E. B. White
Talking with my brother the other day, he reminded me how much I liked the essays of E. B. White. Like many people, I first came to know him in his revised edition of Strunk’s Elements of Style
. He sat me right under Strunk’s nose in a straight-back wooden chair, happy to be there.
Of course I read and re-read Charlotte’s Web
and The Trumpet of the Swan
as a child, but at the time I didn’t connect them with an author. Those stories didn’t come from anywhere. They were always
there – had always been there – would always be there – like parents and family and summer and winter and school.
I bought the book of essays
as a present for my wife – then only my girlfriend – but really it was for me (and she knew it, bless her heart
). Reading it now is like re-reading old letters from a friend. Every one sparkles with wit and affection.
I relish his thoughts on Thoreau (“A Slight Sound at Evening”), on the 1939 World’s Fair (“The World of Tomorrow”) and Florida (“On a Florida Key”), but more than anything else, I cherish his portrayal of Fred.
Fred was White’s pet dachsund for 13 years. My favorite essay of the book, “Bedfellows,” introduces Fred like this:
I am lying here in my private sick bay on the east side of town between Second and Third avenues, watching starlings from the vantage point of bed…. on occasions like this I am almost certain to be visited by the ghost of Fred, my dash-hound everlasting, dead these many years. In life, Fred always attended the sick, climbing right into bed with the patient like some lecherous old physician, and making a bad situation worse.
Every time I read that passage I have to laugh, and again at this:
Once up, he settled into his pose of bird watching, propped luxuriously against a pillow, as close as he could get to the window, his great soft brown eyes alight with expectation and scientific knowledge. He seemed never to tire of his work. He watched steadily and managed to give the impression that he was a secret agent of the Department of Justice. Spotting a flicker or a starling on the wing, he would turn and make a quick report.
"I just saw an eagle go by," he would say. "It was carrying a baby."
This was not precisely a lie. Fred was like a child in many ways, and sought always to blow things up to proportions that satisfied his imagination and his love of adventure.
I think E.B. White may have found Fred so irritating and so dear (without a trace of sentimentality) because they were so much alike:
One day last fall I wandered down through the orchard and into the woods to pay a call at Fred’s grave….
This grave is the only grave I visit with any regularity – in fact, it is the only grave I visit at all. I have relatives lying in cemeteries here and there around the country, but I do not feel any urge to return to them, and it strikes me as odd that I should return to the place where an old dog lies in a shabby bit of woodland next to a private dump. Besides being an easy trip (one for which I need make no preparation) it is a natural journey – I really go down there to see what’s doing. (Fred himself used to scout the place every day when he was alive.) I do not experience grief when I am down there, nor do I pay tribute to the dead. I feel a sort of overall sadness that has nothing to do with the grave or its occupant. Often I feel extremely well in that rough cemetery, and sometimes flush a partridge. But I feel sadness at All Last Things, too, which is probably a purely selfish, or turned-in, emotion – sorrow not at my dog’s death but at my own, which hasn’t even occurred yet but which saddens me just to think about in such pleasant surroundings.