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Essays of E. B. White (Repr of 1977 ed) (Perennial Classics)

by E. B. White

Last night I dreamed I was in the library of a private women’s college; I don’t know which one, though it was in a rural setting, so I can rule out a few. The librarians were charming and wonderful, but to get to the material I needed for my homework–textual crticism of some author I don’t remember–I had to pass through hallway after hallway, and in the last room, before I woke up, I had to slide down a huge sandpile and then crawl through a narrow doorway to get to the 900s.

Which if you’re a librarian you know is the punchline, because textual criticism (at least for literature) would be in the 800s. (There’s the other issue that an academic library would probably have LC numbering, but with my public library background, it’s understandable that I dream in Dewey.)

I took that as a cue that I was stressed that it was Sunday and I hadn’t started on my paper, due Wednesday. (That means I had Sunday and then Monday night to write.) Even for short critical papers–a different level of effort than personal essays–I usually start a week ahead if not earlier, but life’s events had pushed things unusually late for me. I hadn’t even processed the idea for my paper. I knew it had to be three to five page paper about… well, about craft and nonfiction. It could be on an essay we had read, or an essay we hadn’t read. Clear enough?

Maybe it was the scary feeling of sliding down that sandpile, but I woke up this morning with no idea what I should say, and ten hours later had written a five-page essay–not the best thing I’ve written, but not the worst, either–about the narrator-as-outsider in E.B. White’s “The Ring of Time.” Being me, I even went back to the original New York Times review, found a 1977 retrospective, exhumed Roland Barthe, cited some other post-post-structuralist, and then tried to bring it all back home. I liked the results, and as I have one more short paper and then a final paper that can be expanded from a short paper, this may be my magic seahorse I drop into the glass of water to grow into the last homework assignment for my MFA (not including workshop essays and this summer’s massive major project activity).

I concentrated on White’s seductive voice: that folksy, aw-shucks manner, beguilingly simple, one moment talking about watching a circus practice and the next talking about segregation in Florida. It’s an interesting trick–something I think Jon Stewart has an angle on, if he hasn’t entirely mastered it–and one that is far more persuasive than the heaviest bombast. As I read and re-read White, I realized why I gravitated toward his essay: because I love White’s voice and I love his clarity of thought. Go find his essays and cherry-pick until you find a couple you like. You will find something.


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