Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bare Skin

It never occurred to me, when I got into this thing, that it was an entirely different kind of exposure from the ones I had been used to as a writer of prose pieces. A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist—nothing shields him from the world’s gaze except his bare skin. A writer, writing away, can always fix things up to make himself more presentable, but a man who has written a letter is stuck with it for all time. — Letter to Harper editor Corona Machemer from E.B. White, June 11, 1975

According to personal reading habits, a thick collection of letters is more enjoyably read in bits and pieces, a letter or two every few days or once a week. It’s for this reason I leave a copy of the 1976 Harper & Row collection, Letters of E.B. White on a table within easy reach. As a constant letter writer from a young age, the collection is quite extensive and according to White, before their publication filled a very large suitcase covering more than sixty years of his life. Elwyn Brooks White has been described with a range of accolades, but the simplest and most accurate has always been his reputation as the dean of American prose. He was the supreme model for clarity in prose writing, his essays an almost weekly model seen for many years in The New Yorker, but he carried it a step further, and with William Strunk wrote the textbook used by thousands of students over the years, including myself. That landmark book is The Elements of Style. White began a lifetime of letter writing around the age of nine, continuing the practice avidly until his death in 1985.

Four interesting or in some cases revealing excerpts from the letters follow:

Spring has arrived in Ohio. This is a flat state where red pigs graze in bright green fields and where farms are neat and prosperous—not like New York farms. We roll along through dozens of villages and cities whose names we never heard. They are typical of the middle west. The oldest inhabitant is generally standing somewhere pulling a long white beard, the smithy door is generally open and the sound of the anvil to be heard, the village flapper is usually flapping up and down along Main Street in front of a group of jobless youths who help hold the drug store up, and somewhere there is always a housewife sweeping off a porch or carrying a spadeful of manure to the garden. Toward evening the country scenes become idyllic—the sort of thing you have seen in the moving pictures and never quite believed in. Sheep come drifting up long green lawns where poplars throw interminable shadows, come drifting up and stand like statues beneath white plum blossoms, while far down the lane and off in the fields a little Ford tractor moves like a snail across the furrows. Lilacs are in full bloom and the lavender ironwood blossoms are coloring all the roads. — FROM A LETTER TO HIS MOTHER, 26 APRIL 1922

It would appear to me that the use of my material by Doubleday was less an error than a deliberate switch, to accommodate some kind of format or package that the editor desired for the book. The wording of the agreement seems clear enough—three chapters, each with its title. And I assume that harper stipulated that these three selections be used entire. Isn’t the the usual stipulation in such requests?

I am disturbed about the matter simply because I do not like anything of mine rearranged or telescoped to suit somebody’s whim or to fit somebody’s space. I am aware of the problem of anthologists; I am also aware of the problems of authors, one of which is to keep material intact, free from meddling. I never wrote anything called “Stuart Goes to Sea” and I’ll not allow Doubleday to write it just because it happens to suit their fancy…

Doubleday’s suggestion for correcting this “error” seems to me inadequate, considering the terms of our agreement. I would like to have Harper’s opinion about what should be done. I think Doubleday should either use the stuff in the way we agreed upon or drop it entirely…


Writing, which is my way of serving, is hard work for me and usually not attended with any joy. It has its satisfactions, but the act of writing is often a pure headache, and I don’t kid myself about there being any joy in it. When I want some fun, I don’t write, I go sailing. So I often find it hard to plan the day.

Unlike you, I have no faith, only a suitcaseful of beliefs that sustain me. Life’s meaning has always eluded me and I guess always will. But I love it just the same. — LETTER TO MARY VIRGINIA PARRISH, AUGUST 29, 1969

It’s good of you to want to bring out “Here is New York” in a larger format and with photographs. I wish I thought it a good idea, but I’m unable to make myself believe that it is.

You mentioned bringing the book up to date. This would really mean writing a whole new book, and I can’t undertake that under the present circumstances. The book as it stands is a period piece belonging to a day long gone and about a city that no longer exists. On my infrequent visits to New York, I am painfully aware that the city I wrote about in the summer of 1948 has changed beyond recognition and that the mood I used to entertain is no longer upon me. To reissue “Here is New York” in its present text would be unthinkable (the title would have to be “Here Isn’t New York”), and to catch up with New York and get it on paper would, for me at my age, be an assignment beyond my powers.

How sad! I would like to feel differently about this matter. — LETTER TO CASS CANFIELD, JANUARY 30, 1970

For those hardcore fans of E.B. White, more Scriblets about him can be found here, here and here.


  1. Good post. I've read all those White books at one time or another and thoroughly enjoyed them, especially the New York one. He was right; it was perfect as written.

  2. No doubt after reading his 'Spring in Ohio' letter to his mother what a fine writer he was. Perfect descriptions. And have to agree with his comments on the act of writing: "...the act of writing is often a pure headache, and I don’t kid myself about there being any joy in it. When I want some fun, I don’t write, I go sailing." It's that old chesnut that writing is easy--you just get a blank piece of paper and open a vein.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America