Sometimes, when you order from Amazon, your request is archaic enough that it arrives as a library book. Complete with faded cardboard sleeve in the front, intricate / cryptic numbers, handwritings of some vanished librarian.
In quest of excellence, I recently arranged to receive works on and by E. B. White, Ur-New Yorker writer of yesteryear. This founding writer, in the days of Ross, lived and cavorted in the Village. He would read seed and farm equipment catalogues for pleasure. A man of such wit as to cause me to laugh right out loud, reading his essays in the middle of the night.
In The Second Tree from the Corner, I hoped to have purchased a collection that included the idyllic, profound, Return to the Lake. I needed ‘to re-experience those indelible scenes of Elwyn pere and his young son, in the New England haven that mattered most to both. Part of me desired a virtual trip to a lake, any lake. The other part yearns always for the miracle of sharing important childhood places with one’s own offspring.
“Lake” wasn’t in “Tree”. But, Farewell My Lovely is! What a romp, this salutation to the Model T!
Out-loud laughter, and sometimes tears, accompanied each turning of a page. EBW had named his seminal new vehicle, “My Lovely.” [There may be extra layers of appreciation in this former resident of Detroit, then suburbs, suffused with Henry Ford from 2-years-old, on.] Ellwyn exults: “‘My Lovely’ is mechanically and uncannily like nothing that had come into the world before.” He reveals, “The driver of the Model T was a man enthroned.”
He drove his purchase “directly to the blacksmith” for “appurtenances to support an army trunk.” “A speedometer cost money, and was extra; like a windshield wiper.”
White carefully explains the cranking process, –its subtleties and dangers–, concluding, “Until you had learned to ‘Get Results!’, you may as well have been cranking up an awning.”
Catastrophes large and small were the norm, price of passage. Everyone knows about the tires (did he spell it ‘tyres’?), those abrupt sudden stops necessitating patching by the driver. But this comedic genius conveys the entire litany of ordeals, with a light touch suitable for a stand-up comic. Because of the multiplicity of perils, White insists, “Model T drivers ride in a state of thoughtful catalepsy.”
He seems not to have been skilled at those incessant repairs. “I have had a timer apart on an old Ford many times. But I never knew what I was up to. I was just showing off for God.”
Sometimes, White looks back with intensity and even longing. He considers Thoreau’s Walden to be “a document of increasing pertinence.”
Sometimes, Ellwyn B. White is a prophet: “Audio-visual devices require no mental discipline.”
Reading a writer so skilled, so rich in language, and so unafraid to be quirky, strengthens my spine.
From Charlotte’s Web to Is Sex Necessary, with Thurber, and the essential Elements of Style with the revered William Strunk, who equals White’s range? Who is the E. B. White of our era?
But there was an added bonus to this book order — holding that old library volume of The Second Tree from the Corner in my two 21st-Century hands. It triggered memory like Proust’s tea and madelene.
The library card is marked in faded ink: Ashtabula, Ohio, Library, followed by Kent State University.
Site of our country’s great shame, –right up there with civil rights abuses beyond measure — where our own government officials turned clubs and weapons upon Kent State students, upon our own children, who dared to protest war.
Kent State, which refused George Segal’s arresting statue of Abraham and Isaac, –portraying in his unique human-generated mastery– father about to slit the throat of his own long-awaited son. Only Segal’s figures are not garbed in biblical robes. Rather t-shirts and jeans. And it was no God who demanded this sacrifice, but bureaucrats, officials and politicians. This masterpiece preside alongside our Princeton University Chapel. Lest we forget…
What an unexpected link, Ken State, fronting a work by E. B. White, so devoted to his own son, Joel, delightful centerpiece of the Lake essay that I do not possess.
Cradling this book of other times, I inhaled what was the most important scent in the world to me — a whiff of old volumes and old dark and yes dusty and yes sometimes even moldy libraries of childhood.
Suddenly, I am back in one of those venerable rooms. Sun slants through tall windows with their wavy glass of yesteryear. The light is alive with particles more alive than I feel. It illumines towering ‘stacks’, –more essential, more priceless to the child Carolyn than all the gold in Fort Knox. In this room, dark and light mingle with a kind of delicate power exemplified by dust dancing in sunbeams. In this room, ignorance and knowledge meet and marry..
I feel very little, attempting to climb up into the heavy dark wood straight-backed chair. A thick volume awaits upon the scuffed table. I get tired here, stretching up to the thick wide table, my legs not touching the floor. After awhile, I kneel to read. I now see how appropriate is that reverent pose! Nobody has to tell me to keep silent.
The aromas of this used book whoosh me back, suffusing me anew with my absolute craving for books and all that they held; craving for the places where books presided.
In Michigan, I knew no bookish people.
Teachers did not count.
Textbooks DEFINITELY did not count!
The neighbor mothers in Lathrup Village ganged up on my mother one afternoon. They surrounded her, towered over her at our little kitchen table, ordering “Do not give our children any more books!”
There is a black and white 7th birthday picture of me, in the pine-paneled living room, clasping a huge (as a bible to the Child Carolyn) volume of Longfellow’s Evangeline to my skinny chest. My face is all ecstasy. The faces of all the neighbor boys and girls, ringing me, –“My Jolly Friends”, I called them, from the song, “Playmate–” look completely baffled.
When I had to fly in wartime to Northern Michigan the following summer, because of bronchitis on top of winter’s rheumatic fever, I clutched that same volume to the smocked bodice of my traveling dress. It would be at least a month before I saw Lathrup Village again. One of the best things about the Leelanau Peninsula resort of Fountain Point, was an entire room, fronting the lake, lined with bookshelves, studded with books I’d never seen.
E. B. White is a distillation of books, for grown-ups, for children, all he’d absorbed, and all he wrote for others.
The Child Carolyn would be in her 20’s and living and working in Manhattan before she would be introduced by her upper West Side roommates to Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. She was clear that she’d’ve been enchanted, had she met them earlier. That’s when she met the New Yorker, too. Basically her life has never been the same.
In an aunt’s attic, on swift Toledo visits, she’d come across leathern volumes with silk-soft tissue pages edged with gold. They all seem heavy in retrospect, for this little girl, –who knelt there, too, to read them. What she never could understand was that these treasures were up in the, yes, dusty attic. Sun-motes there, too. But those books languished there, unread, except for Carolyn-visits.
I was supposed to want to go to Toledo for the relatives. I went to Toledo for the books.
No matter how many biographical works on E. B. White I read and re-read, nothing REALLY explains his diversity, wit and wisdom.
As proof, I offer his response to the first space tests, which had gone off unsuccessfully and successfully, “leaving the earth’s people frightened and joyless.”