E.B. White on the Essayist, Political Rectitude, Liberty

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 17 min.

1. E.B. White’s Collected Essays

Today I finished The Essays of E.B. White (1977), which collects 32 essays (if you count White’s forward) from a period of 1934 to 1977. I’d like to share, with brief commentary, a few snippets that especially resonate with me.

Mind you, I enjoyed the collection as a whole, with its colorfully perceptive musings on New York City, Maine, trains in Maine, kitchens, animals, misguided politicizing of eggshells, Thoreau’s Walden, lamenting the Ford Model T’s passing, a young poet’s adventure of self-discovery performing grunge work and exploring Alaskan ports of call on the steamship Buford, and I’ll stop now or I’ll be here all week.

Despite all this variation and White’s attention to detail, the book never feels overloaded. His lightness of touch and casual ease as a writer belie the complexity and conceptual virtuosity that underpin these tightly woven pieces. Or, as White puts it in his 1957 essay, “A Report in Spring”: “(The theme of my life is complexity-through-joy.)”

I spend a lot of time warning against complexity’s dangers—e.g., in my recent blog post “Beware Complexity.” I also acknowledge complexity to be a source of immense richness. One (of many) sub-statements of this pair of broad observations is that human difference may be marketed as cause for division or celebration. If we follow White’s lead and uncover complexity from a starting place of joy, we may be cushioned against its dangers, leaving us freer to celebrate.

I’ll try to keep that in mind here. My attention is perhaps too often guided by cynicism and worry. And, again, there’s much to attend to here. White lived some 86 years—1899 to 1985—and spent much of it taking in and ruminating on the world. Here’s a glimpse of that, starting with the role of the essay in those ruminations.

2. White on the Essayist

From the book’s Foreword:

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. … Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into a new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses… The essayist … selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast. I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper. … I tend still to fall back on the essay form (or lack of form) when an idea strikes me, but … A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfaction of a somewhat undisciplined existence. …

There is one thing the essayist cannot do, though—he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment, or he will be found out in no time … [candor] is the basic ingredient. And … the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises its own problems… [which] (we all hope) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.

…I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit. But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.

White’s thoughts here align nicely with those I explore in a recent blog post called “The Curious Essayist (with Loren Eiseley, Edward Said, Phillip Lopate).”

As do, fascinatingly, these thoughts from poet Donald Hall—in his essay, “In Praise of Paragraphs,” from his 2018 collection A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninetyon how he (Hall) steers, with a poet’s hands, his own essays towards the same multidimensional destination White describes:

My prose continued in a direction that my poems had taken over the years. When I was young, my language wore coats and shirts and trousers, neckties, bespoke shoes. In my lifetime as a writer I have cast off layer after layer of clothing in pursuit of nudity. I hold nothing back except transitions that might once have elaborated notes into an essay. … I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back? (p 11)

Hall writes of undressing language in pursuit of holding nothing back, while White writes of dressing up, while wary of concealment, as a self-appointed multi-specialist (one not all of whose shirts have been a good fit). I love the snug compatibility of these inverted metaphors. They would both feel at home in my above-linked blog post.

White’s mention of the essayist’s self-centeredness, however, is something I don’t touch on in that post, at least not in those terms. I speak, rather, of inward-facing contemplation. But I think White’s assessment is fair, and not unique to essayists.

I agree, for instance, with Jacques Brel who once said in an interview that, in order to stand on a stage and perform your songs, you must believe what you’re doing to be worth the audience’s attention. I go further than this: you must believe it worth a piece of your audience’s life; otherwise, you attempt a tiny murder (or a tiny assisted suicide: people, I admit, can be shockingly wasteful with their attention). 

The essayist, especially the personal essayist, feels at risk of a special sort of self-indulgence. A song at least has a melody or a beat and can be beautifully sung, even if it is, in the end, only about your evening ablutions routine or staring all winter at a tree outside your office window.

One way Phillip Lopate—in his treatise on and tribute to the essay, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (2013)—addresses the “who cares what I think?” fear by advising his students, in addition to writing as well as they can (good prose being its own pleasure) to engage life’s messiness honestly: “…honesty that will cut through the pious orthodoxies of the moment and ring true. There is nothing more exciting than to follow a live, candid mind thinking on the page, exploring uncharted waters” (from Chapter 3).

This excellent advice firmly in mind, there’s one more thing I’d like to address in White’s passage.

White’s use of the default “he” embarrasses my 21st-century ears, despite my knowing it the convention at the time. There’s every reason to think White means his description to apply to all genders.

Just as Virginia Woolf no doubt does in her 1940 essay, “The Leaning Tower“: “A writer is a person who sits at a desk and keeps his eye fixed, as intently as he can, upon a certain object… He is an artist who sits with a sheet of paper in front of him trying to copy what he sees.”

And as James Baldwin does in the Autobiographical Notes that introduce his 1955 essay collection, Notes of a Native Son: “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it.”

But Susan Sontag might be pushing it when she writes,  in her 1962 essay “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer,” that “The writer is the exemplary sufferer… As a man, he suffers: as a writer, he transforms his suffering into art. The writer is a the man who discovers the use for suffering in the economy of art.” This essay is about Cesare Pavese, in which context one may be tempted to think Sontag means here the writer (or artist) as conceived of by a gender-biased society. But one need only read the essay to see that Sontag is speaking generally. (Interestingly, she remarks on Pavese’s use of pronouns: namely, his preference for “I” in his novels and “you” in his diaries.)

Ultimately, Sontag seems to have used the default “he” as much as anyone when it was conventional, including, three years later, when she writes in the opening paragraph of her 1965 essay “On Style”: “Everyone is quick to avow that style and content are indissoluble, that the strongly individual style of each important writer is an organic aspect of his work and never something merely ‘decorative.'”

[Both of those Sontag essays are included in her 1966 volume: Against Interpretation, and Other Essays.]

My temptation is usually to de-gender such passages when I copy them down—e.g., as when I included Baldwin’s above words in my bank of personally inspiring quotes about writing. But I don’t de-gender them. I don’t dare “correct” these monumental writers. Though I can’t help but de-gender them in my head as I read them.

It doesn’t stop there. Increasingly, my 2020 sensibilities cringe at the the now old-fashioned sounding “he or she” (or, as I was fond of it, “she or he”) that was very recently moral and common.

A non-native English speaker I was helping with an essay, around 2015, asked me whether he as a rule should default to “he” or “she,” as he found “he or she” inelegant (indeed it is). I told him to default to “she” unless writing about something that might affirm a questionable stereotype—e.g., if the topic is nursing, go with “he.” Otherwise, use common sense. If writing about 19th-century U.S. presidents or mud-swallowed soldiers at Passchendaele or mass shooters in American schools, “she” would be distractingly contrived.

Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, uses “he or she.” But then in The Sense of Style, his 2014 book on writing, Pinker borrows a “convention from linguistics” in order to avoid the “awkwardness of strings of he or she“: “[I] will consistently refer to a generic writer of one sex and a generic reader of the other. The male gender won the coin toss, and will represent the writer in this chapter; the roles will alternate in subsequent ones.”

In philosophy, at least as recent as 2015, the default was “she.” That too, I’m afraid, now feels awkwardly old-fashioned. But I imagine these days it’s all “they” now.

In a (non-academic) editing gig last year, mid-project, we switched all “s/he” instances to “they”; I was glad to do it. In my own writing, like many these days, I sometimes use singular “they,” but prefer “one” or “you” or even “we” (but very selectively: I am, like all humans, no large social group’s spokesperson—he says without irony). If I can manage it, my real preference is no pronoun at all.

Obviously the rabbit hole is a deep and winding one. It would be interesting to consider, for instance, the subjective and practical effects of the default “he” on readers of 2020 (for whom pronoun choice is hyper-salient and varied) versus readers of 1950 or 1850 (faced with overflowing accretions of “he”).

It would be interesting, for instance, to look at the style conventions—contrasted with content’s substance—used in the magazine that was such a defining feature of White’s childhood, and that of many other young writers: St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys, launched in 1873 with Mary Mapes Dodge as editor.

Also interesting is the question, say, of when Sontag began avoiding the default “he.” The earliest I have in front of me is in her 1978 Rolling Stone interview, in which she presumably spoke the words (keeping in mind that interviews undergo much editing): “I feel I’m changing all the time, and that’s something that’s hard to explain to people, because a writer is generally thought to be someone who’s either engaging in self-expression or else doing work to convince or change people along the lines of his or her views.”

Also important to note in such an inquiry would be that gendered pronoun worries were acknowledged centuries ago. William H. Marshall proposed “ou” as a gender-neutral solution in 1789, and Charles Crozat Converse proposed “thon” in 1898. (For an extensive timeline, see Dennis Baron’s 2020 book What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He & She, on which, for example, “one” shows up in 1770 and singular “they” in 1794.)

Consider this a tiny peak into one of the rabbit hole’s entrances. One that leaves me with two lingering thoughts.

First, I’m sure White, Woolf, Baldwin, and Sontag did not wish harm to women with their pronoun choices (or was it their editors’?; what is the difference between the person and the edited persona, as far as the culture is concerned?), neither directly, by discouraging females from seeing themselves as writers, nor indirectly, by sustaining a cultural framework that preferences maleness. If their words did, regardless of intention, so harm: if the brilliant Woolf and Sontag were duped by finely ingrained sexism, then so were the brilliant White and Baldwin.

Second, I’m convinced we’re better off without the default “he.” But I have one reservation about how this progress is cast. Our newly calibrated moral sensors might activate defenses when the danger of harm is outweighed by the value of what some of yesteryear’s best minds have to offer us. I’ll take this further. Overly fortified defenses can prohibit taking in what’s best from writers even who did in some serious sense mean to harm.

Or put it this way. Those who can consume anything—who do not have the “idea” equivalent of a soy or peanut allergy—are at an intellectual and creative advantage over, and are better fortified against dupery than, those on a highly restricted diet. (Unless the latter simply exile, sequester, or kill the former.)

Finally, I can never leave this topic without posing the following question. What “idea” diets—e.g., discursive norms—do we prescribe in 2020 as the obviously right and moral ones that will lead the children of 2060 to scold us with a, “How could you?” We’re all dupes.

3. White on Political Rectitude

In his 1956 essay “Bedfellows,” White worries about religious belief, demonstrated through prayer, becoming mandatory for participating in American democracy. His expression of the worry, however, is general and timeless:

The concern of a democracy is that no honest man shall feel uncomfortable, I don’t care who he is, or how nutty he is.

I hope that belief never is made to appear mandatory. … I distrust the slightest hint of a standard for political rectitude, knowing that it will open the way for persons in authority to set arbitrary standards of human behavior. (p 107) …

…when I see the first faint shadow of orthodoxy sweep across the sky, feel the first cold whiff of its blinding fog steal in from the sea, I tremble all over… (p 108) …

“Political rectitude.” Sounds familiar.

And then, in a 1962 Post Script to that essay, he doubles down on his concern’s generality:

The McCarthy era, so lately dead, has been followed by the Birch Society era (eras are growing shorter and shorter in America—some of them seem to last only a few days), and again we find ourselves with a group of people that proposes to establish a standard for political rectitude, again we have vigilantes busy compiling lists and deciding who is anti-Communist and who fails in that regard. Now in 1962, conservatism is the big, new correct thing, and the term “liberal” is a term of opprobrium.” (p 109)

I mean. Yeah. White expressed this concern earlier as well. See, for instance, the opening paragraph of his letter published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1947 (taken from On Democracy, a 2019 volume of White’s essays, letters, and poems):

I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear. Nothing lately has unsettled my party and raised my fears so much as your editorial, on Thanksgiving Day, suggesting that employees should be required to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs. The idea is inconsistent with our Constitutional theory and has been stubbornly opposed by watchful men since the early days of the Republic. It’s hard for me to believe that the Herald Tribune is backing away from the fight, and I can only assume that your editorial writer, in a hurry to get home for Thanksgiving, tripped over the First Amendment and thought it was the office cat. (pp 72–73)

Yeah again!

I wonder how those who today say worries about freedom of speech are overblown, misguided, or suspect would feel were they inserted into 1947, when many of today’s freely expressed—orthodox, even—beliefs were forbidden on pain of mob violence or imprisonment.

See Executive Order 9835, or the “Loyalty Order,” of 1947 (which precedes White’s Herald Tribune letter by eight months). And see the Sedition Act of 1918.

And see Jehovah Witnesses in the 1930s and 1940s persecuted—run out of town, beaten, tarred and feathered, lynched, I could go on—by large, angry, arson-prone mobs. Why? Because the Witnesses didn’t want their children compelled by their schools to salute the American flag and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Important Supreme Court cases ensued.

3. Speaking of Free Speech: White on Liberty

In his 1941 essay, “On a Florida Key,” White writes of two local movie theaters. At one, “colored people are allowed in the balcony,” while at the other, “colored people are not allowed at all.” Of the latter:

I saw a patriotic newsreel there the other day which ended with a picture of the American flag blowing in the breeze, and the words: one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Everyone clapped, but I decided I could not clap for liberty and justice (for all) while I was in a theater from which Negroes had been barred. And I felt there were too many people in the world who think liberty and justice for all means liberty and justice for themselves and their friends. I sat there wondering what would happen to me if I were to jump up and say in a loud voice: “If you folks like liberty and justice so much, why do you keep Negroes from this theater?” I am sure it would have surprised everybody very much and it is the kind of thing I dream about doing but never do. If I had done it I suppose the management would have taken me by the arm and marched me out of the theater, on the grounds that it is disturbing the peace to speak up for liberty just as the feature is coming on. (p 174)

It’s noted in the book’s biography section that White was a very shy public speaker. But even if he weren’t, I can’t fault him for not speaking up. Few of us have the courage not to clap when expected, much less to speak out in protest when not asked our opinion. I wonder. Did anyone notice his silent protest? Was he as famous to them as I assume he was by 1941 in New York (given his association with the The New Yorker)? Still some years off were Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952).

His protest wasn’t entirely silent. “On a Florida Key” was published in Harper’s Magazine. What was the magazine’s circulation among Florida Key residents? Was he protesting to the converted?

But to my broader point. What does White’s story say about free speech? It seems to me that a fear of speaking up is not, in itself, the problem. That is, a situation in which there is no fear of speaking up is not likely to be as dire as those situations that call for brave people to speak up. In other words, in a society in which each of us feels free to speak our minds, the ideas so spoken must pose no threat to the social fabric’s integrity.

What to do with this observation? I don’t know. It could suggest the stuff of dystopia or utopia. The newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) allows for free expression while severely constricting the space of thinkable ideas. I’ll just say this. White’s objections to segregation as anti-liberty strike me, and I bet strike you, as not just reasonable, but obviously correct. Something that had to be said by someone, and that I’d be ashamed not to have said (even while forgiving myself for lacking the courage to face the consequences of doing so).

I would hate to think that I subscribe to, much less help sustain, any system that makes people afraid to express their good-faith, and in their mind reasonable, opinions. No matter how much I disagree with them. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe I’m wrong. We need room to make mistakes, to be challenged and corrected.

Even worse, compelled silence—or, essentially the same thing, compelled declaration of false beliefs—is the opposite of progress. And restricted speech leads quickly to restricted thought, but this rarely if ever works as well as Orwell’s (fictional) newspeak. Frenetic furies of thoughts trapped in a head can boil the blood. The boil doesn’t purify toxins. It just makes for a hotheaded incubator, a fecund stew of potentially very bad ideas, or even good ideas overcooked.

I think Noam Chomsky understood this when he signed a controversial petition in 1979 agreeing that Robert Faurisson should be allowed to air his unfortunate Holocaust denial. Better to let it out into the open for challenging, rather than turn it into forbidden fruit (indeed, we often only hear of something because it was censored).

I may be misrepresenting Chomsky’s position. Notably, the petition did not address the veracity of Faurisson’s claims, but only his right to express and publish them (which includes, I’m sure, the right to think them). As Chomsky noted the following year, in an essay called “Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression“: “it is a truism, hardly deserving discussion, that the defense of the right of free expression is not restricted to ideas one approves of, and that it is precisely in the case of ideas found most offensive that these rights must be most vigorously defended.”

Chomsky’s similarly defended free speech last July, when he signed a group letter to Harper’s Magazine, in which it’s noted that “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Chomsky was born in 1928. He’s been at this a while now.

My own generation, Generation X, didn’t see the McCarthyism White and Chomsky saw. But we had censorship coming at us from the Christian Right as well as from the Stick-in-the-Mud Left (e.g., Tipper Gore’s PMRC project). The reaction was a generation of comedians and artists who made an art form of reducing to spasms of apoplexy those who would censor them (you know, Baby Boomers). I back then felt my cohort often went too far, but am these days saddened to see some of those comedians cowering before the mob.

Today’s mob isn’t just Boomers. We Gen-Xers have gotten it from left, right, above, and below. Gen Z or, if not, Alpha will help us out. Today’s young culture police are tomorrow’s wrinkled fuddy-duddies, telling kids what they must and cannot say. Good luck with that. (I’m glad to have been in one of the non-fuddy-duddy cohorts.)

Nah. I don’t believe in these generational divides. Chomsky is of the Silent Generation, and he’s been anything but. And many of the people I best connect with are Millennials. Also, I retract the above use of “we.” Complexity got the best of me. So much easier to generalize—more these days than ever, I feel. Really, for the first time, just in the last year, after decades of eye-rolling at the the idea of generational solidarity: I’ve found myself “identifying” with the Gen-Ex spirit? Why? (It worries me. More on this another day.)

Finally: What most threatens liberty? Here’s me quoting White (again, in “Bedfellows,” 1956) quoting Dean Acheson quoting Louis Brandeis: “’The greatest dangers to liberty,” said Mr. Brandeis, “lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.’”

[The original source is Justice Brandeis’s dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).]

Liberty talk is only half complete without talk of unity. White’s 1960 essay “Unity” makes this point with words quoted from a 1959 New York Times Magazine article by Salvador de Madariaga: “The trouble today is that the Communist world understands unity but not liberty, while the free world understands liberty but not unity. Eventual victory may be won by the first of the two sides to achieve the synthesis of both liberty and unity.”

Adjust the passage to taste.

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