Going Beyond Charlotte with Essays of E.B. White

I read Essays of E.B. White a while back, but I think about it all the time, so I wanted to share it. We all know White for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Charlotte’s Web was a favorite of mine as a kid. When I visited my grandmother in Maine during the summer, I would reread my copy, laying in the moss on a large rock in the woods or on my bed if it was rainy. My version of a beach read, I suppose. Real love non the less.

I had no idea he was a prolific essayist until I stumbled across a used copy of Essay of E.B. White in my favorite bookstore Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine. It sat on my to be read pile for a few months because I tend to read personal essays and short stories in the winter. When I finally did, I was transported back to being a kid laying in the soft moss under the trees with Charlotte and Fern. The voice was a familiar friend.

It opens with him packing up his apartment in New York City in 1957 and moving full time to his farm in Allen Cove, Maine. He’d bought the farm in 1933 and went back and forth to NYC during that time. However, I can give you a little hint about White; he wasn’t from Maine. He was born in Mount Vernon in New York. Part of what makes his essays so enduring is that he is from away. When you are not from Maine, even if you’ve lived there for decades, you will always be from away. But that being from someplace else gives each of his experience’s fresh eyes and a new perspective.

His essay Death of a Pig brings you back to Wilber in a heartbeat. However, this time White’s the farmer doing his best to nursing a sick pig. You go through the emotions of a man learning to be a fulltime caregiver to animals he’s going to slaughter for food. It doesn’t stop him from wanting a good and healthy life for his animals.

His observations are thoughtful and sometimes sweet. In Coon Tree where he is watching a raccoon going up and down the tree to care for her kittens and thinks he has learned everything he can about raccoons only to discover he’s wrong. “Moral: a man should not draw conclusions about raccoons from observing one individual.” I mean, sound advice altogether.

In The Winter of the Great Snow, his barnyard fence is buried by the snowplow, “This delighted the geese, who promptly walked to freedom on their orange-colored snowshoes. They then took off into the air, snowshoes and all, freedom having gone to their heads, and visited the trout pond, where they spent an enjoyable morning on the ice.” These little dispatches are delightful and almost taste of Norman Rockwell.

I’ve spoken to some born and raised farmers about these essays, and they seem torn. Perhaps White’s work gives a pastoral and nostalgic feeling because he’s a gentleman farmer instead of doing it to feed his family. But I think that’s okay as long as that’s understood. White walks in both the city and the country all the time, his feet dancing between to worlds. Even in the forward White himself describes this conundrum, “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 magazine entered in. And affection for the city. I have finally come to rest.”

Essays of E.B. White goes beyond him as a farmer. They span politics, writing, and even Florida. But for me, his pieces about Maine are my favorite. My heart still lives there, even after moving away fifteen years ago. I want to share this discovery of a writer so beloved by me (and millions of other children) that gets to continue with him well beyond Charlotte.

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