on February 14, 2002
Most folks will know E.B. White as the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, or as the eminently practical voice of reason in The Elements of Style. However, White was also an accomplished essayist, turning out pieces for The New Yorker and Harpers on a regular basis for many years.
What I like about White's essays is that they can be counted on to be insightful, amusing and well-written. White approaches an essay like a pleasant conversation. He's been thinking about New York and its inhabitants, he will tell you, and this what he's come up with. On another occasion it may be the personality quirks of his old dachshund Fred, or the controversy over white versus brown eggs. Anything and everything is food for thought, although you can be sure that White will broaden the scope of his topics to include the world at large. New York, he concludes, is a concentrated version of many worlds, "...bringing to a single arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader, and the merchant." Fred, the dachshund, was "...the Cecil B. deMille of dogs. He was a zealot, and I have just been reminded of him by a quote from one of the Democrats..." And the white versus brown egg debate, White concludes, is simply a matter of what you're used to. Personally he prefers brown, and can recommend the egg of the Silver Cross, whose egg is "...so richly brown, so wondrously beautiful as to defy description."
Best of all, White's insightful commentary does not require intense concentration or endless analysis to get the gist of what he is trying to say. You can sit back and relax when you pick up a book of his essays, knowing you won't have to grapple with unfamiliar or awkward language. This is not to imply that you won't find yourself thinking about what he has to say. It's just that his approach is so matter-of- fact, easy going and accessible that you feel you've been invited to tea or are taking a leisurely stroll as the essay unfolds. I read White's essays the way some people read mysteries or romance novels. They are entertaining without being too demanding, and are a great way to set day-to-day concerns aside. Treat yourself to a good read.
on June 9, 2001
I never read E.B. White as a child although all of my friends were very much into "Charlotte's Web" and "The Trumpet of the Swan." Perhaps it was because the only other Stuart I'd ever heard of was White's mouse/hero with the last name Little...a fact that my schoolmates teased me with throughout grade school.
White has got to be one of the finest writers I've ever read, expressing in 5 graceful words what it takes others paragraphs to do. His descriptions of life in Maine are priceless for anyone, like me, who has longed to let the country boy deep down inside sit back and "smell the roses." And,of course, Maine is still one of the few places in the U.S. that is relatively city poison-free.
Read White's opening sentence in his brilliant "Here Is New York" which is, arguably, the best appreciation of this all-too-crazy city: "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." Where did he write those words? "...in a stifling hotel room in 90-degree heat, halfway down an air shaft, in midtown." At the end of this wonderful, wonderful essay (which, by the way has been re-printed, all by itself, in a beautifully illustrated paperback) White contemplates an old Willow tree in the Turtle Bay area and he writes, "This must be saved,this particular thing, this very tree. If it were to go, all would go--this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death."
What other essayist expresses his thoughts and ours so unself-consciously, so economically and, yes, so magnificently? None that I have come across. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
on June 17, 1998
Although he is best known for his children's books, including Charlotte's Web and the Trumpet of the Swan, author E.B. White's primary trade was the personal essay. In this remarkable collection, White brought together the premier essays of his seventy-year career, grouped into broad themes. This collection contains a mixture of period pieces from his years at the New Yorker magazine, including "Here is New York," and perceptive pieces on everyday events of life, such as "What Do Our Hearts Treasure?" Each essay brings a smart outlook toward life, an incredible ability to describe ordinary events vividly, and the melancholy and sentimental perspective that dominated White's life. This is undoubtedly the finest collection of American essays in the twentieth century.
on October 13, 2001
You would be hard-pressed to find any writer who constructs sentences more methodically or more elegantly than White. His style is clear as a summer creek. Each word belongs exactly where he put it, and each metaphor is perfectly chosen. You will not find more value per word anywhere.
Above all, though, he is sensible. He doesn't arrive at erratic conclusions, but simple, naturally sane ones, which makes you wish all people would read White as an object lesson on seeing clearly. The world doesn't need to be made difficult, and he proves it.
His power of persuasion through the written word is remarkable (he once wrote a letter to the New York Herald Tribune disagreeing with an editorial, and after few days had passed, the Tribune wrote a public letter of apology for its views. That's effective writing.)
This book is one of the reasons print will never die; it can't be filmed, which means it can't be misinterpreted and possibly destroyed.
Finally, Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court Justice, once wrote a letter to White, saying, "If angels can write, none wields a better pen than you."
If you read this book, and read it closely, you just might agree.
on June 12, 2003
Too bad there is/was only one E. B. White; too bad he couldn't have lived for ever. He will always remain as one of the best American essayists while at the same time continuing to earn acclaim for several other books that will always stay in print: childhood classics Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, as well as the newer edition of Elements of Style.
But his essays! Oh, they are so good, so rambling and thoughtful and gently pointed, many humorous while still making a deep and important impression. Anyone who strives to write good prose must read these essays to find out how a master did it and made it look easy. The first one in this volume, Death of a Pig, could serve as a lesson in How to Write.
on September 1, 1999
Wow. This book is a treasure chest; I resorted to folding the corners of dozens of pages so I could easily relocate some of its gems.
You will hate reaching the end of this book, but you will come away with renewed powers to observe life's little treasures of daily experience.
Seeing the world through the eyes of E. B. White is an inspiring privelege, and this book enables that. If books were cookies, this one would win a whopping big prize.
on March 3, 1999
I couldn't agree with the above review more, except for the last statement. Actually, this is the second-best collection of American essays. The best is E.B. White's "One Man's Meat". White is a devastatingly good writer, regardless of subject or tone, and his essays can be read, re-read and pored over with nothing but greater appreciation at each subsequent read. Virtually anything written by him is bound to be entertaining, informative, enriching and subtle. You owe it to yourself to get to know this man.
writes Elwyn Brooks White, probably familiar to most people as the author of Charlotte's Web. This collection contains 31 essays that "cover a long expanse of time, a wide variety of subjects" divided into seven categories: The Farm; The Planet; The City; Florida; Memories; Diversions and Obsessions; and Books, Men, and Writing.
White impresses me most with his ability to entertain and inform readers on wide-ranging subjects. He seems as comfortable (and skilled) at writing about serious topics like: segregation (On a Florida Key-1941), "And I felt there were too many people in the world who think liberty and justice for all means liberty and justice for themselves and their friends;" the separation of church and state (Bedfellows-1956), "...I don't think a president should advertise prayer;" environmentalism (Sootfall and Fallout-1956), "I believe that no chemical waste is the correct amount to discharge into the rivers of the world...;"and disarmament (Unity-1960) "Total disarmament would not leave anyone free of the threat of war, it would simply leave everyone temporarily without the help of arms in the event of war;" as he is sharing his insight on less serious subjects, such as: the difficulty with giving up sentimental stuff (Goodbye to Forty-eighth Street-1957), "Trophies are like leeches. The ones made of paper, such as a diploma from school or a college, can be burned if you have the guts to light the match, but the ones made of bronze not only are indestructible but are almost impossible to throw away...;" his well-missed dachshund (Bedfellows), "Whenever the bed was occupied during the daylight hours...Fred would appear at the doorway and enter without knocking. On his big gray face would be a look of quiet amusement (at having caught somebody in bed during the daytime) coupled with his look of fake respectability;" the fate of a sick pig (Death of a Pig-1947), "Never send to know for whom the grave is dug, I said to myself, it's dug for thee;" an unconventional family of geese (The Geese-1971), "...geese are friends with no one, the badmouth everybody and everything;" and a nostalgic, return trip to a favorite boyhood destination with his son (Once More to the Lake-1941), "Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end."
He also has great stuff to say about those whose works he admires, for example: (Will Strunk-1957), "A book I have decided not to get rid of is a small one...The Elements of Style, by the late William Strunk, Jr....Am delighted to study it again and rediscover its rich deposits of gold;" an ornithologist (Mr. Forbush's Friends), "If Edward Howe Forbush's prose is occasionally overblown, this results from a genuine ecstacy in the man, rather than a lack of discipline;" and Thoreau (A Slight Sound at Evening-1954), "Hairshirt or no, he is a better companion than most, and I would not swap him for a soberer or more reasonable friend even if I could." Other eclectic topics include: everything you ever wanted to know about the Model T (Farewell, My Lovely!-circa 1936), an eventful trip by ship to Alaska after being relieved of his job as a Seattle Times reporter (The Years of Wonder-1961), and the evolution of the railroad system in Maine (The Railroad-1960). Besides the fact that it contains some of the best essays of all time, the book's foreword provides insight into the authors' views on the genre and its writers, "The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish believe that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest," and the post essay section, entitled About E.B. White, includes an excellent chronology of major events in the man's life and writing career. Also good: The Painted Veil by Somerset Maughan, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
on March 20, 2005
E.B. White is able to convey the most pure and simple honesty through his written word. He writes about dozens of different topics in this collection and most of them I have no reason to relate to, but I do.
White's prose has the ability to touch you even when he's talking about tending to a sick pig on his farm. Something I'm willing to assume most people have never done. But White uses his reasoning and his emotions to carry you through the story so by the end it doesn't matter what happened, but why it happened and how it felt.
I recommend "Good-Bye to Forty-Eighth Street," "Once More to the Lake," and "Bedfellows."
on September 6, 2013
"One never knows," wrote White in "A Report in Spring," "what images one is going to hold in one's memory, returning to the city after a brief orgy in the country. I find this morning that what I most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands---she with a couple of violets and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip. Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists---just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts."
Shakespeare can stop time with a few words. He and the King James' Bible have been mined, word and whisker, for titles, epigraphs, sayings, and writing assignments since the ink dried. E. B. White has this power, too, & it shines in "The Essays of E. B. White." There are 31 essays in this 350 page book, sorted into seven cubbyholes: the Farm (10 pieces), the Planet (3), the city (2), Florida (3), Memories (4), Diversions & Obsessions (2), and Books, Men, and Writing (6). The earliest appeared in 1934; the latest in this collection, 1977. White selected them, he tells us, because they amused him on re-reading and because "a few had the odor of durability clinging to them."
The reader may find all of these essays have an odor of durability & relevance clinging to them, bringing us up short, not unlike the powerful aromatic presence of the long-gone dachschund Fred adhering to the great strap of his collar. Somewhere, at sometime, White may have written a clumsy, ugly, wince-worthy sentence, and he may have written pieces as perishable as a moth in a flame. If so, I have not found them in "The Essays of E. B. White."
White's power comes surely from his often-praised style, a distillation of Professor Strunk & his own merry willingness to sail with the tides of a thought. Take the paragraph on those grandchildren. Omit "longingly recall," use "trip" rather than "excursion," substitute "holding them tightly" for "strangling them in a responsible grip" and leave out "who are less sure of it." One has perfectly good English, but not a paragraph that so clutches the beauty & brevity of life, in its heart or ours.
Readers could rejoice long in thinking about the style of the essays, fer sure. Yet what makes White White is more than the simplicity, clarity, and felicity of his style. The man shown in these essays writes superbly AND he cares passionately about the big ideas of justice, freedom, democracy, decency and the even bigger ideas of compassion, pity, and joy.
White almost quivers at the beauty as well as at the tears of things. He talks about them in the particular more than in the high abstract. With him, we see them too in a Model T, in his wife's determination to free Coral Bells from Achillea, in a widowed old gander whose tail-feathers are sore from the attack of his foster-son, the handsome young gander, in his essays on Thoreau, and in his response to suppression of ideas.
I bought my recent copy of "The Essays of E. B. White" largely because of a few sentences that have so haunted me for years that I wanted to read again in these somewhat turbulent times.
In "Death of a Pig," he writes,
"[This was] the sort of dramatic treatment that instantly appealed to my old dachshund, Fred, who joined the vigil, held the bag, and, when all was over, presided at the interment. When we slid the body into the grave, we were both shaken to the core. The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world."
This essay, and the others in the book, are even better than I remembered. Unreservedly & enthusiastically recommended.