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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Thursday, July 11, 2013

White on black

E.B. White is 114 years old today. I deliberately use the present tense, since to me he's as alive and relevant and wise as he was on his 70th birthday in 1969, when he gave The New York Times the following quote:

"If the world were merely seductive, 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."

What I miss most about the literary world today is the subtle, thoughtful, moral response to the human condition. There are a lot of thoughtful people, there are a lot of moral people, but there aren't very many subtle people, and making a measured view of the rightness or wrongness of a person or event is quite rare. Irony is big, empathy is not. The balance is way off. Many writers have no trouble planning their days.

Throughout One Man's Meat, White's collection of essays from Harper's Magazine, World War II is a quiet presence, but some of the greatest anti-war sentiment is found in this book, with no shouting, no enraged pacifism, no exploding bodies or cruel drones, no statistics of death. He got at the blackest subjects through the commonest things - going to the lake, the death of a pig, a spider, farm chores, taciturn Maine neighbors. Improving and saving the world is rather hard to do quietly: I'm in awe of how he did it. Too bad we can't be like White, and save and savor at the same time.

1 comment:

Jeff Boatright said...

Strunk and White, One Man's Meat

Enjoyed and envied