Modest in its size and presumptions, engaging in tone, E. B. White's One Man's Meat has resisted becoming historic, even after a nonstop run of 55 years in print. First published in 1942 and reissued in expanded form two years later, the book was unweighty by design, being not a sustained single work but a compilation of the writer's monthly columns for Harper's Magazine (which he had begun writing in 1938), along with three casual essays first published in The New Yorker. Because of this format and the format of the author's mind, the book has always had the heft, the light usefulness, of a bushel basket, carrying a raking of daily or seasonal notions, and, on the next short trip, the heavier burden of an idea. (The image owes much to White himself, whose remembered easy, unstriding walk across a pasture or down the s *censored* road of his Maine farm remains unique, as does his touch with the homely utensils of prose.) Strewn with errands and asterisks, farming tips and changes of weather, notes on animals and neighbors and statesmen, One Man's Meat is too personal for an almanac, too sophisticated for a domestic history, too funny and self-doubting for a literary journal. Perhaps it's a primer: a countryman's lessons that convey, at each reading, a sense of early morning clarity and possibility.
When White first removed, with his wife and young son, from a walk-up duplex on East 48th Street in Manhattan, and went to live on a sal *censored* er farm in North Brooklin, Me., he seemed almost eager, in his early columns, to detect even the smallest signs of awkwardness in himself in his fresh surroundings (as when he found himself crossing the barnyard with a paper napkin in one hand), but the surge of alteration that overtook him and swept him along over the full six-year span of the book quickly did away with these little ironies. Despite its tranquil setting, it is a book about movement -- the rush of the day, the flood and ebb of the icy Penobscot tides, the unsettlements of New England weather, the arrival of another season and its quick (or so it seems) dispersal, the birth and death of livestock, and the coming of a world war that is first seen at a distance (White is shingling his barn roof during the Munich crisis), then sweeps across Europe (he is fixing a balky brooder stove during the German spring drive in the Balkans) and at last comes home (he mans a town plane-spotting post and finds a heron) to impose its binding and oddly exuberant hold on everyone's attention.
Another change, though we don't pick it up at first, is in White himself. Early effusions about the beauty of the egg, some T *censored* auvian phrasings (It is not likely that a man who changes his pursuits will ever succeed in taking on the character or appearance of a new man) or a New Yorkerish dying fall about a faded wooden croquet set give way to more direct and more satisfying stuff about the way to build a dry-mash hopper, the obligations of freedom and useful stratagems against cold weather. He had grown up (he turns 40 in midbook), and he was too busy around the place to be a full-time stylist. I think that One Man's Meat was the making of him as a writer. Freed of the weekly deadlines and the quaintsy first-person plural form of The New Yorker's Notes and Comment page, which he had written for more than a decade, he discovered his subject (it was himself) and a voice that spoke softly but rang true. Once More to the Lake, his 1941 account of a trip with his son back to the freshwater lake where he had vacationed as a boy, is an enduring American essay -- and could not have been written until its precise moment. Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web and 10 other books and collections were still ahead, but the author had found his feet.
What also becomes plain in the book is that Andy White was a born farmer -- not so much an agriculturalist as a handyman. He relished the work and he was good at it. He laughs at his preparations for taking on a cow (the first time he leads her out into the pasture he feels the way I did the first time I ever took a girl to the theater -- embarrassed but elated), but he is no gentleman farmer. While reading the late chapters Winter Diary, My Day and Memorandum (a list of some 200 c *censored* s around the place that demanded immediate attention), you envy him the work but even more the sensual pleasure of its details and the workman's hoard of expertise. Not much escapes his eye -- whether it lights upon a loose tailboard or a dopey moment in a movie, the bloated appearance of late model automobile fenders or some fashionable and ugly trends in thought he finds afloat at the moment when the *censored* armies are overrunning France -- but his powers of observation somehow go deeper the moment he concentrates on something small and at hand: the little running sea on the surface of the hens' watering fountain on a windy morning; the dainty grimace of the dachshund, Fred, as he licks up a fresh-fallen egg on the cellar floor.
Because White is such a prime noticer it is a while before a reader becomes aware of how much he has chosen to leave out of the book. There is very little here about his wife, Katharine -- who was pursuing a demanding job of her own as an editor-by-mail with The New Yorker all this time, as well as running the household -- and not much more about their schoolboy son, Joel. The ineffable Fred almost has a larger part in the daily drama, as does the neighbor lobsterman, Dameron. Nor do we hear about the help required to keep an operation of this sort afloat: the full-time hired man and his occasional assistants, and a cook and a housemaid indoors. These gaps have been commented upon in critical and biographical writings about White, but it is not my memory that he was any more heedless of those around him than most authors are; neither was he uneasy or apologetic about the comforts of his multi-income, triple-profession household. The omissions arise from an instinctive, lifelong sense of privacy -- a dated, almost Victorian consideration in these confessional times -- and also from the writer's sense that this story, however it turned out, was not going to be about the enveloping distractions of family life. The privacy was extended to himself as well; there is more of Andy White left out of his writings than was ever put in.
Even as the war engaged the full energies of the Whites' farm -- among White's production goals for 1942 are 4,000 dozen eggs, 10 pigs and 9,000 pounds of milk -- news of it remained thin, by today's measurements. The engrossing events from Europe and Washington, arriving by radio and mailed newspapers, did not take up much of the day, and the writer, to judge by his pieces, responded by thinking more and more about the world at large and his place in it. Engaging himself in long colloquies about freedom and the chances of world federalism, once peace came, he goes one-on-one with his Government, even as he accedes to its demands on his time and supports its immense gatherings and expenditures of men and materiel. People of my generation are often asked now what it was like to live in a nation engaged in a po *censored* r, all-encompassing war, and One Man's Meat provides a vivid answer. White covered the war -- at bond rallies, at civilian defense centers -- but also noticed that the passionate new love of Americans for America was a patriotism that would have to be relinquished, at least in part, if the world was ever to achieve a lasting peace. Elsewhere, he wrote that the hardest thing about the war was to maintain a decent sense of indignation about its deadly details.
Much of this, perhaps most of it, sounds naive to us now, in our time of instant access to bad news everywhere and surly apathy about it all. If truth be told, White's passionate essays on world government sounded idealistic and simplistic even in their time -- he was not a pundit by nature -- but what we can honor him for, then and now, is his clear conviction (no one was ever clearer on the written page) that he is qualified to think about freedom, all on his own, and to address his reader as one citizen to another about such urgent business. Who among us can be certain that when another time as vivid and dangerous sweeps us up we will find an E. B. White somewhere, to talk to us in these quiet and compelling tones?
Date: 30 Jan 2008