A new collection of E. B. White letters helps shed light on another classic Maine writer.
E. B. White (left) gifted his correspondence with Edmund Ware Smith (right) to the library in Damariscotta, where Smith lived.
In 1980, E. B. White donated a stack of correspondence between himself and Edmund Ware Smith to Damariscotta’s Skidompha Public Library. The staff, realizing they had something special on their hands, stashed the pages in a bank vault for safekeeping. Then, they forgot about them. Nearly four decades passed before bank employees stumbled across the trove and returned it to the library. Now, the letters are finally seeing the light of day, in a collection titled Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship.
White’s Maine was the Belgrade Lakes and the coastal village of Brooklin. He is, of course, celebrated as the master storyteller who wrote Charlotte’s Web and the expert technician who authoritatively revised The Elements of Style. Smith’s Maine was Damariscotta and the North Woods, and he had his heyday too. He wrote for reputable magazines such as Field & Stream (and this one) and published short-story anthologies, including Upriver & Down and For Maine Only, but his books eventually went out of print and his legacy faded.
As authors, the two friends were unalike, which White’s granddaughter and literary executor, Martha White, points out in an introduction to the new book. Smith hung around with fishermen and game wardens, and his stories were “bigger than life, raucous, and generally told in regional vernacular,” she writes, whereas her grandfather’s approach was “spare, more formal in grammar and diction, and he was largely an armchair sportsman.” But on a personal level, Smith and White held much in common. Addressing each other as Smitty and Whitey, they delighted in swapping news about cows, the changing seasons, trains, Maine, their work, and their wives. And, yes, about raising chickens and drinking gin. Their letters, spanning from 1956 until Smith’s death, in 1967, are chummy, loose, and expansive. A reader realizes that the pair was having fun, a couple of working writers writing for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s a pleasure, as always, to encounter E. B. White again, and it’s an equal delight to rediscover Edmund Ware Smith.
“The rumble of the snow plow has been heard in the country hereabouts, and the land of the pointed firs is lovely to behold, except for being overrun with deer hunters. Did I tell you this nice old place where we now live was once owned by a man named PickWick? My barn has been repaired, and I am expecting at any moment the delivery of a bench saw and lathe, the backlog of my workshop. I hasten to get this letter finished while I still have fingers.” — E.W.S. 11/21/1956
“As for your bench and lathe, I have promised myself a bench saw as soon as (and not until) I have learned to file a saw. And I guess I would get a lathe, too, if I could learn to sharpen the blade of a plane. The only power tool I have allowed myself is a drill; all the rest of the stuff is going to have to wait till I show signs of becoming a carpenter. My magnum opus, to date, is a little wheelbarrow that I made last winter and spring for my grandson. It is a thing of almost unbelievable beauty and strength. I guess I put in about 100 hours on it, 80 of which were spent looking for materials, applying Band-aids, and standing back to admire.” — E.B.W. 12/10/1956
“My bench saw and lathe, so far, have produced a handsome settle, a drop-leaf coffee table, some superb cupboards in the back entry, and a dining-room table of incomparable grace and beauty. As I graduate from pine into the hardwoods, all fingers are intact, and I am troubled only by strange noises emanating from the lathe at certain speeds. My wife uses the sawdust and chips for mulching the gardens. Maybe this is why she gave me the lathe and saw. I must ask her about that.” — E.W.S. 3/26/1957
“P.S. I hear you have set hours to write and transact business. I did that 20 years ago and they are still the laughing stock of Brooklin.” — E.B.W. 1/1/1958
“I am baffled by your postscript reference to my working hours. Whatever you heard is hearsay and not admitted in evidence. I have working hours, all right, but I do not necessarily do any work during them, and I enclose a photograph to prove it. The cat in my lap is named Sweet Life. Underneath the cat is a copy of By Love Possessed, which I was reading while supposedly working. The glass contains gin and Coke. Under it is The Old Farmers’ Almanac, which I had been checking though for information on the lengthening of daylight following the winter solstice. The cigarette lighter doesn’t work and seldom has. I try to fix it while working, and fail. It is a splendid instrument to aid procrastination, far superior to a nail file or pencil sharpener. Finally, take a look at those sheets of paper on my desk. Not a word on any of them, not even a trans-astral thumbprint. However, the chair I am sitting in was bought at Sloane’s in New York, and it cost so much that I feel obliged to sit in it a certain number of hours every day. This may have started the rumor about my work schedule.” — E.W.S. 1/12/1958
“I have been a long time acknowledging Strunk & White on The Elements of Style. It made me try to write sentences with no words, which is why you haven’t heard from me before now. It’s a fine book, and I am delighted and enlightened.” — E.W.S. 6/3/1959
“The Elements of S. is now on the bestseller list, and this indicates something ominous in our society, as worrisome as fallout. In one bookshop below 14th Street, Strunk is outselling Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and I can’t help being alarmed.” — E.B.W. 8/25/1959
“What disturbs me is that there must be a lot of people trying to learn about style. That means more writers, more competition, a harder struggle for me, and perhaps you. Watch it, will you, Whitey? For Maine Only was mailed to you today. It is a runaway bestseller in Damariscotta — eight copies to date have been purchased, three of them by me.” — E.W.S. 9/22/1959
“I am the only man anywhere in these parts with E. B. White as a henhouse consultant. If my hens catch the spirit of all this, I’ll be eating eggs by the first of February, 1961.” — E.W.S. 12/11/1960
“Your February 1 date for first egg sounds too early and as though you were working under pressure. I would down-date entire program and step up drinking, allowing more time at end of day.” — E.B.W. 12/14/1960
“Thanks for the photographs, which I find highly diverting. Your henhouse is less beautiful than Chartres but almost as intricate. I have never seen such a window-and-door-happy couple as you and your wife. I can discover hardly an inch of available wall space, and I don’t know where your hens are going to hang their pictures.” — E.B.W. 1/15/1961
“You should know the reason why houses I build run to doors and windows. I need places through which to see, breathe, and flee. I assume my animals are like-minded. Many people call me an escapist — that word! — little realizing that it is sound to get away from something you hate to something you love, or hate less. You remove your palm from a hot stove. It’s escape. You go from Detroit or New York to wilderness Maine. Escape. They say in effect that to be where you do not like to be is noble, to be where you like to be, ignoble and suspect. A few of the people who have called me an escapist are in institutions. Me, I am in and out of a damn fine henhouse, and I can get in and out from three directions.” — E.W.S. 1/26/1961
“Fishing has turned out to be very good in the Bayou. On my third cast on my first day, I hooked a 25-inch redfish. He sashayed up and down the Bayou for ten or fifteen minutes while my wrist got the best workout it’s ever had, and I finally landed him by summoning my wife, who found a key to a forbidden locker and extracted a landing net belonging to the owner. Snook, trout, sheephead, and flounder also visit the Bayou. My chief trouble as a fisherman is that I don’t care much for fishing. Prefer sailing and drinking. I don’t sail anymore, so that leaves just drinking.” — E.B.W. 1/19/1966
“I can absorb your attitude toward fishing. It doesn’t excite you. I wear the scars of its past excitement. Memory. Filled waders. A hollow creel. Chill waters. Catarrh. An impassioned talk to an Anglers’ Club. Doubt. A wave of sympathy for the trout. But a distilled beauty of the stream as it curves and recoils through its rocks and roots. That’s all for me, Whitey. Bag limit is a dirty term. So is ‘Senior Citizen.’ On the golf course, we have banned it in favor of “The Geriatrics Foursome.” Everyone is scairt to get called old. Yet oldth has its compensations. You don’t have to prove you’re brave any more. You’ve already done it. So no more jumping off the highest roof, running the wildest rapids in a shallop. What we have, Whitey, is the divine recourse of the Jug. All you have to do is wait through the bayou fishing till around four o’clock. After that, there’s tomorrow. I’m for that. Something good might happen.” — E.W.S. 1/30/1966
Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship: The Correspondence of E. B. White and Edmund Ware Smith (Down East Books) is out May 15.
Photographs courtesy of White Literary LLC (E.B. White) and Lincoln County News (Edmund Ware Smith).