E.B. White and his wife Katherine. From this article about E.B.
E.B White in his seaside writing cabin at his farm in Maine.
I blogged here last year about some books I bought at a library sale. The best book of the bunch was Letters of E. B. White. You can read what I had to say about E.B. and the book at this link: Summer Felicity.
As I mention in that essay, White had a hankering for the farm life. He bought an oceanside farm in Maine. Then he quit his job at the New Yorker and went to live at his farm. White’s experiences at the farm and in the rural community where he lived were the inspiration for his most famous book, Charlotte’s Web. Two other children’s books followed. It was the income from these books that enabled White to live his version of “the good life” in Maine. I finished the 687-page book of E.B.White’s letters and found it an absolute delight. Anyone who is interested in the writing life will appreciate White’s life story as seen through his personal letters to others. He really was a rare and gifted writer.
For the next week or so, I will post some “Little Bits” from the book. These bits will, for the most part relate to White’s farming experiences and observations. Each daily bit will be added below the previous day’s bit. And when I add a new bit, I will post a new picture at the top of the page. I hope you enjoy this selection of “Little Bits” from E.B. White’s letters:
E.B. White Bit #1
11 March 2009
Excerpt from a Letter to James Thurber. 18 November 1938
My pullets are laying fools, but they have a strange thing the matter with them which causes them to shake their heads. I have looked this up in my pamphlets, but I can’t find out much. It’s like a dog biting himself viciously in the pocket under his hind leg—you can’t tell much about it, whether it’s worms or fleas or eczema. These birds of mine never stop shaking their heads and it is beginning to get to me. Sometimes I stand there and get to thinking that maybe they are shaking their heads over me. “Poor old White,” they say, shaking their heads. I asked Lennie Candage what it meant when they started shaking their heads. (Lennie was over here building a new foundation wall under the north end of the barn so it wouldn’t be too cold for the pig in the barn cellar: and there is a story in that, too, it’s what always happens to me—I get a pig so we won’t have to buy hams, and then I rebuild my barn around the pig at the expense of perhaps a thousand hams, or more than you and I could eat (with mustard) during the rest of our natural lives, if you can call mine a natural life.) End parenthesis. Anyway, Lennie was here, his old felt hat a mass of spider webs where he’d been walking around in cellars doing foundation work, and when I put it right up to him about my pullets shaking their heads he said, “God, I dunno nuthin’ ‘bout chickens. I just feed ‘em. That’s all I know ‘bout chickens.” Just the same, I wish they’d stop shaking their heads.
E.B. White Bit #2
12 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to Gustave S. Lobrano. 9 September 1937
Moses, the retriever, bit off the left wing of one of the wild birds yesterday—a clean break except for one cartilage which I took care of with my desk scissors. The other two dogs on the premises seized the opportunity to fly at each other's throats, to settle some small difference, and I had to let go the turkey to attend the dog fight. After things had quieted down some, I returned and found the bird bleeding to death in a thicket—alders, wild apples, and grapevines. Since it was obvious that I wouldn't be able to catch it, I got my .22 and sat down tediously about six feet away, where I took careful aim and dispatched the creature with a shot through the head. In this grotesque situation, with briers tweaking my behind and the memory of the bird as a day-old chick in my mind, I felt that the original Massachusetts settlers would have worried considerably if they could have witnessed this strange degeneracy of man and bird. (As luck would have it, there wasn't an original Massachusetts settler on the place, and I just snuck home and cleaned the gun.)
E.B. White Bit #3
13 march 2009
Excerpt from a letter to his brother, Stanley Hart White. 27 January 1961
I still remember with pleasure the contemptuous look on your face when I explained to you, a year ago in the barn cellar, that cow manure was beneficial to the soil. These things stay with me. We've had sub-zero nights lately, and the manure pile is like a volcano getting ready to erupt—steam rises from the tip, moistening the cobwebs above, which then freeze in beautiful lacework. Enchanting place, loaded with intimations of pneumonia.
E.B. White Bit(s) #4
14 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to Frank Sullivan. 1936
[W]e have pork chops hanging by strings in the garage, apples in the attic, jams and thermostats in the root cellar, and a spruce tree waiting for me to chop it. I also have an instep waiting for the first merry axblow.Excerpt from a letter to Harold Ross, Editor of the New Yorker magazine. 1941
Writing anything at all is a hell of a chore for me, closely related to acid indigestion.Excerpt from a letter to Eugene Saxton & Cass Canfield. 1939
There is some slight advantage to living as a recluse, in that one makes one's own crisis, instead of getting them out of the newspaper.Excerpt from a letter to Harold Ross at the New Yorker. 1938
A writer is like a beanplant—he has his little day, and then gets stringy.
E.B. White Bit #5
15 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to Eleanor and Arthur Brittingham, Jr. 4 May 1958
Spring has come at last—the town road crew removed the snow fence last week, officially ending winter. Barn swallows arrived right on schedule, May 1. We had a spit of snow yesterday but it always snows here in May just to prove it can do it. My goose is setting on twelve eggs which I believe to be infertile because of a queer situation in the barnyard. I have one goose and two ganders, and from my observations I would say that the ganders are pansies—they were inseparable all spring, and the goose kept her distance. However, I'll know for sure on the 23rd.
E.B. White Bit #6
16 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to his brother, Stanley Hart White. March 1944
My old black sheep had twins night before last, but she has been failing for the last couple of years, and I doubt if she gets through the spring. She had lung trouble, and it is beginning to get to her. My prettiest lamb so far came yesterday morning about three o'clock, a very neat parcel, and everything shipshape. Shepherding is nice work if you like it, and I like it. Everything about a sheep smells good, except the infected scrotum of a castrated lamb. (I usually have a couple of such cases each spring, because the fellow that cuts my buck lambs for me is loyal to his grandfather's method and to his grandfather's memory. I usually have to perform a second operation a couple of days later myself, with a safety razor blade, to let the pus out. I also do all the docking of tails myself, with a dull ax.) One farmer near here always saves the nuts of his little pigs, when they are cut. They are about the size of almonds. I have held so many pigs, for castration, that I am now in demand around here as a holder. Not everybody holds a pig just right when it is being cut, but I do. It is a good idea in the country to be able to do one thing well, and that seems to be my thing. Never would have thought it.
E.B. White Bit(s) #7
18 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to Harold Ross. August 1936
We are having splendid weather and I am building a stone wall. I understand that all literary people, at one time or another, build a stone wall. It's because it is easier than writing.Excerpt from a letter to James Thurber. Mid-October 1938
I am a dull man, personally. Nobody ever seeks me out, not even people who like me or approve of me; because after you have sought me out, you haven't got anything but a prose writer. I can't imitate birds, or dogs; I can't even remember what happened last night....Excerpt from a letter to Eugene Saxton. 28 May 1942
Sorry you can't be here for the dipping tomorrow. Am using an English dip (Cooper's) which I like partly because it doesn't stain the fleeces and mostly because the instructions on the package contain the word "whilst."
E.B. White Bit(s) #8
19 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to James Thurber. November 1938
I am a decentralist, at heart; I think the business of making the earth produce and bear fruit should be participated in by almost everybody—a much more even distribution of the population.Excerpt from a letter to Frederick Lewis Allen. 2 July 1943
Thanks ever so much for sending me the letters. That crack about [Louis] Bromfield being a real farmer roused my sporting blood and I will gladly take him on any time, he to choose the weapons—anything from dung forks to post-hole diggers or 2-ounce syringes for worming sheep.(Note: Louis Bromfield was another author who pursued the agrarian lifestyle)
E.B. White Bit #9
20 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to his wife, Katherine, who was still working in New York City at the New Yorker magazine. Early September 1937.
Monday visited John Allen, the smith of Sargentville, to get my pole ax drawed out. Mr. Allen is around and about again after an appendectomy. Been coming on him for twenty years—then all of a sudden she exploded. He had plenty of chance to just lie there and think about things when he was in the Bluehill Hospital, and although he had formerly been opposed to the Automobile, because it had driven out the horses and spoiled a smith's trade, he remembered that it was an automobile that got him to Dr. Bliss in time to save his life. Has changed his mind about motor cars. I pointed out, however, that automobiles were killing people awful fast, too. "By gorry," he said, "I hadn't thought about that. Now I'll have to think it all out again." He said his strength was slow coming back, and this was the first ax he'd upset in a long time. Moses [a Labrador retriever] had a fine visit, eating hoof parings.
Little Bit #10
21 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to Charles G. Muller. January 18, 1940.
My poultry operations have expanded considerably since you were here: I have a large laying house with a flock of would-be layers that turned and bit me in mid season. It was the most stinging defeat of my life, for I put a good deal of my energy into the project, raised the birds by hand from infancy, ranged them on green range, groomed them for the battle, designed and built the house, and saw them go into production in early September looking like a million dollars and shelling out in great shape. All of a sudden some little thing went wrong and they began to come apart, the way pullets do when the vitamins don’t add up right, or when a couple of them get going to the bathroom too often. From forty dozen eggs a week I slid off to about fourteen dozen, and cannibalism began taking its ugly toll. Ah welladay! A man learns a lot in a year, if he hangs around animals.
Well, I cannot keep my eyes open any longer, as it is 10:05, five minutes past my bedtime. If I don’t get my sleep here, I am sunk. When a man’s whole year’s work with hens goes wrong, there’s only one thing for it—plenty of sleep.
E.B. White Bit #11
22 March 2009
Excerpts from a letter to Gene Deitch, the famous animator and director regarding the adaptation of White’s book, Charlotte’s Web into an animated movie. January 12 1971
In writing of a spider, I did not make the spider adapt her ways to my scheme. I spent a year studying spiders before I ever started writing the book. In this, I think I found the key to the story. I hope you will, in your own medium, be true to Charlotte and to nature in general. My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney’s. He made them dance to his tune and came up with some great creations, like Donald Duck. I preferred to dance to their tune and came up with Charlotte and Wilbur.
I just want to add that there is no symbolism in "Charlotte's Web." And there is no political meaning in the story. It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there, winter and summer, spring and fall, good times and bad times, with the garrulous geese, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, and the sameness of sheep.
E.B. White Bit #12
23 March 2008
Excerpt from a letter to Mason Towbridge. November 18 1972
Geese are great to have around, because they stir the air. They are sagacious, contentious, storm-loving, and beautiful. They are natural hecklers, delight in arguing a point, and are possessed of a truly remarkable sense of ingratitude. They never fail to greet you on your arrival, and the greeting is tinged with distaste and sarcasm. They take parenthood seriously, are protective of their young but never indulgent. When my young gander is impatient for grain, he seizes the food-box in his mouth and bangs it against the wall, and this racket can be heard all over the place. You've never seen a hen do anything like that. Another fine thing about geese is that they are as easily steered as a modern car—a great convenience. Their bowel activity is, of course, legendary.
E.B. White Bit(s) #13
24 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to James Thurber. 14 June 1951.
I tore a fine, big gash in my skull just before leaving New York—the sort of skull wound I have often dreamed of. Did it on the hard under-belly of an awning bracket. For several days I couldn't comb my hair, as it was impractical, and acquired a jaunty new hairdo that made me look quite like a belted kingfisher.Excerpt from a letter to Margaret Joy Tibbets. March 29 1966
I rather like spiders; they are not only useful, they are indispensible, and the world would be a frightening place without them, as they are the principal agent that prevents insects from taking over the earth.Excerpt from a letter to Susanna Waterman. March 26 1973
The movie of Charlotte is about what I expected it to be. The story is interrupted every few minutes so that somebody can sing a jolly song. I don't care much for jolly songs. The Blue Hill Fair, which I tried to report faithfully in the book, has become a Disney world, with 76 trombones. But that's what you get for getting embroiled with Hollywood.
E.B. White Bit(s) #14
25 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter to Gene Deitch. June 6 1971
At age 71, there's one thing I understand fully: the creative life is hell more than half the time, riddled with trials and terrors, and paved with woe. I know what it is like to try to bring something into being, as you've been doing the last few months. I know what an unhatched egg does to the spirit.Excerpt from a letter to Philip Booth. 22 November 1970
...when it comes to poetry I take my own sweet time and allow myself no more than one poem a day. A good poem is like an anchovy; it makes you want another right away and pretty soon the tin is empty and you have a bellyache or a small bone in your throat or both.
E.B. White Bit #15
26 March 2009
Excerpt from a letter written in 1968.
My own life with hay has been a mixed dish—I dearly love everything about the cutting and curing of grass and the hauling of the finished product into the delicious upper regions of an old barn. I also have terrible hay fever. I even have an allergy to horse dander. By rights I should have never bought a place in the country and settled down to enjoy the land, because of what it does to my mucous membranes. But I wouldn't trade my barn for the Taj Mahal or Onassis's yacht: and just to go down into my barn cellar at daylight to grain the sheep and pitch some hay down the chutes is compensation enough for all the misery of my silly nose.
E.B. White Bit #16
27 March 2009
Excerpts from a letter to miss R______. September 15, 1973.
At seventeen, the future is apt to seem formidable, even depressing. You should see the pages of my journal circa 1916.
You asked me about writing—how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published....
If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing up, write about it. A great deal of writing is not "plotted"—most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, "Who cares?" Everybody cares. You say, It's been written before." Everything has been written before.
Henry Thoreau, who wrote "Walden," said, "I learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." The sentence, after more than a hundred years, is still alive.