My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The essay as a respectful literary genre has not yet established its firm meritorious footing in American intellectual society where the novel, poetry, and journals featuring de rigueur social/political issues with gravitas, surrealistic individualism, or puritanical heroism that has recently morphed into a rags-to-riches memoir are the only select legitimate royalties worth being decorated with a laurel. Perhaps it has something to do with the level of American intellectualism being at its still developing stage in consideration of its relatively “youthful” history. For what is worth, despite its general cold reception from the literary hierarchy, E.B. White is nonetheless a quintessential American English writer and a very fine essayist of the twentieth century in the English language into the bargain. In this collection of his essays published in various magazines over the years (from 1920s to 1970s), Whites recorded the overtones of humanity, democracy, and social concerns in ordinary things and experiences described in elegant and crisp prose style that resembles none other than his, thus making him one of the central figures in the canon of American literature without dispute.
Being an essayist means something of a modern day literary troubadour, an independently-minded man with childlike streaks of artless interest in all things worldly and unworldly and innocent belief that everything he thinks about and everything that befalls him is of general interest. In a way, he’s a likable egoist with venturesome effrontery and verve to write a very egoistic essay on his whims and caprice. However, Whites gently rebukes us for our general perception of the essay as an expression of exalted rootlessness without self-discipline and an intellectual basis; rather, it is a panoply of sensibilities, senses, and intelligence, all broken loose from the hidden private closet of the essayist. For this reason of being egoistically concerned in a panorama of contemporary daily that many serious writers of the other literary genres tend to downplay, an essayist should accept his self-imposed role of small-fry writing gentry in the class of scribe, advised White with a kind of avuncular manner. However, it is this estate of an essayist Whites feels exhilarated about; it provides him with a valve of the emotional influx and outflow, so that he can wield his pen across a page in an expense of his curiosity, conviction, observation, and self-discipline, producing a dazzling delight of literary pleasure in its simplicity of language and subject.
To illustrate, White’s subjects of his essays vary from his experience of moving from New York City to Maine as in “Goodbye to forty-eighth street,” to the humorous political essay of “Bedfellow,” featuring his canine family member Fred, and from his keen and humane observation of a circus girl rehearsing her show in “The Ring of Time” to his youthful poetic experience of working as a waiter on a ship to Alaska in “The Years of Wonder.”All of the aforesaid deal with a cast of everyday character and contemporary daily life written in simple but perspicacious words to contextualize the inner realm of White. There’s no priggishness or pomposity in his prose style, which I find very appealing and endearing. For someone who’s as erudite and intelligent as White, such simplicity of writing betokens that he wears his knowledge lightly with a general reader in mind. In fact, White thinks it his duty as a writing man to record all items as though he would be held personally responsible if it were to be omitted. This idea of a writer as general secretary of humanity parallels the reasons of writing as posited by George Orwell: It serves as a platform of expressing our sheer egotism, aesthetic pleasure, political evidence, or historical record. A priori, both of the great essayist of the English languages strike the mutual writing chords in their hearts.
At the heart of the essays lies White’s love of the world where he collected the flotsams and jetsam of what our contemporary human life could bring to us, which were washed up by the waves of time and memories. This collection of essay by White, I think, bestows in spades its sovereign royal heritage of its own on the American essay that merits its own section in nonfiction aisles across the country. That is, in a wide stretch of literary imaginations imbued with historical evidence, the book has made itself the founder of new royal blood in a way that reminds me of William the Conqueror’s becoming the first Norman king of England by establishing a new royal bloodline in 1066. With a variety of topics, and the practicality of language, this book is a gem that holds the reader’s attention throughout the pages including the unforgettable cover featuring Fred and the author himself, which so fittingly and wittingly demonstrates the Element and Style of Essays of E.B. White. It’s a lovely read that warms your heart and piques your curiosity of the inner world of the writer whose thoughts and feelings chime the bells of ours own in one way or another because White is ageless in his writing and his writing timeless in his essays.