E.B. White died this month. He was one of the great writers of our time, "a
luminous prose", as Paul Gray said in Time magazine. Anyone who has
will agree with that. If you can't place him immediately, he wrote Charlotte's
and other books for children. He was the White of Strunk & White's
Elements of Style, the little book no writer or editor should be without.
Thurber he wrote Is Sex Necessary? He wrote many lovely books. My
among them is One Man's Meat, a collection of essays from the column
name that he wrote for Harper's magazine from 1938 to 1943.
I read the full-page obituary in Time, and sat there feeling kind of sad, feeling I'd lost another friend I'd never met. Then I turned a couple of pages -- Rock Hudson dead, Simone Signoret dead -- and there was a review of Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home, and a photo of her, a friend I have met. I sat there still feeling kind of sad, because I haven't seen Ursula for ten years, and our correspondence has fallen off. By coincidence I am writing this on her birthday. Sally and I usually do something special to celebrate Ursula's birthday. Last year we rearranged some things in my workroom, a few bookcases and their contents, and half a ton of papers and so on. Some years we move house, but last year we thought rearranging my room would be sufficient. About 6.30 Sally had gone off to prepare dinner, and I had carefully manoeuvred a 4-foot bookcase and a 7-foot table into the best possible position for not being able to get to the phone, when the phone rang. When I got to it, which took a while, I said my name, as I usually do, and an American voice repeated it. "John Bangsund . . ." he said, in a musing kind of way. Then he went into some story about being here briefly on a visit from the USA and he thought we might be related, because his name was Bangsund too.
Well, I wasn't born yesterday: I knew instantly that this was a prank. The man's accent was right, he was certainly American, so obviously he must be a science-fiction fan with an odd sense of humor -- Ted White, maybe, or even Dick Bergeron. We talked, and I was wrong: he probably is a relative of mine -- Clifford Bangsund, of Redlands, California -- and we'd never heard of each other. Further, he didn't know there were Bangsunds in Australia until he came here, and I'd never heard of any in America. There are quite a few, it turns out, mainly on the west coast -- those that Cliff knows about, anyway. One of them is named John. The thought disturbs me still.
Elwyn Brooks White probably grew up knowing there were other Elwyn Whites around, certainly plenty of E.B. Whites, and I doubt that it disturbed him. Other things disturbed him. In 1917 he was worried about the war, and wondering whether he should join the army, but he didn't weigh enough. "I guess there is no place in the world for me," he wrote on 7 June. "I want to join the American Ambulance Corps, but I'm not eighteen and I've never had any experience driving a car, and Mother doesn't think I ought to go to France. So here I am, quite hopeless, and undeniably jobless. I think either I must be very stupid or else I lack faith in myself and in everything else."
He quoted those young diaries in "One Man's Meat" in October 1939. This is how that essay started:
I keep forgetting that soldiers are so young. I keep thinking of them as my age, or Hitler's age. (Hitler and I are about the same age.) Actually, soldiers are often quite young. They haven't finished school, many of them, and their heads are full of the fragile theme of love, and underneath their bluster and swagger everything in life is coated with that strange beautiful importance that you almost forget about because it dates back so far. The other day some French soldiers on the western front sent a request to a German broadcasting studio asking the orchestra to play "Parlez-moi d'amour". The station was glad to oblige, and all along the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line the young men were listening to the propaganda of their own desire instead of attending to the fight. So few people speak to the young men of love any more, except the song writers and scenarists.I sat up late, that night I learnt that E.B. White had died, rereading some of his essays, marvelling again at how much he had to say, and how well he said it, at his wisdom, his wit, his humor, his humanity.
When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.Something about his style, and often enough his subject matter, reminded me of someone I felt I knew, and for a while I couldn't think who that could be. Then it came to me.
After the football games on Saturday afternoons I would walk down the long streets into the town, shuffling through the dry leaves in the gutters, past children making bonfires of the piles of leaves, and the spirals of sweet, strong smoke. It was a golden fall that year, and I pursued October to the uttermost hill.Garrison Keillor might have written that -- Garrison Keillor, author of the delightful Lake Wobegon Days and presenter of the equally delightful radio program A Prairie Home Companion. I decided I would write an essay on E.B. White and Garrison Keillor, sort of comparing and contrasting them, that kind of thing, with general observations on the American style, the American sense of humor and so on. But I didn't.
Two days ago I was listening to A Prairie Home Companion and about halfway through Garrison Keillor said this: "Mr E.B. White, an American writer and a great friend to millions of us who never met him, died last week at the age of 86. In his memory I just want to read you a few poems, love poems that he wrote for his wife Katharine, that I like." And he did.
In an essay on children's books, in which he decides that "it must be a lot of fun to write for children -- reasonably easy work, perhaps even important work", E.B. White says in passing:
Educators and psychologists are full of theory about the young: they profess to know what a child should be taught and how he should be taught it, and they are often quite positive and surly about the matter. Yet the education of our young, in schools and in libraries, is a function of home and state which gives every appearance of having brilliantly failed the world. A Sunday night radio invasion of the little people from Mars is still more credible than a book on the courses of the stars.A few days after I read that, a few days after E.B. White died, the man who created that "radio invasion", Orson Welles, died.
In Melbourne A Prairie Home Companion overlaps the ABC TV news by five minutes. Last Saturday I sat watching the picture on TV and listening to the closing music on the radio. On the radio the audience in Milwaukee clapped in time to the music; on the TV, also in time to the music -- a freakish thing, but there it was -- black people danced in the streets of Johannesburg. Suddenly the dance became a riot. The black people of Johannesburg were mourning the death of one of their writers, the poet Benjamin Moloisi, hanged that day.
That's web enough. I record without comment the deaths since last month also of Italo Calvino, Emil Gilels and Yul Brynner. Is it just that I'm getting old, or is it Götterdämmerung time?
The Society of Editors Newsletter, October 1985