editorials in the News, occasionally lighting a match to read some of the more challenging passages. Our waiter drifted over after a while and stood quietly at our side. “It’s so beautiful,” he murmured. “What is, Father?” we asked. “This day, this perfect soft spring day.” He pointed east, where the faint luminosity of Vanderbilt Avenue showed through the blinds and gave the restaurant a ribbon of golden light. His voice had tears in it. “I’ve been listening to the radio,” he said. “Tomorrow snow, turning to rain.” He was a man carrying foreknowledge in his breast, and the pain was almost unbearable. We don’t remember a winter when people followed the elements so closely and when foreknowledge so completely destroyed any chance of momentary bliss.



  THE MOST STARTLING NEWS in the paper on February 13th was the weather forecast. It was “Rainy and dismal.” When we read the word “dismal” in the Times, we knew that the era of pure science was drawing to a close and the day of philosophical science was at hand. (Probably in the nick of time.) Consider what had happened! A meteorologist, whose job was simply to examine the instruments in his observatory, had done a quick switch and had examined the entrails of birds. In his fumbling way he had attempted to predict the impact of the elements on the human spirit. His was a poor attempt, as it turned out, but it was an attempt. There are, of course, no evil days in nature, no dies malt, and the forecast plainly showed that the weatherman had been spending his time indoors. To the intimates of rain, no day is dismal, and a dull sky is as plausible as any other. Nevertheless, the forecast indicated that the connection had been reestablished between nature and scientific man. Now all we need is a meteorologist who has once been soaked to the skin without ill effect. No one can write knowingly of weather who walks bent over on wet days.



  SPRING ALWAYS USED TO ARRIVE in midtown in the window boxes of the Helen Gould Shepard house. Something about the brightness and suddenness of that hyacinthine moment said Spring, something about its central location, too. The other day, we passed the ruins of the Gould house and shed a private tear for olden springtimes. Spring struggles into Manhattan by other routes these days; Rockefeller Center has pretty much taken the occasion over. Rockefeller’s is different from Helen Gould’s. Less homey. More like Christmas at Lord & Taylor’s—beautiful but contrived. One never really knows where one will encounter the first shiver and shine of spring in the city. Often it is not in a flowering plant at all, merely in a certain quality of the light as it strikes the walls. We met ours quite a while back, late one afternoon in February, driving south through the Park; in an instant the light had lengthened and strengthened and bounced from the towers into our system, hitting us as a dram of tonic reaching the stomach, and, lo, it was spring.



  A CITY BACK YARD on many a winter’s day is as shabby and unpromising a spot as the eye can rest on: the sour soil, the flaking surfaces of wall and fence, the bare branch, the doom-sprinkled sky. The tone of our back yard this past month, how-ever, has been greatly heightened by the presence of a number of juncos, the dressiest of winter birds. Even the drabbest yardscape achieves something like elegance when a junco alights in the foreground—a beautifully turned-out little character who looks as though he were on his way to an afternoon wedding.



  WE FIND A USEFUL PARABLE in one of the farm journals, whither we turned, hoping to escape for a few moments the ominous headlines of suspicion in the papers. It was a vain hope. The first headline we encountered was “Danger in the Flower Garden.” There is enough poison in a single castor bean to kill a person. The seeds of pinks cause vomiting. Sweet-pea seeds contain a poison that can keep a person bedridden for months. The night-blooming jimson has enough power in its leaves to produce delirium. Daffodil bulbs when eaten cause stomach cramps. And in the lily of the valley is a subtle substance that makes the heart slow down. But the conclusion drawn by the writer of the article, chewing absently on a daffodil bulb, was a good one. We must plant this garden anyway. Even in the face of such terrors, we must plant this garden. Quite a few prophets and thinkers, these days, are recommending just the opposite. They advise doing away with a garde
n that produces such dangers. Let’s change the seed, they say.



  SOMETHING MUST HAVE GOTTEN INTO US, because we arrived at the Danbury Fair shortly after sun-up on the first day. Nothing much had started. Freaks and crystal-gazers were still asleep in the back seats of old sedans. They slept with their clothes on. Grass in the tents was still green, untrampled.

  In the Guernsey barn a calf had been born during the night. A farmhand was teaching it to suck, squirting milk into its stubborn face as it sprawled in the sweet hay. Near the door a bull was having his hair clipped, murder in his eye, murder in the awful muscles of his neck. The electric clippers made a pleasant noise that seemed to go with the good smell of cattle. When the barber was through, a farmboy asked for a hair trim. He would be going into Danbury that night, wanted to look spruce when he winked at the girls. The man cut his hair with the bull clippers. Outside, on the south end of the race course, the overhanging elms still threw long morning shadows on the track as the trotting horses were sent around for a brisk, the drivers hunched over their rumps.

  The first day is really the best; you take your ease and see what goes on. The smells, when we arrived, were just starting to taint the air; the food booths were just starting to smear the first layer of terrible grease on their grills; the faces of the prize dolls were just starting to compete with “your chirce of any pretty lamp.” A man in a wing collar was raking, with a tiny rake, the eleventh fairway of a tiny golf course. “Make 80 and win a free airplane ride.” Madam Drielle, blonde as a birch leaf, stood in the doorway of her tent, yawning—wise with Love, Business, Marriage, Speculation, and Travel, but still a little sleepy. She hated already the faces of the people who hadn’t come yet. Everywhere, sprawled on the ground, were the strange and implausible equipment of the concessionaires—things that fitted vaguely and temporarily into other things. In the big produce tent, marvellously juxtaposed, pumpkins of golden yellow, Crane bathtubs of jade green. We lolled comfortably on the running-board of a truck, watching a Holstein bull get his baptism of bluing. It is not every day one sees a bull bathed. A small lad in spectacles holds the ring of his dripping nose, while a red-cheeked washer dips his tail in bluing-water to make it white. Down the midway Betty, the inexplicable freak of nature, 5 tongues, 3 jaws, Truthful, Tangible, Thriving, Come In. In the poultry house, the sawdust soft underfoot, the birds full of dawn song, cocks in fighting trim, and the inquiring geese penetratingly audible.