Things don’t change much. I thought somebody ought to know.
–E.B. White (Letter to Stanley Hart White)
When I was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands with my two brothers and my 70-year old mother — an exceptional hiatus from our lives with family and children, just the four of us, to celebrate my mother’s milestone birthday, our good fortune that we had had her in our lives for such a long time — I happened upon a collection of essays by E.B. White, a book that the house owners had left on the shelf. I had read White’s autobiographical piece, “Once More to the Lake” in college, but here I was, a man in his late-40s, again under its spell. Throughout our time at that lovely house under the clear skies, overlooking the deep-blue Atlantic Ocean, I kept returning to his rumination on summer memories.
Written in August 1941 and published originally in Harper’s, the story is deceptively simple. White takes his son to a camp for a short vacation. It is the same camp, by Belgrade Lake in Maine, where his father had taken him many times when he was growing up, over 30 years before. He writes, “I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot.” Except for the sound of outboard motors on boats, a mid-century technological advance — a “petulant, irritable sound” that “whined about one’s ears like mosquitoes” — he found it to be the same place. “Once More to the Lake” is not a psychological exploration, except for one recurring detail. As White sees his son engage in activities that he himself used to do — baiting a fish hook, pulling on a bathing suit — he transposes identities, imagining himself as his father to his younger self. The jarring illusion keeps returning.
For a true story that takes place in the early 1940s, there is no mention of Hitler’s insane aggressions, concentration camps filling with prisoners, or mass murders, although White had some awareness of these far-away tragedies and his country’s anxieties about its role in a hostile world. Although “Once More to the Lake” does not mention them, I cannot help but feel that the longing for the familiar place of one’s childhood, a place of “peace and goodness and jollity,” is motivated in part by grim adult fears. Imagine the Harper’s reader of 1941, worried over atrocities reported in world news. Witness his Walt Whitman-like exuberance:
Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, the little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the miniature birch-bark canoes and the postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked.
The language of unperturbed continuity is a balm to the agitated adult brain: the indelible patterns of the time, “unshatterable,” “fade-proof,” “forever and ever,” “summer without end.” There is also the jab at the idealisms to which memory is vulnerable: the postcards that present a sunnier version of the place, a fixed image, the awareness of fabrication.
Of course, I was re-reading this essay while I myself was on a summer vacation. At times I read it on the beach, supine on a towel, while my mother sat in a fold-up chair beside me. I was not with the nuclear family I was raising, but with the family in which I was raised, 30 years after the last teenager left home. We were all in character, the usual roles we had occupied since childhood. The bookish one, I was immersed in literary adventures, my obsession with language, while my brothers snorkeled near the coral reef and, coming up for air, called out their discoveries to my mother, like excited teenage boys. It was my own version of White’s jarring illusion. My mother was the same as always, but slower, more hesitant to venture onto the shifting sand. I found myself mulling over the essay when we crowded into the vehicle that careened over the island hills, my brother Mike driving like a fiend, adding his wicked cackle to each roller-coaster descent while the rest of us gasped at his recklessness. Without my own children to attend to, I had an uncommon amount of time for reflection. Re-reading White’s essay, I felt the pull of a deep pattern, that I struggled to name, that brought me back to my childhood.
White writes, “It’s hard to say why a certain thing takes hold.” Since I was a boy, whenever I found a book that I loved, I became deeply attached. Almost obsessively, I pored over it, drawn to the secret, submerged patterns of the work, the sentence-rhythms that bring it to life, the difficult-to-define sense of “the voice,” that inner authority and coherence, mysterious and pulling as faith. The drawback of this literary craving is that I have read fewer books than the average writer, the best of whom are voracious readers. Indeed, I am a voracious reader, just of the same small set of books, over and over again.
This habit was particularly intense when I was growing up. Like any habit, there were rituals. The setting was important. I had two favorite places where I liked to read. My first perch was the cherry blossom tree in front of my grandparents’ home in Secane, Penn., a suburb outside Philadelphia, where I often spent stretches of time, especially in the summer. The boughs of that old tree seemed perfectly formed to cup my eight- or nine-year-old body. I loved the feeling of solidity, the bark rough against my skin, as I leaned with a paperback book in my hands. Suspended above the earth, with the barest awareness of gravity, I loved the airiness that surrounded me. No one could see me. I was alone with my book. Best of all, I loved the period when the pink blossoms made my perch into a cotton-candy world. The light would shift and there would be a pink glow on the page. I would be alert to sounds on the ground: my grandfather’s pickup truck coming into the driveway; the clink of dishes in my grandmother’s kitchen, the window just a few feet away; the familiar sound of them bickering about chores and errands; sometimes, the intrusion of a teenage cousin’s voice when he came to visit and steal a Fig Newton.
The second favorite spot was a lawn chair made of braided plastic straps softened with age. The chair sat in the middle of a campground. Every summer my grandfather arranged this compound of tents and trailers and vehicles, in a campground called Buttonwood, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On long weekends my mother and father and we three boys, and my aunt and uncle and their eight children, and sometimes a great aunt and uncle, or my father’s parents and their teenage children, would come to stay. There was a shared screened-in kitchen and a campfire space surrounded by chairs, for talking and singing under the stars. In the background, as I turned the pages of a book, I would hear the sound of adults drinking beer; my father’s hearty laughter; the clink of horseshoes; cousins breaking into the kitchen to steal marshmallows and chocolate squares which were supposed to be for s’mores; my grandmother, who didn’t love camping, sitting under the shade of a trailer awning, turning the pages of a romance, enduring. More distantly, from the pavilion by the bay where the teenagers hung out around a juke box, there was the sound of the ’70s: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
At first I read and re-read paperback comics: Archie’s gang, Nancy and Sluggo, and Peanuts. By the time I was eight, at my grandmother’s urging, I had started reading childhood classics: The Little House books, Louisa May Alcott, E.B. White, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Borrowers. Charlotte’s Web was my favorite. Never bored, I would recline in that lawn chair, eating pretzels, immersed in the story of Wilbur and Charlotte.
Early summer days are a jubilee for birds. In the fields, around the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp — everywhere love and song and nests and eggs. From the edge of the woods, the white-throated sparrow (which must come all the way from Boston) calls, “Oh, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” On an apple bough, the phoebe teeters and wags its tail and says, “Phoebe, phoe-bee!” The sing sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says, “Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.” If you enter the barn, the swallows swoop down from their nests and scold. “Cheeky, cheeky!” they say.
The book, an indispensable component of my happiness, celebrated the same continuity of experience that surrounded me as a child. White’s words transported me into the summer days of the story-world, but it also moored me to that familiar grassy spot in the sun, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, reassuring me that a kind of constancy was possible.
Implicit in these sentence-rhythms is the promise at the heart of Charlotte’s last words to Wilbur at the end of the story:
“Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall, Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you matter a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The long sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awaken, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…”
The words are both beautiful and reassuring. They are both true and also illusory. Fern will stop visiting the barn. Charlotte will die. My grandfather will get cancer and become the first great lesson in loss in my life. My father’s alcoholism will worsen and he will leave my family. My parents will eventually divorce.
My brothers and I and my mother stayed at the remote villa on St. John’s Island for seven days. We began our days with bacon and pancakes by the pool, endless discussions about which beach to visit that day, the elaborate daily business of applying sunscreen, before pulling together beach equipment and driving over the hills to whatever destination we had chosen. The days were filled with snorkeling and swimming, following sea turtles, and boating; the evenings with making pina coladas, playing cards, and talking about our lives and families. During the stretches of open time that came with that intimate family vacation, I did read other books. There was a biography of the friendship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Dorothy Parker’s short stories. But I kept returning to “Once More to the Lake,” in the same way, once upon a time, that, trance-like, I had read and re-read Charlotte’s Web.
“It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back,” White writes in “Once More to the Lake.” “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another.” Again and again in his homilies, essays, and children’s novels, his writing has a distinctive temporal swath, enfolding multiple, glorious days, reliably similar, into a single declaration. This is how it always was, he seems to insist.
There is a certain verb construction that White uses, that I suspect is the source of the story’s hold on my attention. Linguists refer to it as “the habitual aspect.” Writers call it “the continuing past.” It is a way of depicting activity that occurred usually, ordinarily, or customarily. The habitual aspect is marked by words like “used to” or “would” or, with the right clues (“I remembered…”) the simple past tense of the verb. Interestingly, the habitual aspect does not occur in all languages. One linguist found that it occurred in only seven of 61 languages studied (including English). What would one’s reality be like without this vehicle of nostalgia?
Anticipating his first adult sight of the lake, White leans on these language-grooves formed from memory and experience:
I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent lingered through the screen. The partitions in the camp were thin and did not extend to the top of the rooms, and as I was always the first one up I would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines. I remember being very careful never to rub my paddle against the gunwhale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral.
The sense of time is indefinite. White is describing habits that attached to all the mornings in the camp of his youth, the rituals that occurred as his family slept and it was just the world and him, the lone perceiver. Re-reading such passages in “Once More to the Lake” recalled my earlier devotion to Charlotte’s Web, where the same rhythm of the continuing past, seemingly insulated from change, beguiles. Consider his description of the barn, another of the holy places he celebrates:
Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm, delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.
As a student of creative writing throughout high school, college, and graduate school, I recall being cautioned against the use of the habitual aspect, if not judged and reprimanded. The habitual aspect, I was told, led to a kind of mushiness. It lacked that sharp, time-bound specificity admired in contemporary writing. The consummate stylist and arbiter of English usage, White relied on it heavily. Indeed, I would assert that the habitual aspect — verb tense of fables — is inseparable from his voice, a voice insistent on nostalgia. A theme in his early pieces for Harper’s and The New Yorker was the intrusion of progress. In a 1938 essay, he recounts the noise of the Sixth Avenue El, destined to be replaced by a subway:
Here was a sound that, if it ever got in the conch of your ear, was ineradicable — forever singing, like the sea. It punctuated the morning with brisk tidings of repetitious adventure, and it accompanied the night with sad but reassuring sounds of life going on — the sort of threnody that cricket and katydid render for suburban people sitting on screened porches, the sort of lullaby the whippoorwill sends up to the Kentucky farm wife on a summer evening.
The lovely word “threnody” resonates. Derived from Greek and Proto-Indo-European roots, it is a “wailing ode” in the form of a song or poem, an artistic form that enshrines memory at the same time it foreshadows endings. It is a paradox to which the human soul is bound, attracted, and forever bedeviled. The word “lullaby” reminds us of the comforts of this repetition. The “sad but reassuring sounds of life going on,” the “repetitious adventure:” these are the language-pillars in White’s literary architecture.
But the habitual aspect in White’s work is never a safe tense, insulating a timeless, recalled world. It always serves as a background for disruption. Throughout Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur luxuriates in the rhythms of barn life at the same time he fears that he will be killed by Zuckerman. Against the beloved patterns of the seasons, Charlotte, his friend, will die in the corner of the pigpen, alone. The habitual aspect may be the antidote to anxiety. But patterns finish. The rhythm ends in grief. The grooves betray.
The most brilliant writers, I believe, write from a sense of urgency. They are trying to figure out a perplexing problem or knot in their minds. Something must be corrected about the world, or saved. E.B. White has three known versions of his visit to Belgrade Lake, which forced him to grapple with the past from different angles. There is the “Pamphlet on Belgrade Lake,” which he wrote in 1914, when he was a teenager. A second draft of the reminiscence appeared in a letter to his brother, Stanley Hart White, in 1936, when he was 37. “Once More to the Lake” was published five years later. Not mentioned in this final version of the piece, which I think White finally got what he wanted from this recollection, was that both of his parents had died a few years before it was written.
The penultimate image in that third version is the thunderstorm over the lake, “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe:”
Then the kettle drum, then the snare, then the bass drum and cymbals, then crackling light against the dark, and the gods grinning and licking their chops in the hills.
After the storm, White’s son decides to join some friends and go swimming. He pulls on his icy, wet swimsuit, which had been hanging on the outdoor clothesline. There is a last transposition: a middle-aged White, grief unspoken, sees his son wince as he pulls the icy suit over his genitals and “suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
He had never laid out the paradox of pattern and disruption so starkly.
The hills of St. John’s Island are steep. They are terrifying to drivers unused to them. It was not uncommon to reach the top of one and believe you were on a cliff-edge high above the earth. There would be a moment, when my brother drove us to this or that beach or restaurant, when we would careen over a hill and for a brief moment have the illusion of falling off that precipice, until we could again sense the hard asphalt beneath the car, the direction of our gaze shifting from a freefall to the ground of the descending hill. Mike, who had been to the islands many more times than I had, had fun with this illusion, excitedly narrating our ascent then screaming at the pinnacle when, for a second, no one could see the future, save the void. In the back seat, trapped in his roller-coaster narrative, my mother clutched my arm, I held my breath and squinted, both of us on the edge of terror, but laughing, all of us together in this bright summer memory, delighted.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This fall, among other pursuits, I’ve been teaching one section of “Composition & Rhetoric” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I’ve led fiction writing workshops at the university level before, but this has been my first foray into expository writing. At times, I’ve found myself questioning my professorial fitness (as regular readers of this blog may even now be doing); how can I claim to explain a set of forms that I haven’t myself mastered?But when it comes to writing, we’re all apprentices (to paraphrase Hemingway), and I’ve been blessed with a group of creative, curious, and hardworking writers-in-training. Of my 16 students, 14 are enrolled in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance – which is to say that they’re well on their way to being artists in another medium. This may account for the high quality of their work.Or maybe it’s the pedagogical principle I cribbed from my quondam teacher Lawrence Weschler: Assign your students readings that you really love. My syllabus, thrown together in a single manic week in August, wound up coalescing loosely around ideas of New York before and after September 11, 2001. Even in a week when my Socratic skills failed me, my class and I would at least have the consolation of having read something complex and beautiful, like the city itself. What follows is a diary of our mutual education.Week 1: “Here is New York,” by E.B. White (from Essays)For me, this is what a good essay looks like, but at this point in the semester, I can’t quite explain why. My instructions: “Go sit in Central Park when you read this. You can thank me later.” They do.Week 2: “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville (from Great Short Works) and “Bartleby in Manhattan,” by Elizabeth Hardwick (from Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays)One of the weird things about literary criticism at the college level is that students are often asked to write it without ever having read it. I’m hoping that this pairing might provide an object lesson in good criticism. My class, of course, prefers the story to the essay. The fiction writer in me sees this as a promising sign.Week 3: “Still-Life,” by Don Delillo (an excerpt from Falling Man originally published in The New Yorker) I tell students to treat DeLillo the way Hardwick treated Melville. That is, critically. Instead, they fall in love with him. I end up thinking more highly of Falling Man than I did when I first read it, and liked it.Week 4: “Echoes at Ground Zero,” by Lawrence Weschler (from Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and “Against Interpretation,” by Susan Sontag (from Against Interpretation)The Weschler reading, which included photographs, leads to a discussion of reading images critically – a skill we all need these days. Then we read the Sontag, which is kind of an argument against everything I’ve been teaching them up to this point. Is this brilliant, or suicidal?Week 4: “Come September,” by Arundhati Roy (from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear)Moving away from literary criticism and toward social criticism proves difficult, as many readers, myself included, find this essay frustratingly orthodox in its politics. We end up talking about “preaching to the choir,” and the failure of partisan arguments to persuade their opponents. Victory snatched from jaws of defeat.Weeks 5 – 7: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.Rereading this clarifies some things for me. Among them, that an essay doesn’t always have to be an argument; that it can be an exploration. This will become a theme. (Damn you, Sontag!)Week 8: “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill,” by Sarah Vowell (from Take the Cannoli)This one doesn’t get quite the reaction I had hoped for; students find it a little didactic. Maybe I should have chosen “Ixnay on the My Way.” Still, the Vowell essay on Cherokee history does offer an example of how exposition can be structured narratively.Week 9-Week 10: “The White Album,” by Joan Didion (from The White Album)With its jagged, discontinuous structure, this memoir of the ’60s provokes the strongest responses I’ll probably get this year, ranging from, “I loved this” to “I hated this” – which is pretty much what I’ve been hoping for all semester. When I read my students’ personal essays, I’ll see that “The White Album” has challenged them to become better writers. It never hurts to expose undergraduates to a surgically precise stylist like Didion, either.Week 11: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Joan Acocella (from Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints)Yet another of those frequent occasions when the professor learns more from the students than vice versa. The dancers tell me all about Bob Fosse, and evaluate Acocella’s claims critically. In the end, most agree that Fosse’s choreography is more about power than about sex. And again, exposure to a writer of Acocella’s intelligence and lucidity can only help their prose. It’s certainly helped mine.Week 12: “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” by Jonathan Lethem (from The Disappointment Artist)This should be interesting. We’re now in the middle of the research essay unit, but I’d love to see my students push beyond the conventions of the term paper; to combine research, personal reflection, and critical thought as Lethem does in this essay about a subway stop.Week 14: “Last Cigarettes,” by Marco Roth.This piece originally appeared in N+1, and has a lot to say about college, and becoming a writer. Like the Lethem essay, it pushes against the rigid boundaries of the “four rhetorical modes.” If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that good expository writing doesn’t always adhere to such neat distinctions. Though at times I’ve wished I could tell my class, “This is how you write an essay,” throwing them into the messy process of discovery may ultimately be a more honest initiation into the pains – and joys – of writing.