E.B. WHITE came to New York City in the early 1920s
with a book of Thoreau in his pocket, a lover's respect for the American-English sentence, an observant eye, and an impulse to set simple but chosen words to what he observed. He soon made the marvelous discovery that editors would pay him in negotiable checks for writing about what happened to him and what occurrred to him. Harold Ross was so taken by the pieces White submitted to The New Yorker, that he hired White to write the "Talk of the Town" section with which the magazine still opens. White wrote that section single-handed for 11 years, during which all New Yorker readers fell in love with his wit, his clarity, and his respect for simple, accurate prose.
James Thurber, though in a sentence aglow with lackluster, justly praised him for "those silver and crystal sentences which have a ring like nobody else's sentences in the world." When White retired the "Talk of the Town" was taken over by a whole editorial staff that tried and failed to preserve the turns and thrusts of his style. A camel is a greyhound designed by a committee--and it limps.
I came to the present collection of White's work in anticipation of a nostalgic feast. It certainly is good, what there is of it. And there certainly is plenty, such as it is. But I was hungrier than I have been fed. I may be guilty of having wished for a full-scale E.B. White Reader. What a book that could have been!
The sketches of the present volume, as White blandly confesses in his preface, are more or less incidental. Moved to bring his poems together from many scattered pages, he was in some doubt of his poetic stature, but his editor reassured him. "I can fix that," she replied. "We will scatter the poems around in the text, intermingling them with the other stuff. We'll conceal the poems in the underbrush."
I understand any poet's wish to see his poems, or a substantial selection from them, gathered into one volume. I am at work on just such a project, doubting every choice I make, but driven to see what it comes to.
I am yet left to think that poetry was never White's real talent. Thoreau, in schooling him to the precisions of prose, did nothing to keep his poems from wobbling on the lathe. Not bad, not good, the poems generally come to nothing much. Yet what a pleasure it is to happen again on "I Paint What I See," White's killing commentary on Nelson Rockefeller's removal from the lobby of the RCA building of Diego Rivera's communistic murals. The poem, though dated, remains undiminished. What did Nelson expect the old hot radical to paint? And put a star by "The Timid Nautilus," a spoof of the submarine Nautilus, designed to reach the North Pole under the ice, which was yet turned back by a snowstorm in an effort to cross the Delaware from Camden, New Jersey, to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.
The poetry aside, why this choice of sketches? In any collection of White's work there are bound to be small masterpieces, and there are--"The Seven Steps to Heaven," "Dusk in Fierce Pajamas," "The Door"--and more. Yet most seem dated. Or perhaps I am being stupidly subjective. Yet what am I to do with pieces that celebrate a love affair with New York City as if it were a place of happy bustle and innocent merriment? There is even a paean to the city's pigeons, those winged lice that foul ledges and windowsills with diseased droppings. There is even a tweedy, nostalgic piece about the servant problem back in the days when it was complicated by live and present servants.
Donald Hall once wrote a nostalgic piece about his New Hampshire grandfather whose collection of odds and ends included a cigar box labeled "String Too Short To Be Saved." I am left to think that this is E.B. White's box of short strings. But add that these clippings and short ends are by and from a loved master, and that even his scraps are worth the total output of many a louder and busier loom.