There are certain books I return to again and again. One Man’s Meat by E. B. White is one of these books. I recently re-read it for the fifth time. I return to this book when I feel the need to be recharged both as a reader and a writer. One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays that E. B. White wrote between 1938 and 1943, mostly for Harper’s magazine. He needed a break from The New Yorker, and with his wife, an editor at The New Yorker, he left New York City for a salt water farm they had in Maine. There, in his “One Man’s Meat” column, he wrote about his life on the farm, books that interested him, movies that puzzled him, really whatever came to mind that month.
Reading the book again made me realize that E. B. White was writing a blog. I think that many essayists of the past who wrote regular columns for the magazines or newspapers were like this. The blogging tradition seems to take some of its DNA from magazine columnists. For good blogs (ones that I enjoy, anyway), there is a rhythm to these columns. Whether monthly, weekly, daily, there is comfort in knowing you’ve got a friend to tell you what’s what just around the corner. Essayists like E. B. White, Andy Rooney, Isaac Asimov, and many others were proto-bloggers.
White writes about whatever strikes his fancy, and does so with a degree of skill and clarity that I think is hard to find today. He often makes keen observations, as in his essay “Removal” from July 1938, where he write,
I beleive television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television–of that I am quite sure.
For a technology so new, this is an astute observation. White hedged his bets, but he was right on both counts: some television has been an unbearable disturbance (talk shows, news programs, reality TV); and yet some television has been a saving radiance in the sky: M*A*S*H, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The West Wing, Ted Lasso.
At heart White is a writer, and his observations of writers, through himself, always amuse me. In “Progress and Change” (December 1938*) he writes,
I have just been refining the room in which I sit, yet I sometimes doubt that a writer should refine or improve his workroom by so much as a dictionary; one thing leads to another and the first thing you know he has a stuff chair and is fast asleep in it. Half a man’s life is devoted to what he calls improvements, yet the original had some quality that is lost in the process.
While not explicitly stated (does it have to be?) I think White is talking about distractions that writers seek out to keep from facing the blank page. In the last two and a half years I managed a complete makeover of my own office, I replaced a desk and a chair, and I secretly told myself that all of this would make me a better writer.
White’s essays on “Movies” for May 1939 is one of the more amusing pieces. In reviewing the film Dark Victory, he performs a surgical takedown of the main character, who steals herself away to a small compound to get away from things for a while. There, she complains how she has “nothing.” Using common sense, White estimates the annual cost of the “nothing” the character complains about, completed with a table breaking down every last expense. The “nothing” amounts to $11,000 annually, which in 1938 rather is something1.
White not only takes down whiny film characters, but he sets me straight on a few things. I have long daydreamed of pickup and moving into a rural part of the country, to a place where I have to stretch the limits of my vision to see my neighbor’s house, where I don’t have to worry about the hustle and bustle of urban and suburban life, and where I never need worry about finding a parking place. Kelly says I would be miserable, but I think she means she would be miserable. A quiet life like that seems ideal to me. Not so, says White in his September 1939 essay “Second World War”:
I don’t know whether I came to the country to live the simple life; but I am now engaged in a life vastly more complex than anything the city has to offer.
Well, he was running a farm.
Sometimes, in my reading, I find that notions floating around today are nothing new at all. This is one of the greatest returns from reading history. Whatever we think is new has happened before in some form. I shouldn’t be surprised when this happens, but I am. I was startled, for instance, reading this passage in White’s July 1940 essay, “Freedom”:
Being myself a knight of the goose quill, I am under no misapprehension about “winning people”; but I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic that inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Marys, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example.
White was speaking of writers who are among the first line of defense for freedom, but his analogy: the we are “the hypodermic that inoculates” hit particularly close to home in these pandemic times.
These are wonderful essays: in “Maine Speech” (October 1940) he provides a Maine-to-English dictionary for those not familiar with Mainers unique way with words. In “The Wave of the Future” (December 1940) he provides a scathing review of Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s book of the same title. In “Once More to the Lake” (August 1941), White describes a passing thunderstorm only as E. B. White can:
In midafternoon (it was all the same) a curious darkening of the 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 a 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 chips 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, their bright cried perpetuating the deathless joke about getting drecnched and linking the generations in a strong indestructable chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.
One of my favorites is an almost frivolous piece from October 1941 called “Memorandum” in which he describes the two hundred plus chores and tasks he has to do around the farm on that day. But White’s a professional and doesn’t let those chores distract him from writing, the way the rest of us often do. Andy Rooney, who was a big fan of E. B. White, has written similar essays, a pastiche of White, and I in turn have tried my hand at this, an homage to White via Andy Rooney.
Once again, White’s word his home in 2021 when he complains about the government men who’ve come to examine his cows for potential disease in his essay “Control” (December 1942):
The reason there were a couple of men in my barn this morning, annoying my cow, is that some farmers had been dilatory about testing cows [for Bangs] even after science ahd made such tests easy and practical and doctors and undertakers had made the alternative plain. And the reason there will be a couple of strangers in all your barns and offices from now on, poking through your piles of accumulated trouble, is that somewhere in the past there were those vast untested herds spreading their fevers through the world. This is a sad outlook but one we shall have to face with what cheer is left in us.
I have yet to find a modern writer who writes with this consistency of depth, humor, and style. I read widely, but not widely enough. Or perhaps, such a writer simply doesn’t exist today.
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- It is approximately $216,000 in 2021 dollars. I wouldn’t call that “nothing.” ↩