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Posts Tagged ‘E. B. White’

23 AUGUST, 2013

How to Tell Love from Passion: A Timeless Litmus Test from E. B. White and James Thurber, 1929

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“By and large, love is easier to experience before it has been explained — easier and cleaner.”

In 1927, E. B. White pulled some strings at The New Yorker, where he had been working since shortly after the legendary magazine’s birth in 1925, and arranged for his friend James Thurber to be hired as an editor. Over the decades that followed, Thurber would go on to produce some of the magazine’s most beloved literature and art. But arguably most delightful of all is his collaboration with White himself: Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do (public library), originally released in 1929 as White’s very first prose publication, is an unspeakably wonderful joint collection of prose poking fun at the conventions of marriage, romance, and love, but not without channeling through the charms of wit some profound truths about the human heart.

Featuring forty-two lovely drawings by Thurber, reminiscent in both style and cultural progressiveness of Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite Danish guide to sexuality and secretly, systematically picked up from the floor beneath Thurber’s desk by White, the essays explore such subjects as feminine types, the sexual revolution, the perils of marital claustrophobia, and frigidity in men. But perhaps most notable is a chapter titled “How to Tell Love from Passion.” It begins:

At a certain point in every person’s amours, the question arises: “Am I in love, or am I merely inflamed by passion?”

It is a disturbing question. Usually it arises at some inopportune moment: at the start of a letter, in the middle of an embrace, at the end of a day in the country. If the person could supply a direct, simple, positive answer — if he could say convincingly, “I am in love,” or, “This is not love, this is passion” — he would spare himself many hours of mental discomfort. Almost nobody can arrive at so simple a reply. The conclusion a man commonly arrives at, after tossing the argument about, is something after this fashion: “I am in love, all right, but just the same I don’t like the way I looked at Miriam last night.”

Largely to blame for the problem, White argues, is the fact that love seems to defy definition — which, granted, hasn’t precluded some of literary history’s greatest minds from having famously tried.

Even after one has experienced love, one finds difficulty defining it. Likewise, one may define it and then have all kinds of trouble experiencing it, because, once having defined it, one is in too pompous a frame of mind ever again to submit to its sweet illusion. By and large, love is easier to experience before it has been explained — easier and cleaner. The same holds true of passion. Understanding the principles of passion is like knowing how to drive a car; once mastered, all is smoothed out; no more does one experience the feeling of perilous adventure, the misgivings, the diverting little hesitancies, the wrong turns, the false starts, the glorious insecurity. All is smoothed out, and all, so to speak, is lost.

Despite the loosely defined catch-all readers and writers have mutually agreed upon when using the l-word, Thurber and White venture their very own definition, which they self-derisively call a “usual hazy interpretation” but which is nonetheless rather wonderful:

The strange bewilderment which overtakes one person on account of another person … the pleasant confusion which we know exists.

So how, then, does one identify true love when it presents itself? We return once again to the opening example of the letter-writing moment of doubt — dispelled, to the delight of the literarily inclined, by the tell-tale quality of punctuation choice:

Let us say you have sat down to write a letter to your lady. There has been a normal amount of preparation for the ordeal, such as clearing a space on the desk … and the normal amount of false alarms, such as sitting down and discovering that you have no cigarettes. (Note: if you think you can write the letter without cigarettes, it is not love, it is passion.) Finally you get settled and you write the words; “Anne darling.” If you like commas, you put a comma after “darling”; if you like colons, a colon; if dashes, a dash. If you don’t care what punctuation mark you put after “darling,” the chances are you are in love — although you may just be uneducated, who knows?

A literary inclination, however, turns out to be more of a disadvantage than advantage in matters of recognizing true love:

This vexing disbelief in one’s own illusion of love is experienced most alarmingly by persons of literary inclinations. Yet with them the reaction comes in quite the opposite manner. Writing is a form of sexual expression (Zaner goes further: he says writing is sex), and it takes just as much out of a person. Thus, a person with a bent for creative literature approaches the task of writing a love letter with an excitation of the spirit surpassing anything in the realm of pure eroticism. He anticipates it for hours, mulling over in his mind the possible material, enlarging on anecdotes, rounding off pledges of affection, sharpening similes, sharpening pencils; he comes to the writing of it with immense zeal and a rather nice control of lyrical prose; he ends on a splendidly poised and correctly balanced note of tenderness and faith and love; and then, having signed, sealed, and posted the missive, is suddenly overcome by the realization that by the very act of composition he has annulled the allure of the subject herself — cares no more about her, for the moment, than he does for an old piece of butcher’s twine, which, all in all, is so alarming a discovery that he usually gets a little bit sick thinking about it, and has to go out somewhere and hear some music.

And yet, as history’s famous epistolary couples can attest — just look at the love letters of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas — literature and love do go hand in hand. White, however, finds this literary love suspect:

I have seldom met an individual of literary tastes or propensities in whom the writing of love was not directly attributable to the love of writing.

A person of this sort falls terribly in love, but in the end it turns out that he is more bemused by a sheet of white paper than a sheet of white bed linen. He would rather leap into print with his lady than leap into bed with her. (This first pleases the lady and then annoys her. She wants him to do both, and with virtually the same impulse.)

Still, culture’s common cynicisms about love aren’t spared the snark:

The medical profession recognizes two distinct types of men: first, the type that believes that to love a woman is not to desire her; second, the type that believes that to desire a woman is not to love her. The medical profession rests.

White ends on a note of irreverent reflection on the very premise of the essay:

The fact of the matter is, it’s very difficult to tell love from passion. My advice to anyone who doesn’t feel sure of the difference between them is either to give them both up or quit trying to split hairs.

Months after Is Sex Necessary? was published, White would fall in love and marry his first and only wife, the literary agent Katharine Angell who had gotten him the New Yorker gig, to whom he would write many wonderful love letters until death did them part.

For a contemporary complement of no lesser charm, see Alain de Botton on how to think more — meaning, better — about sex and revisit Vonnegut’s vintage sexology of choice.

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20 AUGUST, 2013

E. B. White’s Love Letter to His Wife on the Occasion of Her Pregnancy, “Written” by Their Dog

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“White has been stewing around for two days now, a little bit worried because he is not sure that he has made you realize how glad he is that there is to be what the column writer in the Mirror calls a blessed event.”

E. B. White — beloved author, celebrator of New York, champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — topped the ranks of literary history’s famous pet-lovers as he made room in his home and his heart for a dozen dogs of various breeds over the course of eight decades. Indeed, dogs, alongside literature and his wife Katharine, whom he married in 1929 and loved until death did them part in 1977, were the love of White’s life. E. B. White on Dogs (public library) gathers his finest letters, poems, sketches, and essays celebrating his canine companions in a soul-quenching compilation by his granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, who believes her grandfather was able to “observe and express his own childlike wonder at the natural world around him” through his furry friends and their boundless eccentricities.

Among the collection’s greatest gems is a letter to Katharine that White penned in the spring of 1930 on the occasion of her pregnancy with their first and only child together, Joel. What makes the missive extraordinary, however, is that it was “written” by Daisy, Katharine’s beloved Scotty. More than a quirky delight, the choice was also a sentimental wink — Elwyn had met Katharine, a literary agent, at the New Yorker in 1925, where she had taken a job to distract her from the problems of her collapsing first marriage; shortly after she finally divorced her husband, she and White eloped and got married, with only Daisy as their witness; they were back at their desks the next day.

Katharine S. White with infant Joel in the pram and Daisy on a leash, New York City, 1931

Dear Mrs. White:

I like having Josephine here in the morning, although I suppose I will get less actual thinking done — as I used to do my thinking mornings in the bathroom. White has been stewing around for two days now, a little bit worried because he is not sure that he has made you realize how glad he is that there is to be what the column writer in the Mirror calls a blessed event. So I am taking this opportunity, Mrs. White, to help him out to the extent of writing you a brief note which I haven’t done in quite a long time but have been a little sick myself as you know. Well, the truth is White is beside himself and would have said more about it but is holding himself back, not wanting to appear ludicrous to a veteran mother. What he feels, he told me, is a strange queer tight little twitchy feeling around the inside of his throat whenever he thinks that something is happening which will require so much love and all on account of you being so wonderful. (I am not making myself clear I am afraid, but on the occasions when White has spoken privately with me about this he was in no condition to make himself clear either and I am just doing the best I can in my own way.) I know White so well that I always know what is the matter with him, and it always comes to the same thing — he gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling, and he worries about his inarticulateness just the same as he does about his bowels, except it is worse, and it makes him either mad, or sick, or with a prickly sensation in the head. But my, my, my, last Sunday he was so full of this matter which he couldn’t talk about, and he was what Josephine in her simple way would call hoppy, and particularly so because it seemed so good that everything was starting at once — I mean those things, whatever they are, that are making such a noise over in the pond by Palmer Lewis’s house, and the song sparrow that even I could hear from my confinement in the house, and those little seeds that you were sprinkling up where the cut glass and bones used to be — all starting at the same time as the baby, which he seems to think exists already by the way he stands around staring at you and muttering little prayers. Of course he is also very worried for fear you will get the idea that he is regarding you merely as a future mother and not as a present person, or that he wants a child merely as a vindication of his vanity. I doubt if those things are true; White enjoys animal husbandry of all kinds including his own; and as for his regard for you, he has told me that, quite apart from this fertility, he admires you in all kinds of situations or dilemmas, some of which he says have been quite dirty.

Well, Mrs. White, I expect I am tiring you with this long letter, but as you often say yourself, a husband and wife should tell each other about the things that are on their mind, otherwise you get nowhere, and White didn’t seem to be able to tell you about his happiness, so thought I would attempt to put in a word.

White is getting me a new blanket, as the cushion in the bathroom is soiled.

Lovingly, Daisy

This missive is without a doubt among history’s most beautiful love letters, joining those exchanged between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. The remainder of E. B. White on Dogs is equally fantastic, imbued with White’s warm wit and expansive heart.

Thanks, Kaye

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18 APRIL, 2013

E. B. White on Egoism and the Art of the Essay

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“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. Whitechampion 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.

More so than any other writing form, White argues, the essay requires a unique commitment to truth and discipline:

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.

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