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.)