Complexity-Through-Joy

By J.F. McKenna
That phrase above remains one of the most poignant expressions of one man’s life and work, written by essayist and storyteller E.B. White in 1957 and later shared in Hal Hager’s brief biographical notes at the end of Essays of E.B. White (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1992). To quote Hager, Elwyn Brooks White debuted in the final year of the 19th Century and “found joy in nearly everything he saw,” from brown eggs to Thoreau’s Walden to, as White wrote, “the nature and beauty of brevity.” More important, White shed his singular light on such parts of our world and coaxed a new appreciation for them, insisting that “writing of the small things of the day, the inconsequential but the near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sanctity or grace.”
In a world in which instant communications try but fail to demonstrate more pull than gravity itself, White’s principles and style endure—even though originally batted out on a standard manual typewriter. To quote William Shawn of The New Yorker, “His literary style…was singular, colloquial, clear, unforced, thoroughly American and utterly beautiful.” Shawn offered that praise as a White eulogy in 1985, but a modest White himself may have rendered the best appraisal of his work in 1977: “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”
Though I have no notion of ever sharing work space with E.B. White, Lady Carol took pity on me recently and purchased a copy of Essays for her congenitally self-centered husband. As she knows, I have been a reader of White’s work since my earliest newspapering days. And before that, as a Boomer high schooler, I regularly carried around my paperback copy of The Elements of Style, written by William Strunk Jr. in the early 20th Century, and revised by former student White in 1957.
Today, according to one source, the book remains the most frequently assigned text in U.S. academic syllabi. Writer White, no surprise, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for sales. “Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine,” White explains in his late-Fifties’ essay on Professor Strunk. “It is encouraging to see how perfectly a book, even a dusty rulebook, perpetuates and extends the spirit of a man. Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, the bold, and his book is clear, brief, bold. Boldness is perhaps its chief distinguishing mark.”
Then, too, White’s contributions to children’s literature are nothing less than monumental—fromStuart Little to The Trumpet of the Swan to the publishing blockbuster Charlotte’s Web, whom one librarian recently declared to be found nowhere else but at the peak of children’s books today. Without question, White’s long work as an essayist for his adult audience prepared the stage for his young-reader classics. In his 1947 essay on the death of a pig, The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine writer displays an enviable eloquence about an expected occurrence among Maine farmers:
“I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs. The grave in the woods is unmarked, but [White’s dog] Fred can direct the mourner to it unerringly and with immense good will, and I know he and I shall often revisit it, singly and together, in seasons of reflection and despair, on flagless memorial days of our own choosing.”
What has made, and has kept, E.B. White a brilliant essayist all these decades? One can find it in his praise of Henry David Thoreau: “Thoreau said he required of every writer, first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life.” Then White added, “Having delivered himself of this chesty dictum, he proceeded to ignore it.”
In the introduction to his own essays, White called this form of exercise that of the role of second-class citizen to other writers, and he told the reader to “leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.” But, added White, he “cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment, for he will be found out in no time.”
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com
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Comments

  1. In his singular “The Elements of Style,” White insists, “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias.”

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  1. […] himself in deceit or in concealment, for he will be found out in no time.” Originally posted on Cleveland Business Review. J.F. […]

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