E.B. White, who died yesterday at 86, took pains not to be grand and all for naught; he wound up grand for all his avoidances of grandeur, and the more he avoided noble and elevated style the more convinced his readers were that he was noble -- a word not always trotted out for writers of short and casual pieces.
He joined The New Yorker in 1926 (it was founded in 1925) and his work was often unsigned, as in his "Talk of the Town" sketches. His work was better than that of most others at the magazine, and readers soon started pawing through the pages for traces of E.B. White and were commonly rewarded.
But he did not assume superstar status and while there was, of course, a slight letdown when one passed from him to other writers equally full of comment, still his writing was a garland for the team, you might say, rather than a spotlight so blinding that the others looked poor.
He has been called the best American essayist of the century, though most of his readers possibly have wondered who the competition was supposed to be.
His work was civil and polite; he either had no gift of vitriol or else never felt any. He was commonly funny, never in the high breathtaking way of an Aristophanes and never in the sparkling knock-'em-dead manner of the century's favorite one-line wits.
He gave the impression of getting through the day like an ordinary hard-pressed man trying to remember the hour of a meeting and the need to pick up dog food before the store closed, but then retiring for a time to think what the hell is this all about.
He achieved answers, and one of them was not to get carried away with words, to seem to feel more than he felt, and not to feel (in writing) in the first place without thinking it over a spell.
The trouble with many potentially nice writers is that once they think about things they either conclude (often correctly, no doubt) they have nothing to say and therefore write nothing, or they bull it through anyway to the temporary dazzlement of the easily dazzled, but not to the sustenance or delight of the civilized.
Nobody who only met and talked with White through a long and golden day at his house in Maine has any real idea of his life, however gratifying to see the deep courtesy and affection shown his wife of many years and his near-adoration of a rather grim and almost certainly brain-damaged terrier named Jones who despised the world and everything in it except his master whom he had conveniently converted to slavery. To love an unlovable dog suggests depths of commitment worth remarking.
White was a lyrical man in the sense that if wonder is lacking it is impossible to write at all, but because he was polite and therefore restrained and because he descended from respectable people who had an iron vase on the lawn and doubtless thought well of Emerson, he distrusted a too-easy loveliness and mush in general, first, because he wished to be honest all the way through and not to paint things sweeter than those things are, and second, because he had sufficient technical competence to notice that rhapsodies defeat the lofty effect aimed at.
He was not sentimental, or his work was not. He liked taking care of sheep partly because he simply loved animals, partly because he loved the bondage animals incur -- lambs are invariably born at disgusting cold seasons and during prolonged and inconvenient hours -- and partly, one may guess, because he liked to think of himself as a new Hesiod, bound through the night by the requirements of the beasts and through the day by the routine of the farmer's lot. He did not fool himself he was a plain farmer or did the hard work of a farmer, but he took extraordinary care to keep in touch with the cycling of the sun and the reality of growth and death.
Things must have welled up in him not just sometimes but most of the time. He had a powerful sense of life's sweetness and took the risk (a risk for a writer) of letting it show. He liked to set the stage by opening one of his pieces in a matter-of-fact way, forecasting in only the most tenuous way how the piece would end:
"To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year."
He speaks of those ear trumpets hunters can buy to hear the otherwise inaudible and distant music of the hounds, and says something of the kind would help us hear Christmas. But, alarmed this might seem a little too sweet, he follows it:
"We rode down on an escalator the other morning . . ." just to show you he does not avoid commonplace things or ugly words like escalators. Then he dares an emotional charge again, but damps it down at once, but goes on to prepare for the climax by orderly reasoning and useful but not blinding images. He remains conversational, casual, letting the effect of brooding build up very gradually, alluding to rabbit tracks, rocket travel, packages of energy and so on, to show you this is only ordinary thought and ordinary stuff. Then the thing he has with difficulty been holding back and is now ready to let fly:
"This week many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas -- and the sheep quiet and the world waiting."
Intellectually it may make no great sense; Christmas is not perceived by anything in any pond, but what he really wants to get to is "and the sheep quiet and the world waiting," and by the time he gets you to it there are few readers whose throats have not got tense.
One of his funny masterful wrenching sketches concerned a wimp's visit to a psychiatrist, during which he felt nervous, afraid, a general incompetent mess. He goes out on the street and something magical happens; he sees trees on the street and focuses on the second one from the corner. White wants to say what the Damascus Road is like, and how the soul can leap from a dingy cave to the high clear ether in a bound, but he will show it, not talk about it. He will show it funny, pathetic, stupid -- he will sketch us as we are most of the time. He will also show the transcendent minute in which the wimp looks at the ordinary tree of a city street, and after the nonsense of his psychiatric session and its attendant confusion and garble about what he really wants, he looks at the tree:
"I want the second tree from the corner, just as it stands," he said, answering an imaginary question from an imaginary physician. And he felt a slow pride in realizing that what he wanted none could bestow, and that what he had, none could take away. He felt content to be sick, unembarrassed at being afraid; and in the jungle of his fear he glimpsed (as he had so often glimpsed them before) the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage."
Then he winds up with a paragraph of funny letdown. Only not before attempting and achieving in a mere handful of paragraphs a stunning salute to the soul of man in a way that makes nobody wince at the gush, and in a way that makes anybody proud to be a poor bifurcated simian and immortal diamond.
Never mind the "classic" children's books so lavishly praised, and rightly praised. Turn to "The Second Tree From the Corner," a good start and a good finish to the man or to any man.
Virgil reported on the kingdom of the dead and Socrates, too modest to claim any knowledge of it, yet looked forward to speaking there with the heroes, arguing the sweet day long. They wrestle (Virgil assures us) on the yellow sands in sport. And there are the sons of Teucros, they are not without beauty.
White's sad and grateful readers may in their own vision see that wrestling on that yellow sand today. Dear Lord, if it isn't E.B. White and his dachshund Fred, the one so interested in the farm pigs, the one so full of mischief (White used to go visit his grave) and with whom White could not romp for all these recent years. Look at them going at it. They are not without beauty.