9. Essays of E. B. White

Most people recognize E. B. White for Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, books I read as a child that simply don’t interest me all that much as an adult. Essays of E. B. White is something entirely different.

I started writing nonfiction during my senior year in college, which is where I took note of White’s essays. At the same time, my classmates in my nonfiction writing classes kept drawing parallels between my writing and E. B. White’s. I rather ignorantly disagreed; I didn’t particularly like or understand White’s essays. However, I kept my copy of Essays of E. B. White after my classes finished.

About a year after I graduated, I spent part of my summer in Juneau, Alaska. This included a road trip through Canada and back, and I brought Essays of E. B. White with me. There were a few moments when I found myself in Juneau, as a young, aspiring writer, reading an essay about White’s travels in Alaska when he too was a young, aspiring writer.

Something had changed inside me over that prior year; maybe entering fully-independent adulthood had matured me. I suddenly connected with several of White’s essays. He expresses deep emotions, particularly a melancholy reflection, and he had such a charming sense of humor.

In the foreword to the book, White writes this about essayists, “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” Later he adds, “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays” (ix). It’s hard not to love someone with a healthy sense of self-degradation.

Three of White’s essays stand out to me in general: “The Ring of Time,” “Once More to the Lake,” and “The Sea and the Wind that Blows.” All three of these pieces are deeply reflective, dealing with the passage of time and aging. Reading them puts life in a more whole perspective, one viewed from the end rather than the beginning. Simply perusing the pages of these essays fills me with awe—I feel a little irreverent using that word, but I think it’s the one that describes my feelings best.

Aside from dealing with such human emotions, these essays are also almost perfectly written.  E. B. White has the most elegant sentences. Each one is a little adventure all its own. Some sentences are complex, winding from thought to thought, yet all making such wonderful sense when followed to their natural conclusions. Others are succinct and evocative and powerful.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like all the essays. I still find a number of them mundane and wonder why they were written or published. However, many of them are some of my favorite pieces of writing. One thing is for sure: I will never again object to parallels being drawn between my writing and E. B. White’s.

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