E.B. White is known as one of the preeminent essayists in American Literature, so I thought it was time to reintroduce myself to the man I've known only from his works Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. Actually I came across him in another capacity without even realizing it. He is the White from Strunk & White's Elements of Style, which was a bible of sorts when I was in school. I had no idea. White called for a "clear, clean, spare, modern prose, which not only governed his own writing but had an enormous influence on a generation of college students and journalists." He was also a longtime contributor to The New Yorker (how many favorite and respected authors/essayists have I come across who started there or wrote for them for many years, and why don't I subscribe to it now?).
Philip Lopate describes White's persona for the essays he wrote for the magazine as--
"...a friendly, gentlemanly family man, curious about nature and city life, undidactic, modest, civic-minded, mildly nostalgic and elegiac."
White set the whole tone for the magazine, which he joined in 1925. "Once More to the Lake" appeared in August 1941 and is a reminiscence of his family's annual summer vacations to a lake in Maine for the month of August. White writes so eloquently in that spare, clean prose that Lopate mentions and the essay is indeed nostalgic, though ultimately bittersweet. In his essay White recalls his first summer in 1904 at this lake, which was a success despite a case of ringworm from some kittens and his father overturning in a canoe fully clad.
"I have since become a salt-water man, but some times in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods."
He decides to return to this lake in Maine with his own son, so he can experience it as White did as a child. Unsure how things might have changed he finds it much the same as it was before with a few small exceptions. To White it feels as though there has been no passage of time at all.
"Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end, this was the background..."
It's all illusory, though. As he watches his son do the things he did, it's as if he is living a dual existence. He at once sees himself as that child, but now he is the adult, the father. "Everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants." The lake may be the same, though time has passed, yet White also realizes the cyclical nature of life and confronts his own mortality.
I am going to share one longish excerpt because it is so beautifully constructed--you can not only see it you can also hear and feel it, too.
"One afternoon while we were there at that lake a thunderstorm came up. It was like the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect. This was the big scene, still the big scene. The whole thing was so familiar, the first feeling of oppression and heat and a general air around camp of not wanting to go very far away. In mid-afternoon (it was all the same) a curious darkening sky, and a lull in everything that had made life tick; and then the way the boats suddenly swung the other way at their moorings with the coming of a breeze out of the new quarter, and the premonitory rumble. Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills. Afterward the calm, the rain steadily rustling in the calm lake, the return of light and hope and spirits, and the campers running out in joy and relief to go swimming in the rain..."
You can read the essay online here. I also found this about the various drafts White went through writing this essay. I like the idea that it took thirty years for him to compose it. Now that is what I call craftsmanship.