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Learning to write good: E.B. White

February 12th, 2003 · 2 Comments

E.B. White’s essays are less like a Dave-Barry-roller-coaster than they are like a car trip with Dad. For one thing, White wants to take you to some destination–some realization or insight he wants you to share. But that’s not why you go along. You know he will keep you interested, charmed, amused–and that’s still only part of why you go along. You want to be with him, and you want to be the person you are when the two of you are together.

White’s essays have many funny moments, but humor is just one part of his wide-ranging charm. His model is Thoreau, not Perelman. If he’s selling you something (and he is, he made his living by writing), it’s warmth and wisdom, not punch lines.

Most important–this is why people still read him–he’s not just selling you his warmth and wisdom. He’s selling you on your own.

White is a master of sharp, sharp, specific writing. He carefully chooses sights and sounds and smells that seem to come straight from your own past. Those half-remembered days, those half-forgotten emotions–how sweet they seem as White brings them back to you. Here they are, not lost after all–your summer by the lake, your ambitious strivings in a garret, your joy at a circus, your love for a creaky old dog. How warmly you now see your own young self again, and how fully you feel you understand at last.

White makes it all look so easy, so offhand, so simple–and this is one more part of his skill as a writer.

I don’t mean to cast doubt on White’s warmth or his sincerity. Knowing that you like apple pie better than peach doesn’t make Mom an insincere person, nor is she being devious when she takes down a well-thumbed recipe and bakes it for you.

How does E. B. White do it?

Tags: Learn to write good

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