Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Essayist

My used copy of Essays of E.B. White came in the mail today. I don't know that I'd agree with Amazon Marketplace that its condition is "Used - Very Good," but for $3.61, I won't complain. Oddly enough, the book smells exactly like my grandparents' house. The scent is so exact that I'm a little freaked.

Do you think my grandparents are secretly Amazon Marketplace sellers? WHERE ARE THEY HIDING THEIR COMPUTER?

Anyway, we all know E.B. White, genius creator of Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. But did you know that Charlotte's Web was inspired by an essay he wrote, "Death of a Pig"? Maybe you did. I, however, was clueless until earlier this week.

From The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor on July 11:

It's the birthday of the essayist and children's writer E.B. White, (books by this author) born Elwin Brooks White in Mount Vernon, New York (1899). After a young pig he was raising got sick and he failed to save its life, he wrote one of his most famous essays, "Death of a Pig." Then he wrote a children's novel in which the pig doesn't have to die: Charlotte's Web (1952). It's the story of a runt pig named Wilbur who is saved the first time by a little girl and the second time by a wise spider. It is one of the best-selling children's books of all time.

I love it! I promptly went a little cuckoo on Amazon Marketplace and ordered said book, as well as Writings from the New Yorker 1927-1976. Then I figured I might as well go ahead and get The Best American Essays of the Century. It's all to help me with my craft, right? Whatever. I'm supporting my grandparents' secret business!

In the foreword for his collection of essays, White describes "the essayist" as "philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast"—basically, whatever the hell you want to be. You're an essayist!

I plan to devour everything Mr. White ever wrote now. No one else has put it in quite these terms for me. And after all, the book I want to write will be a collection of essays. Thanks to E.B. White, I have solid proof that my writing can be whatever I want (even if it means I'm self-absorbed):

The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence...

I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit.
I have a blog, for chrissakes. Of course I'm self-absorbed! But apparently, so was E.B. White.

And he created Wilbur.

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