Tag Archives: essayist

‘Essays of E.B. White,’ by E.B. White – review

Essays of E. B. WhiteEssays of E. B. White by E B White

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.

‘Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street’, by E.B. White – review

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To come upon E.B White’s essay “Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street” could not have been more opportune than at the time when I was in the middle of sorting out flotsam and jetsam of the paraphernalia that imperceptibly commandeered in my dilapidated apartment over the years. The logistics of moving from one place to another is, I think, really a Herculean task of clearing the famously filthy Augean stables; you have to decide which ones to discard or bring along with to your new habitat, which you would not find easier than you presumed. Then there comes the physical exertion of putting the stuff into boxes or thrash bags before movers come and have those lucky select items of yours shipped out to your new domicile. In peculiar synchronicity of literature, White’s musings on this task of dispensing the contents of  the apartment chimes the bells of my feelings and thoughts in tandem.

I ditto to White’s witty comparison of a home to a “reservoir equipped with a check valve that permits influx but prevents outflux” on account of its being filled up with the detritus of the sundry things that have come to me and clung to me even though many of them escaped my radar of affection quite a long time ago. Maybe I don’t have the guts to throw it all away, but as those things now all of sudden show me a phantasmagorical display of the memories of how they came to me, it’s most likely that I will bring them with me to my new place.  I believe that whatever you have possessed for a long time or wherever you have lived for long, you have ingrained a vestige of your spirit, your inner part in them, willed or unwilled. It’s called “place memories,” imprinting part of you to the outside of your world. Thus you become part of that something, and that something part of you.  Come to think of it, wouldn’t these place memories also become ghosts themselves in haunted places?… Just a thought.

The solitary process of upending the apartment would have been brutally lonely and cruelly vexing were it not for my fortuitous reading of the essay by Mr. Whites whose own moving experience strikes the chords with me. That’s the joy of reading: you get a fresh viewpoint of your own matters, making you feel you are not alone in it. With this uplifted encouragement, I shall complete the Aegean task of moving out before heading for my new sunshine destination in less than a month.

Fiddlesticks! – on Smartphones

RE: 8/20/2018 edition of The Los Angeles Times on “Your smartphone is a teddy bear”

We are swimming in a dazzling sea of modern technological conveniences, and we are drowning in it, whether we are against it or not. We have come a long way since the inventions of a talking telegraph (a telephone), an electronic toaster, a walkman, and all other apparatuses that have become inseparable from us, to arrive here in the 21st century where we seldom begin and finish our days without gazing into (or being glued into) monitors with our hands on keyboards. Surely, it’s a marvelous human cultural progress, a fantastic collective enterprise of the human minds for betterment. Hip, hip, Hooray for the magnum opuses.

Apart from the marvels of our ingenious inventions that have made our lives a bit more bearable to fulfill our daily tasks, how about our non-technological aspects of life then? Do we really think that smartphones provision us with the bells and whistles of our equilibrium? At least two researchers at UC Irvine declare the resounding “Yes.” According to their recent study of psychological impacts of smartphones on our behavioral tendencies, the high-tech gizmo guarantees a feeling of security by saving us from social faux-pas in awkward situations. In fact, they “conclude” that smartphones function as efficacious stress relievers.

John Hunter and Susan Pressman are the names of such revelation, and they want to debunk the infamy of a smartphone as a mindless gizmo used for killing away our otherwise productive moments. They conducted an experiment that involved 3 experimental groups of those who had (1) the phones but were not permitted to use them; (2) the phones and were permitted to use them; and (3) no phones among a control group of UC students. The results were all over but the shouting: that those with the phones displayed less degree of anxiousness and anxiety than those who had none when they were purposefully estranged from the control group. Conversely, those without the phones exhibited the highest level of the stress hormone alpha anylase in the saliva. Besides, those with the phone but were not allowed to use them showed the least level of the stress hormone. Consequently, the researchers raved about these results, rhapsodizing about the positive effects of a smartphone on our psyche.

Neither a luddite nor an anachronist adhering to a primeval way of living, I am all for the munificent technological largess of our time with open arms because I also, inevitably, use it myself in my daily life. But the researchers’ triumphant conclusion of their experiment seems rather precarious and cursory in relation to the following speculations: (1) What were the age groups of their experimental groups? Did the researchers target a specific age group? (2) What were the education and social levels of the experimental groups?; (3) were there any variables in the experimental groups and the control group?; and (4) were the researchers by any chance funded by technologically-based companies?  These are the questions that my heart suspects more than my eye can see.

The image of a devil’s advocate is what I am donning on this topic, but this article pushed me into the position on account of rather superficial results of the experiment devoid of the information on the aforesaid speculations. Also, looking at people wallowing themselves in small smartphones everywhere, especially on the subway and the bus, other than books or kindles, renders an apocalyptic image of the world nearing the doomsday or a scene of horror creatures that turn into zombies every night. “Magnas civitas, Magnas solitude,” Francis Bacon once lamented a great feeling of isolation in a great city. That says it, I should think so. Our sense of belonging and security is not bound by a possession of smartphones, nor does it replace your sweet teddy bears.