E. B. White on Walden

Wednesday 26 June 2002

I love the essays of E. B. White. I happened upon a copy of One Man’s Meat, his collection of columns about his moving from New York to a farm in Maine.

White is often compared to Henry David Thoreau, as a quintessentially American essayist. One of White’s columns is called “Walden”. It is a rambling letter to Thoreau about White’s visit to Thoreau’s home town of Concord. It begins with characteristic wit:

Dear Henry: I thought of you the other afternoon as I was approaching Concord doing fifty on Route 62. That is a high speed at which to hold a philosopher in one’s mind, but in this century we are a nimble bunch.

(I still can’t get over the fact that his century is now the last century). Later, White pokes fun at our love of technology:

There was a sign by the wayside which announced that the road had a “cotton surface.” You wouldn’t know what that is, but neither, for that matter, did I. There is a cryptic ingredient in many of our modern improvements—we are awed and pleased without knowing quite what we are enjoying. It is something to be traveling on a road with a cotton surface.

These passages are typical White: sly, witty, and clever, but also wise, knowing, and loving. One last quote from the same column:

It was June, and everywhere June was publishing her immemorial stanza: in the lilacs, in the syringa, in the freshly edged paths and the sweetness of moist beloved gardens, and the little wire wickets that preserve the tulips’ front.

I could go on and on selecting choice sentences, but I won’t: do yourself a favor and find a collection of White’s essays (I bought a sixty-year-old copy of One Man’s Meat, and the age of the hardcover adds something that a freshly minted paperback would lack).

White wrote about Thoreau’s Walden,

It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest, and I keep it about me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief - for relief in moments of defluxion or despair.

I feel the same way about White’s essays.

(One last factoid: White’s wife, Katherine Sergeant White, grew up in the house across the street from ours.)

Comments

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Pat Mesthos 8:15 AM on 25 Aug 2010

Thank you, Ned. I found this entry when I googled "E.B. White" and Thoreau."Now, I will go to my bookshelf and pull down my old, found, copy of "One Man's Meat" for a lesson that I am planning. I assigned the essays for summer reading. I love the way that you picked favorite sentences out of the essay, and I will project that onscreen so that they can see a model.

[gravatar]
Susan 8:10 PM on 8 Feb 2014

but what *does* "cotton surface" mean, with respect to a roadway in 1939?

[gravatar]
Ann Wheeler 2:48 PM on 18 Jan 2016

Ned,
I was reading a book of essays by Susan Allen Toth who alluded to both Thoreau and White. As a high school English teacher, I was fascinated but intimidated by Thoreau. I feel about White the same as I did Ray Bradbury: I could sit at the same table but probably not say anything, just be in awe of their ability to say what I wish I could. I will be re-reading their books in 2016.

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