Saturday, September 3, 2011

Adventures in contentment


I'm re-reading E.B.White's essay collection One Man's Meat for the umpteenth time, mostly because there's always something new to think about. This time I see that he quotes a professor and critic named Morris Bishop, who apparently said, when he heard of EB's plan to move to Maine, "I trust that you will spare the reading public your little adventures in contentment."

Isn't this every writer's fear, to be hacked at the wrists for lowering oneself to a state of happiness? One should grieve for the world, engage in it, save it, not hie oneself to some far-off shore and write about chickens. White felt the criticism especially keenly, as the Great Depression was still killing people and events in central Europe were killing even more. But he had the satisfaction of having his book distributed to the troops, and of receiving praise therefrom, and understanding that his wonderful blend of nostalgia and savage truth meant more to them than any number of wool socks.

And today, when the Obama administration is building pipelines to encourage our addiction to oil, not to mention the ravishment of the Alberta tar sands, and is relaxing air quality standards, and is granting deep-water drilling licenses, let us re-read White's essay on Walden, specifically his address to Thoreau upon reaching the house site: "There were the remains of a fire in your ruins, but I doubt that it was yours; also two beer bottles trodden into the soil and become part of earth. A young oak had taken root in your house, and two or three ferns, unrolling like the ticklers at a banquet. The only other furnishings were a DuBarry pattern sheet, a page torn from a picture magazine, and some crusts in wax paper."

This is the kind of despairing exhilaration that great writing can produce. Adventures in contentment indeed.

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