Readers hoping to find a collection of new essays from E. B. White between the covers of "One Man's Meat" will be disappointed, but they are the only ones. The reappearance of this volume, first published in 1942, is an event to be celebrated, for it serves to remind us once again not merely that the pleasures of reading White's prose are many and great, but that he is one of the few writers of this or any other century who has succeeded in transforming the ephemera of journalism into something that demands to be called literature.
There are 55 essays in "One Man's Meat." All of them appeared in Harper's magazine; the first is dated July 1938, and the last January 1943. They were written as epistles to the city from the country, by an urbanite who had just fled Manhattan, where he worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker, to take up permanent residence on a farm in Maine. White now recalls, in the introduction to this new edition:
". . . sometime in the winter of 1938, or even before that, I became restless. I felt unhappy and cooped up. More and more my thoughts turned to Maine, where we owned a house with a barn attached. I don't recall being disenchanted with New York--I loved New York. I was certainly not disenchanted with The New Yorker--I loved the magazine. If I was disenchanted at all, I was probably disenchanted with me. For one thing, I suspected that I was not writing quite the way I wanted to write, and sometimes I was oppressed by my weekly deadline. For another, in my job as commentator, I was stuck with the editorial 'we,' a weasel word suggestive of corporate profundity or institutional consensus. I wanted to write as straight as possible, with no fuzziness."
He was given the opportunity to do so when, quite from out of the blue, Harper's offered him the then-princely sum of $300 a month "to contribute a monthly department." His good fortune was great: "I was a man in search of the first-person singular, and lo, here it was--handed to me on a platter before I even left town." But it is one thing to have an opportunity and another to seize it; this latter White did, establishing at once a voice that spoke from coastal Maine in a language that millions of readers quickly came to recognize and love.
As befit the speaker and his setting, it was a voice that artfully blended urban sophistication and rural eccentricity. With great and increasingly knowing detail, White kept his readers posted on the doings of his farm and its inhabitants (several of the columns are in the form of farm journals), but he almost never lapsed into that bucolic sentimentality that so often overtakes persons of a literary bent who embrace Mother Nature. The guise in which White chose to appear, then as now, was that of the city slicker who is himself being slicked by the urbane creatures and folk. To wit:
"For a number of years past I have been agreeably encumbered by a very large and dissolute dachshund named Fred. Of all the dogs whom I have served I've never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do. And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up."
Any writer whose principal subject is his own life adopts many poses, and this is one of White's characteristic ones: the writer as innocent victim. But there are others. White can appear as the cranky Yankee, the feckless toiler in the groves of husbandry, the testy chronicler of "the anatomy of decline," the fiercely independent defender of his own convictions. There is reason to believe, from the evidence of White's published "Letters," that the man himself is somewhat more complicated than the sum of all these quirks, but that is not really of any particular importance. What matters is that in these essays White found a voice in which readers came to believe and which they passionately wanted to hear.
They still do, as demonstrated by the steady audience for the cycled and recycled editions of his work with which his publisher intermittently blesses us these days. Though the material in all of these books sometimes predates World War II, surprisingly little of it now seems moldy; White has usually written against journalistic deadlines, whether weekly or monthly, but he manages somehow to keep his eye trained on the long view. "One Man's Meat," hardly a line of which could be mounted as a period piece, is vigorous evidence of his durability. CAPTION: Picture 1, White, "transforming the ephemera of journalism into something that demands to be called literature."; Picture 2, Author E.B. White in 1976 with his dog Susy. Photos Copyright (c) Jill Krementz