July 11 is the birthday of E[lwyn] B[rooks] White (1899 – 1985). He is best known for his children’s books, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan, and The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.), which have sold respectively about four, 20, and ten million copies. The incredible popularity of these books has led too many readers to forget the power and importance of the personal essays he wrote for The New Yorker and Harper’s. Even as an essayist, White is wrongly and too often dismissed as a humorist. Though he never abandoned his sense of humor and genial tone, he wrote important essays about the natural world and the need for a world government, and took strong public stands against fascism, nuclear testing, and the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s that earned him a copious FBI file.
Here is a great paragraph about the American Dream, illusions, patriotism, and class from his 1941 essay “Once More to the Lake”: “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the post cards that showed things looking a little better than they looked. This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers at the camp at the head of the cove were “common” or “nice,” wondering whether it was true that the people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken.” // Ned Stuckey-French
–read more of Once More to the Lake