The urbanite as shepherd
About six months ago I picked up The Essays of E. B. White,m and I have been reading him ever since -- the children's books, four collections of essays, The Elements of Style,m and 662 pages of Letters.m He has gone to Kenya stuffed into my suitcase (something he probably wouldn't do on his own), nudged a committee report off my coffee table (something he probablly would), and come with me to school -- right into my composition classes where my freshmen have begun to ask, "Now what does ole E. B. have to say about that?"
The fact is that E. B. White, born in 1899, has had a lot to say about a lot of things, ranging from the precarious tilts of international power politics to the curious way his hens tilt their heads at him when he enters the barn. Since he is more prophetic than dated, I find some interest in all of these subjects, grateful that (as he himself says), "The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest."
But wide-ranging as he is, the thoughts and experiences that attract me the most right now are those concerned with life in the country. I have never been a farmer, and probably never will be. I might well flunk an aptitude test for country living by flushing out a French restaurant rather than a raccoon my first weekend in residence. I don't want to raise 800 chickens or even eight chickens, and I couldn't slaughter a pig, if I never had bacon again. But I'm still drawn to White's country; I'd probably read his seed catalog order forms if given the chance.
In "The Years of Wonder," White reports his happy recognition of the "eloquence of fact," of the power in simply setting things down as they are. His is a farm full of facts. I like to squint through the spaces between the old farmhouse floorboards, to trace the snowy path dug by the geese to their "loitering spot in the barn," to follow the slow progress of a coon backing down a tree ("A man is lucky indeed who lives where both sunset and coonset are visible from the same window"), or to feel the chill of the baby chicks standing around in the cold "with their collars turned up." As has been said of Melville's whales, you may learn more about hens than you might have preferred, but in these days of nuclear scram systems, mutual interfacing, snow-events, and nondairy ultracreams, it's a relief to stand nose to beak with a real hen laying a real egg (even if she's only in a book).
And a setting of broody hens is at least as eloquent as a sitting of a committee. His essays about his farm help me to escape, just as the farm itself provides for his own flight: or, "For me, always looking for an excuse to put off work, a farm is a perfect answer, good for 24 hours of the day." But he is no bumpkin. The writer of Here is New Yorkm and a founding father of The New Yorkerm knows well what he is exchanging for his rural outpost. Like Horace on his Sabine Farm, lamenting to his emperor the smoky turmoil of ancient Rome, White is out of touch yet in touch with the world of affairs, "a city-bred man who came late to shepherd's estate." The juxtaposition is part of the appeal.
It is not flight to an idyll, however, not simply rural beauty scowling at the urban beast. A city friend once asked him "with an ugly leer" to "spare the reading public your little adventures in contentment," but this was unfair, I think. He writes at least as often of discontent -- serious or comic -- as of contentment. Yes, he does describe snow- covered country roads, the boathouse study, the hardy yeoman neighbors, the beach shared only by a great blue heron, but he also tells of . . . the mice that eat the crowns of the Canterbury bells, and a chimney that sets itself ablaze. And even Fred, the willful family dachshund, is a "tower of strength and inconvenience," no idyllic dog. As White says, "The poet's dream of cattle winding slowly o'er the lea is a pleasant idyll, but the bold fact is that you suddenly find yourself with a heifer who shuns the bull, lavishes kisses on a horse, and eats cardboard." To imagine him as the pastoral Tityrus reclining under the spreading beech tree is only slightly more ludicrous than to cast Thoreau as the grinning camper of the L. L. Bean ads.
It is more than the trials of farm life, however, that keep his essays from drifting into pastoral vignette. His farm is a lookout on the world, a secure point of departure for his most wide-ranging speculation: "I am at the very center of everything." His escape is not escapism. To select just a few examples: "Sabbath Morn," a mellow account of a homey Sunday morning, broadens to thoughts on modern religion: "Salt Water Farm" begins with White's property and ends with a plea for writers' spiritual independence; and "Coon Tree" moves from the antics of the local raccoon to the terrors of our technological future. White's view is unobstructed in the country. As he says in "Clear Days," "Who has the longer view of things, anyway, a prime minister in a closet or a man on a barn roof?"
And finally, White's country is a symbol. (Ican almost hear his question, "Why does everyone search so diligently for symbols these days?" followed by an invitation to try milking a symbolic cow.) But I still think it is a symbol -- of life lived in freedom. His farm, no less a farm, also represents his own choice to do what he wants to do, not what an advertiser, an agent bearing the seductive gift of security, a vested or unvested interest, or a membership rule might prefer for him. He is not an apologist for the country; he is not inclined to invite us to join him there. But he ism an apologist for freedom. As he wrote during World War II -- which is no less relevant today, "Countries are ransacked, valleys drenched with blood. Though it seems untimely, I still publish my belief in the egg, the contents of the egg, the warm coal, and the necessity for pursuing whatever delights and sustains you ."