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Second Glance: A Compilation Too Far?

E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976

Edited by Rebecca M. Dale
Harper Perennial, 2006

 

Compilations. Among other publishers of the arts, jazz labels are infamous for releasing them. A few years ago I bought my husband a Bill Evans Trio 8 CD box set for Christmas. I thought I was purchasing a compilation of Evan’s life’s work. Turns out this compilation was part two of Evans’ final recordings, all from concerts performed between August 31 and September 7, 1980; most of the 8 CDs have the same songs, played in different order in different performances over the span of a week. Truly, this is a compilation for the Bill Evans enthusiast.

Book publishers, of course, also do their fair share of repackaging to tap into readers’ disposable dollars. In fact, while writing this review, I perused my copy of John Updike’s recent essay compilation, Due Considerations, and found Updike’s forward to the revised edition of Letters of E.B. White, a book that was also sitting on my desk. Sure enough, word for word, there was the same Updike essay. And before his death, White himself published at least six compilations of his essays, most of which had been previously published mostly in The New Yorker. All this cross-pollination! Perhaps the money-back guarantee that now comes with the purchase of memoirs (� la James Frey and Margaret Jones/Seltzer) should apply to compilations: if you find that at least three of the author’s pieces in the new compilation are also in a previous compilation from the same publisher, just send the book back for a complete refund.

E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976 – originally published in 1991, reissued in 2006, and now available in paperback – is the latest Harper Perennial offering of White’s work. How does it fare against its many predecessors, The Essays of E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner, One’s Man’s Meat, or Quo Vadimus to name a few? The good news is there’s not much cross-pollination happening here. According to editor Rebecca Dale, she found these essays while working on an independent study project on E.B. White’s work from The New Yorker; she noticed many White essays that were originally published in the “Notes and Comments” section of The New Yorker had never been collected in any of his previous compilations. So, unless you own that juicy hard drive full of every New Yorker issue since February 1925, you probably haven’t seen these White essays before. And even if you have that hard drive, many of White’s essays were unsigned, so you’ll have the thrill of discovering that the piece you love called “Scrap Iron” from the April 3, 1937 issue is really White’s. That’s a promising start.

The next logical question is, why were these E.B. White essays orphaned? White edited all other compilations of his work; did he consider these essays second-tier? Possibly. Because “Notes and Comments” was an editorial column, White had to follow magazine policy of using “we” instead of “I.” In White’s forward for Second Tree From the Corner, he called the device “harebrained” and went on to add that it gave “the impression that the stuff was written by a set of identical twins or the members of a tumbling act. There is nothing I can do about this, and the reader is advised to dismiss it from his mind.” White included “Notes and Comments” essays in Second Tree from the Corner; if he considered these essays second-tier, it did not stop him from having them republished under his name.

For comparison, here is one essay piece from Second Tree from the Corner and one from E.B. White: Writings from the New Yorker 1927-1976.

We commend to historians the steer wrestler who has been commuting between Chicago and New York by plane, in order to throw steers in the rodeos of both cities. In this pendulous cowboy, if cowboy is the word for him, our century comes to a sort of head: the winged ranch hand, his eye on two steers at once, and the steers a thousand miles apart yet capable of being thrown by the winged, neither steer needing to be thrown, each existing only to be thrown. The cowboy rises from the head of the fallen animal, dusts the seat of his pants, walks stiff-legged to the waiting airliner. The spectators, yearning for the open West and its herds of cattle on the ranges, rise from their mezzanine seats, stiff-legged, dust off their unfulfilled desires, walk to the exits. [“Cowboy”]

And from the newest compilation:

The adventure-mad travel-bureau people run a high fever all the year round, deliriously mumbling of far places regardless of season. More than any other group, they arrange life for us in neat grooves. We have just this moment been skirting through a prospectus of winter and spring trips presented to us by a dutiful and precise agent. The trips are divided into “short” and “long.” “There’s Mexico,” says the booklet. “Ten days, $180.” And “there’s the Mediterranean, 29 days, $485.” Our fancy flits along, jog-step taking in the sights. And then, as a sudden afterthought, the joyous booklet writer really hits his stride. “There’s the WORLD,” he cries. “97 days, $833.50.”
We had never had the planet laid so neatly at our feet, as though dropped there by a spaniel.” [“Travel Brochure”]

These essays certainly seem comparable. Each uses the first person plural that White deplored. Each take a topic – rodeos and travel brochures – set it in a scene with spare, vivid prose that moves the reader to a place where the world bends like light through a prism: how disorienting it can be to live in a city where rodeos and distant continents can come to our doorstep with equal ease. Why one essay found a home in 1954 and the other not until 1991 remains unknown. Given Dale’s thorough research into White’s work, the expectation that she at least speculate as to why this happened is not unreasonable. Avid students of White would appreciate possibilities laid out before them, something that goes beyond Dale’s non-answer and helps place these essays into context in terms of the larger body of White’s essays. For instance, a quote from White’s forward to Second Tree from the Corner might explain why these “Notes and Comments” essays were not included in previous compilations:

Incidentally, the publication over my signature of items that formed part of The New Yorker’s anonymous editorial pages is not to be taken as an indication that I am the fellow responsible for that page. The page is the work of many. I am one of the contributors to it…. Theoretically, it is a mistake to break anonymity, and though I am guilty of it, I commit the sin knowingly and for selfish reasons.

Additionally, according to Katherine Hall’s E.B. White: A Bibliographical Catalogue, there were 450 signed White pieces and 1350 unsigned White pieces in The New Yorker from 1925 to 1976; in other words, there are many more orphans. These essays in Dale’s collection are, by her admission, “only a small portion” of the body of White’s work. Dale says she relied on White’s family and Cass Canfield Jr. of HarperCollins (the son of White’s editor at Harper & Row) for advice in putting together this collection. What was that advice? She claims she tried to imagine how White would’ve wanted the collection done. What were those imaginings? The optimist in me would like to think we’re seeing gems that White would have compiled himself if he had had more time. The pessimist in me thinks – oh no, every few years we’ll see another White-New Yorker compilation under a slightly different title until finally, around the time I become a grandmother, we’ll see E.B. White: The Complete New Yorker Years on a juicy hard drive of its very own.

A few admissions before I continue. First, I’ve been an E.B. White fan since the third grade when I read:

Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.” [Charlotte’s Web]

Secondly (and unusually), I find myself completely agreeing with Updike’s description of White in his essay “Magnus Opus”: “a poetic humorist, and incomparably graceful and pungent essayist, and the mainstay of The New Yorker – the pure yet sober, light yet piercing voice sounding above all its other gathered weekly voices.” It is White’s combination of wisdom delivered with a humorous left-hook that always brings me to my knees for some hero-worshiping. Take this essay from the newest compilation entitled “Voter Sanity” from July 31, 1948:

One of our overseas readers has dropped us a line to inform us about the qualifications for voting in England. He got into a discussion with somebody in London about the matter, and they called the reference library of the House of Commons and received the following pronouncement: “In Great Britain any adult twenty-one years of age or over may register and vote except peers and lunatics. The latter, if they have a moment of lucidity, may register and vote.” Our reader passed this on to us in the hope that it might sustain us through the difficult weeks ahead. The American political scene has seldom put such a strain on the sanity of the electorate, and we have an idea that when we step up to the polls next November we will feel like one of those British voters – daft as a coot, but praying, as we draw the curtain behind us, for a moment of lucidity.

In the preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor, White says, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” I would like to extend that excellent analogy to say that, for my final admission, I refuse to dissect the essays of E.B. White. Too many of us have sat through the English class where we were forced to find an essay’s topic sentence and fill in the blank when the teacher said, “And the main idea of this essay is….” Just for grins, I found a used college textbook – a 2007 portable anthology of essays. Sure enough, there was E.B. White’s famous essay, “Once More to the Lake,” with this discussion question tacked to the end of the essay like the ugly paper tail to a bashful birthday party donkey: “White uses description to give a fairly simple story great richness. Note and explain the effectiveness of five descriptive moments in the essay.” Somewhere, E.B. White has just shifted in his grave and sighed with dismay; one of the last things he would’ve wanted was to have his essays be the object of torturous writing exercises. The man who co-authored The Elements of Style was clearly in favor of easing the writer’s burden, not adding to it.

  Admissions finished, it’s time to take further issue with this compilation for not paying close enough attention to the little details the way an outstanding compilation should. The title – E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976 – causes confusion at the outset. Dale calls this collection “writings.” Then we flip the book over and the blurb on the top back cover calls this “a delightful, witty, spirited collection of essays.” Writings or essays? Which is it? This seems a small point. Is it critical to the enjoyment of these works to define them? No. Is it critical to the evaluation of these works in the scheme of White’s complete body of essays? Most definitely. Writings can include essays, but essays are so much more than writings.

At the conclusion of her forward, Dale quotes from Hall’s bibliography and gives us White’s musings on the subject of his “Notes and Comments” column: “People on the staff and other people who were readers of the magazine used to submit comment ideas, and I always had a folder of these ideas and suggestions on my desk, together with clippings and stuff that I would toss into the folder from my own reading.” White took these writings and, in his hands, they became finely wrought, witty essays. By his own definition in his forward to Essays of E.B. White,

…the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises its own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all hope) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.

Suggesting that the pieces in this latest compilation are any less than essays, even by a wayward title, is unfortunate. Perhaps Dale and Harper Perennial were simply trying to avoid consumer confusion. However, if Dale was truly trying to channel White as she claimed in her forward, she could have followed his tradition of giving the collection a distinct title from one of the included pieces. Attention to the small yet important details is what makes a compilation worthy of reader attention. Most savvy readers will not fall victim more than once for a repackaging ploy. Sadly, this compilation reminds us that marketing too often takes the driver seat in book publishing. Maybe we should just be thankful that they didn’t try to market these essays as The Best of E.B. White’s Blogs.

In the forward to the 1997 edition of One Man’s Meat, Roger Angell, White’s stepson, says,

I think “One Man’s Meat” was the making of him [White] as a writer. Freed of the weekly deadlines and the quaintsy first-person plural form of the “New Yorker’s” ‘Notes and Comments’ page, which he had written for more than a decade, he discovered his subject (it was himself) and a voice that spoke softly but rang true.

One Man’s Meat is a compilation of White’s monthly columns in Harper’s from 1938 to 1942; he was given this column just days before he moved himself and his family from New York to Maine. With it, he was finally free of the first person plural and the shackles of word count. White continued to write pieces for The New Yorker during this time, many of which are in E.B.White: Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976. It’s a shame that Dale didn’t draw some attention to the impact of those years on White’s writing. While she promises in her forward that the essays within each subject, such as “Thoreau,” “Liberty,” or “New York,” will be grouped chronologically so we can plot the effect of time on White’s writing, she breaks her promise. In the first two chapters, entitled “Nature” and “The Word,” we jump from 1945 to 1936 to 1944 to 1954 to 1930, to give but one example. Other sections deliver more or less as promised; however this is another case where an overlooked detail makes the whole compilation look worse than it should.

And finally, was it even necessary to arrange the essays by subject? I questioned why “Seeing Things,” a delightful essay on exhibits in the Museum of Natural History, was put in the “Science” section and not next to the essay entitled “Animal Voices” about the Bronx Zoo in the “Curiosities and Inventions” section. Or wouldn’t both essays fit best in the “New York” section given that they are both about preeminent New York attractions? This is surely a case where simplifying the structure, keeping it chronological and without groupings, would have permitted the singular voice and vision of White to emerge in a more illuminating way.

When re-reading E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker 1927-1976, I hopscotched through the essays in an attempt to assemble my own picture of White’s development as an essayist. The very first page pits humorist against poet with “Prohibited” (January 25, 1936) and “Life” (September 1, 1945):

The plant-patent business is taking right hold, apparently. We know a man who received a birthday present of a nice little azalea. Tied around the azalea’s stem, like a chastity belt was a metal tag from Bobbink & Atkins, reading “asexual reproduction of this plant is illegal under the Plant Patent Act.” It was Number 147. Our friend, a man of loose personal habits, ripped the tag off angrily, fed it to his dachshund puppy, and sent the plant to a friend in Connecticut with instructions to bed it down warmly next to an old buck hydrangea.

At eight of a hot morning, the cicada speaks his first piece. He says of the world: heat. At eleven of the same day, still singing, he has not changed his note but has enlarged his theme. He says of the morning: love. In the sultry middle of the afternoon, when the sadness of love and of heat has shaken him, his symphonic soul goes into the great movement and he says: death. But the thing isn’t over. After supper he weaves heat, love, death into a final stanza, subtler and less brassy than the others. He has one last heroic monosyllable at his command. Life, he says, reminiscing. Life.

“Prohibited” is classic blend of White humor and wordplay that keeps the reader a safe distance away, while “Life” is steeped in poetic imagery and tinged in sadness – a combination which draws the reader in, almost daring us to see through his eyes and hear through his ears. This intimacy becomes the hallmark of White’s post-1942 essays.

Even when comparing the essays that tackled the newsworthy events of his day we can see evidence of this change in White’s writing. Here is “Inimical Forces” (April 8, 1933) versus “Moon Landing” (July 26, 1969). Note that in the first essay White relies on Einstein’s words and two news items to carry the bulk of the essay’s message thus keeping the reader at a distance from the persecution of the Jews. In the second essay, White’s playful language draws us in to dance along with the astronauts and to see how stiff and awkward our flag looks. And while he ends this essay on a note of humor as he did in “Prohibited,” that note is played much more softly; in “Moon Landing” it feels as though White keeps the readers close, then chuckles with them, rather than staying at arms-length and forcing the laugh out of them.

Einstein is loved because he is gentle, respected because he is wise. Relativity being not for most of us, we elevate its author to a position somewhere between Edison, who gave us a tangible gleam, and God, who gave us the difficult dark and the hope of penetrating it. Not long ago Einstein was here and made a speech, not about relativity but about nationalism. “Behind it,” he said,” are the forces inimical to life.” Since he made that speech we have been reading more about those forces: Bruno Walter forbidden by the Leipzig police to conduct a symphony; shops of the Jews posted with labels showing a yellow spot on a black field. Thus in a single day’s developments in Germany we go back a thousand years into the dark, while a great thinker, speaking not as Jew but as philosopher, warns us: these are the forces inimical to life.

The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers who kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.

Others essays in this compilation on topics from gravity to revolving doors, from the cost of hyphens to the hippodrome, from Lindbergh to John F. Kennedy, while seemingly trapped in time capsules each hold a kernel of timelessness at their core. Try as I could, I failed to find an essay in this compilation where White hadn’t sliced life thinly and cleanly, then served it up with his unique blend of wordsmithing, wit, and wisdom.

Previously released compilations of White’s work enjoyed the benefit of White’s own hand at the rudder. This work suffers for that loss. Interestingly enough, when White compiled Second Tree from the Corner, he had this to say about how he assembled his own work:

I have not dated the notes, preferring to depend on the reader’s perspicacity and good will. Whenever I came across a note that seemed unintelligible without a date, I simply threw it out, serving it right and teaching myself a lesson. Once in a while the reader will stumble on some antique ghost like Hitler, pottering about as though still alive, and will get a momentary jolt. But I am not one to pamper readers, and don’t want them daydreaming their way through this book like drivers on a superhighway. This book twists and turns. Go carefully, and remember: the time you save may be your own.

If Dale truly assembled this book by imagining what White would do, she would have used his words to guide her to a more thorough and enlightened introduction of these long-buried gems to his readers. In spite of Dale’s missteps, the essays themselves deserve being taken out, dusted off and read.

A look at Harper’s E.B.White catalogue shows spin-off books from the movie releases of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and revised or re-issued editions of Letters of E.B. White and Essays of E.B. White, to name a few. Somewhere in the bowels of Harper’s is a team trying to come up with a new twist. Let me suggest E.B. White: The Complete New Yorker Years, annotated with letters from Letters of E.B. White, forwards from all his previous books, notes from his complete bibliography and notes from the diaries of his wife, Katherine (does that even exist?). If a worthy E.B. White compilation comes along, I’ll buy it. But please, make the edition worthy. White might have enjoyed the idea of reincarnation as a Harper’s cash cow. He might have liked the idea that his books provide money for his descendants. And he even might even have liked the idea that solid sales of his compilations help fund the publishing of new authors (one would hope). He would certainly find humor in the fact that even dead, his publishing credits continue to grow. But White, above all, would have preferred that his hard-earned reputation as one of America’s finest essayist remain intact. Hopefully, the editing of the next E.B. White compilation will match the meticulousness of the essays themselves.

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Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She is at work on a novel entitled Window to the West and lives in Half Moon Bay, CA. Her literary blog is found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/