“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”
The question of what makes a great essay is an inexhaustible source of fascination, and there is hardly a greater master virtuoso at it than E. B. White — champion of literary style, defender of the writer’s responsibility, custodian of the free press, little-known New Yorker cover artist, lover of New York.
In April of 1977, in the foreword to the indispensable anthology Essays of E. B. White (public library), the beloved author examines the very form he had so mesmerizingly mastered, with equal parts irreverence and love:
The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.
White offers a morphology of essayistic dispositions:
There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe:he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter — philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast. I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper.
While he professes to “fall back on the essay form” whenever an idea strikes, White, with the characteristic self-consciousness and self-deprecation of a proper essayist, puts the essay in its place on the literary ladder:
I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters — it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.
Little did White know that a mere year later, he’d be awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for the full body of his work, which consisted — per his self-professed preference — largely of essays.
There is one thing that the essayist cannot do, though — he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment, for he will be found out in no time. Desmond MacCarthy, in his introductory remarks to the 1928 E. P. Dutton & Company edition of Montaigne, observes that Montaigne “had the gift of natural candour. . . .” It is the basic ingredient. And even the essayist’s escape from discipline is only a partial escape: the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises is own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all home) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.
Echoing Joan Didion’s conception of writing as access to one’s self and George Orwell’s contention that the first universal motive for writing is “sheer egotism,” White returns to the solipsism of the essayist:
I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egotist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit. But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.
White goes on to discuss his choice of essays for the anthology and their order, noting of his most famous masterpiece — the exquisite Here Is New York:
Some, like “Here Is New York,” have been seriously affected by the passage of time and now stand as period pieces. I wrote about new York in the summer of 1948, during a hot spell. The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’ not familiar with. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.
Place has played an important role in White’s relationship with the written word, as becomes evident in the selected essays. He notes:
I spent a large part of the first half of my life as a city dweller, a large part of the second half as a countryman. In between, there were periods when nobody, including myself, quite knew (or cared) where I was: I thrashed back and forth between Maine and New York for reasons that seemed compelling at the time. Money entered into it, affection for The New Yorker entered in. And affection for the city.
I have finally come to rest.
White spent the remaining years of his life at his home in North Brooklin, Maine.
Essays of E. B. White is required reading, a pinnacle of the form from one of its greatest masters. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer and why brevity isn’t the gold standard for style.