Writing as Social Enterprise

Attending the 11th annual Social Enterprise Conference (SECON) last weekend at Harvard, I was surprised when one of the guest speakers quoted E.B. White. I doubt White is often (ever?) cited in lectures at Harvard Business School, and I wondered if the international students, a significant portion of the audience, even recognized the name.

Jointly organized by students at the Business School and the Kennedy School, SECON 2011 drew about 1,200 students and professionals seeking inspiration and ideas on how to “sustain impact and live change.” Sunday’s keynote speaker, Robert S. Harrison (CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative) reminisced about how, as an idealistic young law school grad, he was advised to defer pursuing a career in public service until he had some real world experience under his belt. After two decades on Wall Street, first as a corporate attorney and later as an investment banker (at Goldman Sachs…), he finally found his way into the public sector when former President Bill Clinton recruited him to lead the CGI, a high-profile offshoot of the Clinton Foundation. Alluding to the professional calculus many of the ambitious and idealistic audience members were doubtless making, he displayed a slide with a quotation he attributed to E.B. White:

“I get up every morning determined both to change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.”

Warning bells rang in my head. The phrasing and the sentiment simply did not sound like White.

Social Enterprise Conference 2011 at Harvard Business School

“One hell of a good time”? This conjured up a disturbing image of the author as Mad Men’s incorrigible Roger Sterling, knocking back Scotch and chasing skirts at The New Yorker’s holiday party. Something is a little off here, I thought.

Curious to know the context of the quote, I googled it and eventually found my way to its source: a profile of White by Israel Shenker that appeared in the Books section of The New York Times on July 11, 1969, White’s 70th birthday. (The full article is available online in the NYT archive behind the subscriber’s password.)

Interviewing White on his farm in Maine, Shenker finds the author fighting the twin demons of advancing age and writer’s block. Commenting on some of the hot button issues of the day (the Vietnam War, the draft, student protests on college campuses, the “generation gap”), White weighs in with the cool remove of one who knows his ultimate deadline looms and the generous spirit and open-mindedness that were hallmarks of his writing.

This excerpt from Shenker’s profile provides the missing context and the actual wording of the quote Bob Harrison borrowed for his keynote:

“What bothers him about the world at large is ‘its seductiveness and its challenge.’

‘If the world were merely seductive,’ he noted, ‘that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.’”

The world’s challenges and seductions have multiplied exponentially in the decades since White struggled to plan his days, and yet it seems to me that what White was saying about life’s push and pull was subtly different than how Harrison reinterpreted the quote. In White’s calculus, saving and savoring the world was not an “either/or” proposition; rather, the ability to hold these two tendencies in mind simultaneously was an essential precondition to achieving either goal. For White, writing was a social enterprise (though the term hadn’t been coined in his era), and the world is a better place for it.


1 Response to “Writing as Social Enterprise”

  1. 1 Ann Litrel April 30, 2014 at 2:47 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I, too, was looking for the source of this immensely appealing E. B White “quote.” His original words, while less heady, have the more measured ring of truth.

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