Essays of E.B. White

Ah, E.B. White. You know him as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and as half of Strunk & White, as in The Elements of Style. He wrote for The New Yorker for some six decades, and is one of our finest essayists. This is an important collection, then, and one that my semester advisor Kim Kupperman thought was important to my work.

White’s essays are arranged by subject categories (farm, city, planet, memories, etc.) and cover some forty to fifty years, although unfortunately not all are dated. This essential selection proves his ease and artistry with the form. His prose is conversational, familiar, funny, and serious, but does not take itself too seriously; he is an absolutely likeable narrator, and this collection is both a guide to the United States at various points in history, and simultaneously timeless.

White’s prose is so easygoing; it sounds effortless, but of course we know that’s some of the hardest prose to write. The hardest part of reading so many near-perfect pieces is figuring out what to annotate. But finally I returned to the first essay that made me sort of take in breath at its close, because of its structure and its return: “Coon Tree.”

As White famously writes in his Foreword, the essayist puts on many different shirts when he sits down to write (“philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast”). But if he can be said to have a single style, it’s what I think of as the classical essayist’s. He appears to ramble across subjects and moods, but this meandering is deceptive; the essay does have a unifying theme or message, even if he seems to wander aimlessly. “Coon Tree” displayed this skill the best, for me, so I annotated it for its structure.

Additionally, I was especially enamored of “Here Is New York” (of course, place), particularly the passage in the second paragraph where he lists places and their distances: “I am twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state…” This reminds me of Joseph Mitchell’s meticulous but not tiresome cataloging of the little details that make a place.

But I could go on, when in fact what I mean to recommend to you is: read anything by E.B. White–anything at all, but these Essays make an excellent starting point.

Rating: 9 of the mildest zephyrs.

2 Responses

  1. […] the Essays of E.B. White, particularly “Here Is New York” and “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” and […]

  2. […] Essays of E.B. White – nonfiction […]

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