E.B. White, Essayist

I took a grad-level class in the essay in my final semester as an undergraduate, and it was the best class I took. It was the class that absolutely convinced me I wanted to go to graduate school — a class that almost convinced me to go into scholarly English studies instead of creative endeavors. It made me think about form in writing in a way that I hadn’t before, and in a way that still influences my consideration of things that I read.

Anyway, I am now enrolled in Seminar in Creative Nonfiction: Memoir, and for this week we read several essays about the craft of non-fiction and the personal essay. They have referenced readings that we had in my other essay class, which is always a great ah-ha! moment in learning. So all of this and having had to put together a start to my “personal canon” has made me think at length about E.B. White, essayist.

I teach Strunk and White (fourth edition) as part of my Intro class. White’s introduction is excellent, a great exhortation of the reasons that standard grammar and precise language are needed. I think that students don’t get how on-the-nose he is, though, because most of them come to White with no experience; those that have read White have usually read Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, and that seems to undermine his credibility.

But oh! Oh, the greatness of essays like “Death of a Pig,” (Excerpt) or “Once More to the Lake.” White makes this effortless, almost unnoticed spiral up from the mundane personal details of his day out to the universal. It’s just brilliant. You read it the first time and go, Oh wow. You read it the second time and go, hey, yeah, I see where he’s doing that — but it never falls apart. It never loses its rhythm. It never loses its grace.

That may be why I’m so willing and eager to share his words about grammar with others. I would follow his writing directions even if they ended with, “and then jump off the nearest bridge.”

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