Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘E. B. White’

09 JULY, 2014

What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

By:

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

06 MAY, 2014

E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to a Man Who Had Lost Faith in Humanity

By:

What sailors teach us about hope and the resilience of the human spirit.

In 1973, more than two decades after a young woman wrote to Albert Einstein with a similar concern, one man sent a distressed letter to E.B. White, lamenting that he had lost faith in humanity. The beloved author, who was not only a masterful letter-writer but also a professional celebrator of the human condition and an unflinching proponent of the writer’s duty to uplift people, took it upon himself to boost the man’s sunken heart with a short but infinitely beautiful reply, found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the wonderful collection based on Shaun Usher’s labor-of-love website, which also gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life.

White’s missive, penned on March 30, 1973, when he was 74, endures as a spectacular celebration of the human spirit:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

Every single epistle in Letters of Note is soul-stretching beyond measure. Sample the book further with this timeless wisdom on how to find your purpose in life, then explore more of White’s wit and wisdom with his ideas on the writer’s responsibility in society and the future of reading, his timely admonition about sponsored content, and his moving obituary for his dog Daisy.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

22 APRIL, 2014

Three Delightful Poems About Dogs from E.B. White

By:

A charming celebration from literary history’s premiere champion of the canine.

Perhaps due to the occupation’s necessary solitude and the dearth of distracting human company it inherently requires, writers and their pets have always had a special bond. Chief among them was E. B. White — extraordinary essayist and satirist, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style. Over the course of his life, he owned — parented, rather — a dozen dogs, which inspired the infinitely wonderful writing collected in E. B. White on Dogs (public library) — a compendium compiled by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, which was among 2013’s best books about animals and gave us White’s moving obituary for his dog Daisy and his endearing love letter to his wife “written” by Daisy. But while White was best-known as a prose writer, from his remarkable essays to his prolific letters, he did pen a handful of poems for his beloved canine companions over the years, also included in the volume. Here are three of them, beginning with one that celebrates the general delightfulness of Dog:

E.B. White with his dog Minnie at the New Yorker offices

DOG AROUND THE BLOCK

Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Love of life, and fronts of dwellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintance, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Another paints a charming taxonomy of breeds and temperaments, with a special love-note to his Daisy:

FASHIONS IN DOGS

An Airedale, erect beside the chauffeur of a Rolls-Royce,
Often gives you the impression he’s there from choice.

In town, the Great Dane
Is kept by the insane.

Today the Boxer
Is fashionable and snappy;
But I never saw a Boxer
Who looked thoroughly happy.

The Scotty’s a stoic,
He’s gay and he’s mad;
His pace is a snail trot,
His harness is plaid.
I once had a bitch,
Semi-invalid, crazy:
There ne’er was a Scotch girl
Quite like Daisy.

Pekes
Are biological freaks.
They have no snout
And their eyes come out.
Ladies choose ’m
To clutch to their bosom.
A Pekinese would gladly fight a wolf or a cougar
But is usually owned by a Mrs. Applegate Krueger.
Cockers are perfect for Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Or to carry home a package from the A&P without clowning.

The wire-haired fox
Is hard on socks
With or without clocks.
The smooth-haired variety
Has practically vanished from nice society,
And it certainly does irk us
That you never see one except when you go to the circus.

The dachshund’s affectionate,
He wants to wed with you:
Lie down to sleep,
And he’s in bed with you.
Sit in a chair,
He’s there.
Depart,
You break his heart.

My Christmas will be a whole lot wetter and merrier
If somebody sends me a six-weeks-old Boston terrier.

Sealyhams have square sterns and cute faces
Like toy dogs you see at Macy’s.
But the Sealyham, while droll in appearance,
Has no clearance.

Chows come in black, and chows come in red;
They could come in bright green, I wouldn’t turn my head.
The roof of their mouth is supposed to be blue,
Which is one of those things that might easily be true.

To us it has never seemed exactly pleasant
To see a beautiful setter on East Fifty-seventh Street looking for a woodcock or a pheasant.

German shepherds are useful for leading the blind,
And for biting burglars and Consolidated Edison men in the behind.

Lots of people have a rug.
Very few have a pug.

But White, it appears, felt like he didn’t give the spaniel her due, so he dedicates a whole separate poem to the queen of ears:

CARD OF THANKS

A spaniel’s ears hang low, hang low;
They mop the sidewalk as they go.
Instead of burrs and beggar’s-lice,
They pick up things not half so nice.

Spaniels deserve our special thanks
For mopping floors in shops and banks,
Resourceful, energetic, keen,
They keep the city nice and clean.

Spaniels should be exempt from tax
And be supplied with Johnson’s wax.

Spaniel-mix specimen exhibiting high degree of specialness

E. B. White on Dogs is an absolute treat in its entirety — sometimes soulful, sometimes funny, always unmistakably Whitean in its warm irreverence and sensitive satire. Complement it with Mary Oliver’s magnificent Dogs Songs and John Updike’s harrowing poem on the loss of his dog, then lift your spirits with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs and Jane Goodall’s charming children’s book about the healing power of pet love.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.