Though rather beyond the “mezzo” marker “nel cammin di nostra vita,” I’ve been belatedly introduced by a friend to the writings of E.B. White, in particular, his classic, One Man’s Meat, which chronicles with unerring eye and limpid prose his four years writing and tending a farm in Maine.
In the “Introduction” to the fortieth anniversary edition, White writes of his translocation:
Sometime in the winter of 1938, or even before that, I became restless. I felt unhappy and cooped up. More and more my thoughts turned to Maine, where we owned a house with a barn attached. I don’t recall being disenchanted with New York — I loved New York. I was certainly not disenchanted with The New Yorker — I loved the magazine. If I was disenchanted at all, I was probably disenchanted with me. For one thing I suspected that I was not writing quite the way I wanted to write, and sometimes I was oppressed by my weekly deadline. For another, as a commentator, I was stuck with the editorial “we,” a weasel word suggestive of corporate profundity or institutional consensus. I wanted to write as straight as possible, with no fuzziness.
The various essays celebrate, without a touch of sentimentality, the rigors and joys of farm life, the seasons of nature, the communal pleasures of a pre-tv age (though things to come were ominously trumpeted at the 1939 World’s Fair). But, given the period in which they were written (1938-1943), world events cast an ever-darkening shadow. Here are White’s musings on a book he read in late 1940: The Wave of the Future, by Anne Lindbergh. Making every effort to be fair and generous, White nonetheless feels compelled to denounce the fuzziness of style and thought that mar the book:
the book had a double fascination for me, because it contains so many small and rather attractive truths that all add up to make one big fallacy, and to a writer that is always a fascinating performance. And even after all my conclusions I do not believe that Mrs Lindbergh is any more fascist-minded than I am, or that she wants a different sort of world, or that she is a defeatist; but I think instead that she is a poetical and liberal and talented person troubled in her mind (as anybody is today) and trying to write her way into the clear. But although her first two books contained some of the best stuff and some of the best reporting I have ever read, this one reminded me of what Somerset Maugham wrote in The Summing Up: “…there is a sort of magic in the written word. The idea acquires substance by taking on a visible nature, and then stands in the way of its own clarification.”