One of my favorite essays has for many years been one written by E.B. White in 1941 titled, “Once More to the Lake.” The writer’s name is familiar to many as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, the children’s stories that have captivated young readers for years. Others may recall a slim volume they read in college called, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. But for many years White’s name was associated with The New Yorker magazine, where his essays were a regular feature, and where his wife was a senior editor.
One of the books I brought home from the final sale at Mandala Books in Daytona, is a 1976 first edition of Letters of E.B. White, collected and edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. I didn’t realize until later how rewarding this purchase would become. Pages I have so far read are generous in unveiling a man, a personality I was only vaguely familiar with. Because of my fondness for his essay, “Once More to the Lake,” I was quick to look up those letters written around the time of the essay’s first publication in 1941. What I discovered was a wealth of facts surrounding the essay’s background, and even an insight into White’s thesis, or intent with the piece. It shouldn’t really surprise me, since I’ve made similar discoveries about other writers through their letters, most prominent among them probably the poet Charles Bukowski. But it’s alway an eye opening process.
According to notes in the Letters of E.B. White, the writer was on many occasions desirous of revisiting places he had known at an earlier time. Thus it was, in 1941 he returned to the Belgrade Lakes in Maine, site of August vacations during his childhood. This return to a childhood ‘cathedral’ is the basis for “Once More to the Lake,” written for his column in Harper’s, the October 1941 issue.
I had often wondered about the final lines of the essay, which always read like a presentiment of death. I discovered the excerpt below in a letter White wrote ten years after the essay’s initial publication:
‘The essay [“Once More to the Lake”] is about a man who feels a sense of identity with his son—a fairly common feeling. But the sense of identity is all mixed up with a feeling of being separated by the years. A child by his very existence, makes a parent feel older, nearer death. So when the little boy in the essay puts on a cold, wet bathing suit, the man feels the chill, as though he were experiencing it. Only for him it is a truly chilling experience, because it suddenly seems to foreshadow death.’
Letters of E.B. White is a weighty book, and “Once More to the Lake” a somewhat lengthy essay, both of which require longer discussion, at least more than is allowed here. For those interested in the essay, this link will take you to an online version. At Amazon look for Essays of E.B. White and a revised edition of the letters. If you haven’t already, I urge you to become acquainted with the writing of Elwyn Brooks White.