(Re)Discovering E.B. White

A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and keeps two cows there. I asked him one day how he liked his fence and whether it cost much to operate. “Doesn’t cost a damn thing,” he replied. “As soon as the battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That strand of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their lesson the first few days.”

Apparently this state of affairs is general through the United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up, cows! Take your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. Come on out!

Those paragraphs appear at the beginning of an essay on poetry in E.B. White’s book, One Man’s Meat.  To anyone following world events in the past year (the Arab Spring, the “Occupy” movement, the demonstrations in Russia), the last few lines of the above passage now seem prophetic. — especially “…Rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere!”  People are rising up, everywhere.  Well, almost everywhere.  They’re still kind of quiet in North Korea, but there they don’t have much choice.

E.B. White in his seaside study. (This photo is on the cover of his book, One Man's Meat.)

I discovered One Man’s Meat during a recent visit from our daughter, who left the book lying near the place where I do much of my reading: the toilet. The book reminds me of another favorite of mine, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Both books were written in rural New England; both extoll the merits of freedom, self-reliance, and independent thinking; both express a foursquare defiance of tyranny; and both were written in relative solitude.

Our daughter is herself a graduate of Northwestern University’s creative nonfiction writing program, and this book is by her side as she works on her own projects.  It is a fine example of clear, powerful prose, and worthy of emulation by any aspiring writer. 

E.B. White also wrote Charlotte’s Web, and co-wrote with William Strunk The Elements of Style.  First published in 1918, Elements of Style remains a definitive guide to effective prose writing.

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About John Mears

I teach English, take photographs, play guitar, write, do yoga, meditate, hike, play computer games, and love (and try to serve) humanity. If anything here touches you, let me know! Leave a comment! Subscribe! Enjoy! If you like the photos, you might like the greeting cards we will be selling soon!
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