The Compliment I Rejected

I was given the compliment during a nonfiction writing workshop in my senior year of college. The class sat in a circle of tables and chairs, with the elderly, bearded professor, Douglas Atkins PhD, seated near the doorway while the early afternoon sun lit up the room. I wasn’t the best writer in the class or even the second best; I fell into the competition somewhere after those two positions. Still it was my turn to be critiqued.

Having my essay analyzed by my peers felt akin to how I imagine the nude model for an art class to feel; I felt exposed and wanted to hide behind the furniture. It wasn’t that I felt my writing was bad, though the essay was far from a masterpiece. Rather, I cringed inside at the idea of having such intimate thoughts and feelings, my thoughts and my feelings, captured on paper and revealed to others.

Then something happened that I didn’t expect. One of my classmates compared my writing to E. B. White, and others, Dr. Atkins included, agreed. It was something about the sentence structure, the reflective tone, and the fascination with nature, they said.

Inwardly, I rankled at the comparison. I even took insult, not that I let on, and immediately dismissed the comment. White and I were nothing alike, save perhaps our love of nature. If I’d considered White further, I probably would have concluded that he was a pretentious rambler convinced that each of his thoughts was riveting.

While E. B. White is best known for his books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, many would argue that White’s essays are his best works. In a prior class, I had read “Once More to the Lake,” and in this class we had read “The Death of a Pig” and “The Ring of Time.” My peers had gushed over the pieces, but I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. The writing struck me as thoroughly mundane.

It wasn’t until a year after I graduated that I finally gave E. B. White another chance. I was going to drive from Denver, Colorado to Juneau, Alaska with a couple guys and would backtrack a few months later—a total of ten days on the road—which meant plenty of time to read. I chose Essays of E. B. White as one of my travel companions.

The collection didn’t blow me away. Many essays felt boring. “The Death of a Pig” still held little charm, but I was struck by the poetic nature of reading “The Years of Wonder,” which chronicles White’s travels in Alaska as a young man in 1923, while I summered in Alaska as a young man in 2012. As White spoke the names of towns like Skagway and Juneau I saw them with my mind and with my eyes. Here was a parallel between White and myself that I could not ignore—both of us somewhat brash, self-absorbed aspiring writers traveling in Alaska in our youth nearly a century apart.

As I read on, I found myself drawn to “Once More to the Lake,” “The Ring of Time,” and “The Sea and the Wind that Blows.” Each piece deals with nature, humanity, and the passage of time. I had matured, glimpsed my own mortality, during my separation from White’s essays, and this last theme suddenly resonated. These essays capture the same, almost ecclesiastical, sense of humanity that J. M. Barrie conveys in Peter Pan, a story that is all too often tragically viewed as merely children’s literature and dismissed. I saw captured in White’s words the melancholic wrestling that man does with time only for him to discover that time was never held.

While studying the essays, in college, one of my classmates noted that E. B. White’s writing is grammatically perfect. His sentences can sprawl across the page with a precision of language and punctuation that feels intuitive and leaves a seasoned, observant reader with a mixed sense of awe and trust and jealousy. Yet he can be succinct. White’s sentences provide a standard that writers of the English language can emulate but few can ever hope to attain.

Still, as I pondered his essays, I realized that as impressive as White’s sentences are, the relation of those sentences to each other can be paramount. This realization was driven home one afternoon when I was reading “The Ring of Time” aloud. White describes this scene where a circus performer is standing on her mount while it trots in a circle around the performer’s mother, a scene that almost enables White to peer through time. I was struck by how reading the paragraph aloud completed the image White was creating with his words. Word flowed to word, sentence to sentence, and together they blended together through the cadence of my voice to create the setting White was describing in a striking manner that I have never experienced in another work.

As to E. B. White being a pretentious rambler, I will let him defend himself. In the foreword to Essays of E. B. White, White says “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.” And later he adds, “Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays” (ix). E. B. White, it turns out, may well have been a pretentious rambler, but at least he was self-aware. As I write in my turn, I find myself obligated now to claim his defense when I question the merit of my own work.

As the years have passed and I mature as a person and a writer, I find myself returning to E. B. White, in much the same way that I find myself returning home. As a young adult I was hard pressed to pick up “The Sea and the Wind that Blows” and understand the depth of emotion contained in seemingly mundane words. All these years later, White’s words have ceased to be only mundane. As I have aged, the simple has begun to resonate; the human experience after all is frequently boring. Yet even in the simple, I now find myself captivated.

As to the similarities between E. B. White and myself, to mimic his phrasing in “The Summer Catarrah,” our lives, White’s and mine, run curiously parallel. Like E. B. White, I have discovered that I have a particular affinity for the essay, a persistent disagreement with pollen, and now, a growing homestead. Time continues to show semblances that I never suspected, and I anticipate the resemblance will grow over the years.

Several weeks ago, my one year old daughter grabbed Essays of E. B. White. Toddlers are captivated by items that interest their parents, and Eliza had seen me reading this book to her mother. Sitting with her back against our bed, she poured over the cover and turned the pages. From where I lay on the bed, I leaned over and watched her, filled with pride. Though she knew not what she held or did and would not read for years, her selection pleased me immensely.

 

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