Last night, I finished reading this collection of E.B. White’s writings dating from 1928 to 1976. Of course, we all recognize the name, E.B. White. I am assuming most of us know his books like “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.” Some of us will also remember White’s co-authorship with William Strunk of a little book on writing, “The Elements of Style.” That book was on my required purchase list for my freshman English class at UVM back in 1969. I always wondered why I was not introduced to this little book back in high school – we should have been.
Some of us will also remember White’s regular column in “The New Yorker” magazine and also for “Harper’s.” I admit to having assembled all of White’s books and essay collections as I have discovered an appreciation for this writer I did not have before. The historian, Jon Meacham, writes the introduction for this collection of White’s essays on democracy. Meacham writes, “White is that rarest of figures, a writer whose ordinary run of work is so extraordinary that it repays our attention decades after his death.” (Introduction, pg. XV).
Meacham goes on to say, “…White, arguably the finest occasional essayist of the twentieth century, endures because he wrote plainly and honestly about the things that matter the most, from life on his farm in Maine to the lives of nations and peoples…He was especially gifted at evoking the universal through the exploration of the particular, which is one of the cardinal tasks of the essayist.” (Introduction, pg. XV).
As I read “E.B. White On Democracy,” I was struck by how much of what we are challenged by today was also the heart of our challenges in the period covered in this book, 1928-1976. E. B. White covers the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy Red Scare period, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and life in America during one threat after another. Through all of this there is an overriding demand on providing the truth, and to write in clear and simple writing that honors the best of English writing.
The themes we live with today are all in White’s writing in this collection. He speaks to us today as if these essays were written in the current times. I am not going to tell you I discovered a political bias in White. I did not. I did discover a bias and deep love for America, our history, our traditions, and the work started by our founders. White writes of the work and struggles of America as a friendly observer, and yes, he points out both the good and the bad, but with the best interests of America at heart.
One point that caught my keen interest was an essay White wrote in December of 1950 titled, “Not Conforming to Facts.” Now, where have I heard this recently? Shall we say, from Kelly Anne Conway when she introduced the phrase “alternative facts” to support competing views of the size of inaugural crowds after Trump’s inauguration. There are so many bell-ringers in these essays that are just as much about today as they were about the time White is writing of.
So, without giving away the entire book (something my father often accused me of), I strongly suggest there is a lot in “E.B. White on Democracy” that is as pertinent today as it was to the time White wrote about.
I will leave you with this quote from E.B. White’s, “Stuart Little.” The book closes with these lines:
“As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.”
If you read “E.B. White On Democracy,” you cannot help but be “…headed in the right direction.”
Cousin – wonderful essay! I will revist “E.B. White on Democracy” – it’s been years. “Elements of Style” was introduced to me by a great high school educator, Mr. Montgomery, and it remains a staple in my library. I gifted this gem to my children and others over the years. Classic. Thank you, again, for writing and sharing your perspective. I appreciate you!
Ed, I really only know E.B. White through his extraordinary books for children. After reading your post, I now want to explore his other works, especially “E.B. White on Democracy”. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of expanding my reading horizons.
Well done, Ed. You inspire me both with your thoughts and your writing in general. I hope to add another calm and reasoned voice to the discussion in the weeks ahead. I can imagine you in “Harry’s chair” as we discussed the issues of the day. Thanks for making me think.
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