E.B. White’s essays argue eloquently against extremism
A new collection, put together by his granddaughter, demonstrates what made him such a pointed observer of representative government.
Elwyn Brooks White is best known as the author of children’s stories such as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” that remain reliable classics.
But White, who died in 1985, is also celebrated as a writer for adults. He divided his time between New York City and a farm in coastal Maine, crafting personal essays that, more than three decades after his passing, endure as exemplars of the form.
White was a master of conversational prose, excelling at sentences that seem perfectly balanced. To read his work is to feel balanced too. With their underlying tone of moderation, White’s essays resonate with a subtly political dimension even when they’re supposedly about nothing more than an afternoon on the farm or a morning in Manhattan. They constituted, in their own way, an abiding argument against the extremism of White’s times.
When “One Man’s Meat,” White’s collection of commentaries about rural New England, was published in a special edition for members of the Armed Forces in the 1940s, it became a favorite among those fighting World War II. White’s unassumingly democratic voice – sane, sensible, self-deprecating, suspicious of cant – reminded them what they were fighting for.
The only challenge with White’s essays is that not enough of them are in wide circulation. He was exacting with his prose, selecting only a relative handful of his pieces from The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines to preserve in his books.
Martha White, his granddaughter and literary executor, has remained almost as judicious in drawing material from her grandfather’s archive for new book projects. Given the singularity of E.B. White’s literary art, the anthologies Martha White has brought out in recent years have been a cause for celebration. They include “E.B. White on Dogs,” an assortment of his prose on all things canine; and “In the Words of E.B. White,” a distillation of his pithiest observations.
Now comes "E.B. White On Democracy," in which Martha White surveys her grandfather’s thoughts on representative government. As with her previous anthologies, “On Democracy” is partly a curation of material from other White volumes, but it also includes items that haven’t been published in book form before.
White wasn’t a grand thinker about governance. “The Wild Flag,” his one attempt at a sustained political philosophy, was a forgettable argument for one-world government written near the close of World War II. White later dismissed the book as “dreamy and uninformed,” perhaps sensing that its vague theorizing worked against his natural gifts.
White was most eloquent when he grounded his ideas in the granular particularity of daily life, for he was, memorably, a reporter at heart.
The most persuasive selections in “On Democracy” riff on the headlines of White’s day, such as when he addressed the despotism of America’s opponents during World War II and the red baiting zealotry of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. This would seem, at first glance, to date “On Democracy” as a mere period piece. But in writing against fanaticism, White wrestled with challenges that seem, alas, still too much with us.
In “Freedom,” a 1940 essay included here, White dissects the tendency to gradually accommodate the erosion of democratic ideals, an ostensible exercise in pragmatism that inevitably proves corrupting. “Where I expected to find indignation,” he writes of his fellow Americans’ initial shrugging ambivalence about Adolf Hitler, “I found paralysis, or a sort of dim acquiescence, as in a child who is dully swallowing a distasteful pill.”
Against this sense of surrender, White offers his creed:
I just want to tell, before I get slowed down, that I am in love with freedom and that it is an affair of long standing and that it is a fine state to be in, and that I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fascism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war. From such adaptable natures a smell arises. I pinch my nose.
That passage points to White’s strengths as a stylist. The crowded first sentence seems to spill out its message, an analog to White’s ecstatic embrace of liberty. Then the next two sentences become progressively shorter, as if he’s descending from his soapbox to speak more intimately with his audience. At his best, White also emulates to good effect his hero Henry David Thoreau, who could use gripping physical imagery to make the theoretical more concrete. When White pinches his nose at extremism, he’s reminding his readers that such policies have tangible, real-world consequences.
In his introduction, journalist and author Jon Meacham takes pains to draw parallels between White’s cautions about autocratic values and our present-day concerns about political cults of personality. But it’s not really necessary for Meacham, however well-meaning, to connect the dots for us.
Although he left the scene a generation ago, White can still speak for himself, and he sounds thoroughly up to date. “Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble,” he wrote in 1973. “We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.”