From mid-September to early November, E.B. White’s collected letters lived on my bedside table. At nearly 700 pages, it’s too heavy to carry on the subway and hold in one hand, so I kept it at home, dipping into it morning and evening.
After reading a fascinating biography of White and then his essays last fall, I found his letters at the Brattle (complete with newspaper clippings from 1977 featuring an interview with White and a New Yorker tribute to his wife, Katharine, after her death). Intimidated by the collection’s size, I let it sit on my shelf for a year.
(Image from amsaw.org)
Once I finally picked it up, I found myself charmed again by White’s keen eye, dry humor and gift for understatement. His life may have been quiet, but it was peopled with fascinating characters, including Katharine; Harold Ross, longtime editor of The New Yorker; fellow writers; his family members; and Ursula Nordstrom, the longtime children’s editor at Harper’s, whose letters I also read and loved.
As I read White’s letters, chuckling at his witty observations (and frequently reading the choicest bits aloud to J), I kept thinking of a scene from The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. Polynesia, the Doctor’s wise parrot, is talking to the narrator, Tommy Stubbins, a boy who will become the Doctor’s new assistant. She dismisses his worries about never having been to school, but when he wonders if he could learn animal language, she asks him a vital question:
Are you a good noticer? Do you notice things well?
White often doubted his own skill as a writer, even as he wrote weekly essays and shorter pieces for The New Yorker, and worked on his three books for children. He never quite understood all the fuss people made over him and his work. He harbored a deep love for New York, where he was born and raised, even writing a gorgeous, elegiac essay about it. But as he grew older, he spent more and more time on his farm in Brooklin, Maine, raising chickens and pigs and various other animals, followed around by his dogs.
White was, at times, a poet, a social critic, a quixotic dreamer, a children’s novelist, a newspaperman, a humorist, an amateur cartoonist and an essayist. But at all times, in all places, he was a good noticer. His precise observations of daily life, his keen insights into human nature, all hinged on his powers of observation. His noticing, and the care he took in writing down his noticing, are what makes his letters so much fun to read.
Do you enjoy reading collections of letters? (I love them.) And are you a good noticer?
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