All right: I am going to come right out and say it. E.B. White is the greatest “Maine” writer of all time. This declaration doesn’t take away from the historic achievements of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Sarah Orne Jewett or Edwin Arlington Robinson or Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s not a knock on Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kenneth Roberts, Robert McCloskey, or Barbara Cooney. In no way do I mean to diminish the accomplishments of Stephen King, Carolyn Chute, Richard Russo, or the dozens of other writers, living and dead, whose work I adore (or at least respect). I am just saying that, in my opinion, no other author has gotten at the guts of what makes Maine Maine the way that Elwyn Brooks White did.
Today we remember E.B. White as the author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Maybe in college we were assigned to read one of his famous essays — “Once More to the Lake” or “Death of a Pig.” If we studied writing, we were probably forced to buy the text he co-authored with William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style. We might have some vague sense that he was one of the early “voices” who created the elegant yet dry writing style we have come to associate with the New Yorker. These are all excellent reasons to remember him (although I am trying my best to forget the horrible movies made from his children’s books).
White was not born in Maine. He moved to Brooklin in 1939. He understood that he was an outsider and that he would always remain an outsider, and he used his amused detachment to good effect in the essays he wrote for Harper’s magazine, many of which were collected in his classic book One Man’s Meat. Unlike most of the authors who come to Maine from somewhere else, he saw through all the webs that we Mainers spin about ourselves. Only the French do a better job of cloaking their cultural identities in an aura of mystery (“Oh, you can live among us, but you will never truly understand us.”). White saw that pose for what it was: hogwash.
He treated his Maine neighbors as real people, and he described his daily life as a gentleman farmer with utter precision and grace. Consider this sentence from “A Shepherd’s Life”: “This is a day of high winds and extravagant promises, a day of bright skies and the sun on the white painted south sides of buildings, of lambs on the warm slope of the barnyard, their forelegs folded neatly and on their miniature faces a look of grave miniature content.” E.B. White is the kind of writer who makes others put down their pens.
In this issue, we have the good fortune to reprint his 1941 essay “Memorandum” (accompanied by an illustration from the great Chris Van Dusen) and to introduce you to his granddaughter and chief executor, Martha White, who inherited so many of her grandpa’s writerly gifts. Read E.B.’s words for yourself and drop me a note about where you’d rank him on Maine’s literary list. Let the debate begin!
Photograph by Lori Traikos