Archive for January, 2009

In Appreciation of John Updike

In hearing the sad news of John Updike’s passing this week I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that E. B. and Katharine White were among his earliest fans and that, likewise, Updike was an admirer of EBW’s.

In a January 1962 letter to Updike, EBW wrote:

I would rather read an unwritten novel by you than a written one by almost anyone else. The piece in this issue is wonderfully moving, moved me wonderfully, is almost unbelievably good, except I believe it….I keep trying to discover what it is (what mysterious thing) that elevates writing to the level where combustion takes place, and I guess it it is simply that in writing there has to be an escape of gases or vapors from the center — Core Gas, that is. And even this explanation is unreliable, because God knows there was always a lot of gas escaping from Hemingway but a lot of the time it reminded me of the farting of an old horse.

Continue reading ‘In Appreciation of John Updike’

The Fox at the Door

“One of the most time consuming things to have is an enemy.”

I plucked this plainspoken truth from E. B. White’s “A Report in January,” posted from his Maine farm on January 30, 1958.

EBW’s immediate enemy was the fox terrorizing his hens. Even as he types,
he is on the watch, a loaded shotgun at the ready.

He wants to destroy my form of society–a society of free geese, of Bantams unconfined. So I react in the natural way, building up my defenses, improving my weapons and my aim, spending more and more time on the problems of supremacy….When I realize what a vast amount of time the world would have for useful and sensible tasks if each country could take its mind off ‘the enemy,’ I am appalled.

EBW’s marauding fox was, of course, the least of the “red” enemies in the Cold War era. Earlier that month the Evil Empire’s eye in the sky, Sputnik 1, had tumbled from its orbit, and the day after this essay was posted, the U.S. would launch its own entrant in the Space Race (Explorer 1). With the threat of spy satellites and long-range nuclear missiles, neither Superpower could afford to take its mind off the enemy. Time consuming (and costly), indeed, to have an enemy. Then, as now.
Continue reading ‘The Fox at the Door’

“The Unforeseeable Future”

Leafing through the “Misused Words and Expressions” section of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” I paused at the entry, “The Foreseeable Future:”

A cliché and a fuzzy one. How much of the future is foreseeable? Ten minutes? Ten years? Any of it? By whom is it foreseeable? Seers? Experts? Everybody?”

Good question! As my son recently quipped when I asked him, mid-afternoon, whether he’d be home for dinner: “What, you want me to predict the future?” Continue reading ‘“The Unforeseeable Future”’

Bedfellows, Canine and Political

E. B. White’s purports to have penned his February 1956 essay “Bedfellows” from his “sick bay” at home in New York. The sickbed is a clever conceit that gives him license to muse somewhat feverishly on the political and canine bedfellows, comparing Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson and President Eisenhower to his late dachshund Fred.

He sets the stage with grudgingly fond memories of Fred, whom he calls “the Cecil B. deMille of dogs,” “a zealot” and “an opportunist.”

The word “faithful” is an adjective I simply never thought of in connection with Fred. He differed from most dogs in that he tended to knock down, rather than build up, the master’s ego….Fred devoted his life to deflating me and succeeded admirably.

Continue reading ‘Bedfellows, Canine and Political’

Ringing in ’09

New Year’s Day seems a fitting moment to revisit E. B. White’s meditative essay “The Ring of Time.”

The time is March 1956, and the ring is in Sarasota, at the headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus. Like a baseball fan at spring training, EBW is watching behind the scenes as a teenage girl practices her riding stunts, bareback and barefoot. The thrill of watching this casual, uncostumed rehearsal far exceeds that of watching a final performance. As girl and horse circle the riding ring, he falls into a trance:

The enchantment grew not out of anything that happened or was performed but out of something that seemed to go round and around and around with the girl, attending her, a steady gleam in the shape of a circle — a ring of ambition, of happiness, of youth.

Lulled, momentarily, into believing the illusion that time itself runs in circles, he grows “acutely unhappy” when he realizes that, Continue reading ‘Ringing in ’09′


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