Among the surprising discoveries I made in 2022 included the letters and thoughts of E.B. White. Best known for his children’s fiction (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, etc), he also wrote for the New Yorker for decades. And, like so many influential people in the pre-internet age, he wrote letters – where he shared thoughts both casual and insightful.

As we continued the conversation (or battle) in 2022 over what books are appropriate to read, and by whom, EBW addressed the same issue 80 years ago. Writing to his wife Katharine about the library in the small town of Brooklin, Maine, where the couple lived when they weren’t in NYC, he noted that Annie Dollard, Brooklin’s head librarian, held “firm convictions about which books were fit to read.” So, when the library acquired The Grapes of Wrath, “Annie took it off the shelf and placed it on her chair and sat on it. That solved that.” (Letter to Katharine White, 2/9/1942)

In a letter to his brother, EBW talks about the writing process: 

I’m glad to report that even now, at this late day, a blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement there is for me – more promising than a silver cloud, prettier than a little red wagon. It holds all the hope there is, all fears. I can remember, really quite distinctly, looking a sheet of paper square in the eyes when I was seven or eight years old and thinking “This is where I belong, this is it.” Having dirtied up probably a quarter of a million of them and sent them down drains and through presses, I am exhausted but not done, faithful in my fashion, and fearful only that I will die before one comes out right. …I have moments when I wish that I could either take a sheet of paper or leave it alone, and sometimes, in despair and vengeance, I just fold them into airplanes and sail them out of high windows, hoping to get rid of them that way, only to have an updraft (or a change of temper) bring them back in again.

Letter to Stanley hart white, jan 1947

That sounds to me like a calling, a vocation – almost a spiritual compulsion. For White, his vocation was also his job. For the rest of us, though, our calling may be what we are paid to do, or it may not. As Parker Palmer has said: Your calling is what you can’t NOT do.

EBW, like all of us, would get annoyed with & frustrated by people. He wrote a letter describing how he keeps such people – and situations – in perspective.

If the vexatious world of people were the whole world, I would not enjoy it at all. But it is only a small, though noisy, part of the whole; and I find the natural world as engaging and as innocent as it ever was. When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do. Or what the weather does. This sustains me very well indeed, and I have no complaints.

letter to carrie a wilson, May 1, 1951

I, too, find people vexing at times. How helpful it is to remember that such times are the smaller parts of life, and that nature always has something fresh & revealing to say. And God’s grace can be seen in nature – and vexing people – when we look closely enough.

One such lesson from nature came to EBW upon observing the young geese on his farm. When a 5th grade class in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, read Charlotte’s Web, they wrote to him about the animals on his farm. EBW replied, describing the young geese and the pond in his pasture. “They start from the barnyard, walking slowly; then as they get nearer the water, they break into a run; and then they spread their wings, take to the air, and land on the pond with a splash.”

But then the weather turned and the pond froze. “The young geese had never seen ice, and knew nothing about it. They started for the pond, sailed into the air, and when they came down for a landing, their feet struck the ice and they skidded the whole length of the pond and crashed into the opposite bank. That’s how they learned about ice” (January 21, 1955).

Of course, it’s not just young geese who have to learn from experience. As you look back on 2022, what “ice” did you hit that caused you to learn something the hard way?

White also had political insight that still applies today – like these words he wrote in 1954: “This country is on the verge of getting news-drunk anyway; a democracy cannot survive merely by being well informed, it must also be contemplative, and wise.” That’ll tweet.

Two years earlier, he wrote:

We doubt that there ever was a time in this country when so many people were trying to discredit so many other people. About a year ago, we started to compile a handbook of defamation, showing who was disemboweling whom in America, but the list soon got too big for us and we abandoned the project as both unwieldy and unlovely. Discreditation has become a national sickness, for which no cure has so far been found, and there is a strong likelihood that we will all wake some morning to learn that in the whole land there is not one decent man. Vilification, condemnation, revelation – these supply a huge part of the columns of the papers, and the story of life in the United States dissolves into a novel of perfidy, rascality, iniquity, and misbehavior. The writing of this lurid tale commands more and more of the time of the citizens.

In doubtful, doubting days, national morality tends to slip and slide toward a condition in which the test of a man’s honor is his zeal for discovering dishonor in another. … Nobody ever acquired strength by publishing somebody else’s weakness, and to look for strength in that quarter is to grab at shadows.

“discredit of others,” Oct 4, 1952

And that was in the days before social media, when people actually had to write something up and get it printed – the next day, at the earliest. Now, we can whip off a post instantly, “disemboweling” another person seconds after learning of their supposed “perfidy” and “rascality.” What a great reminder that we have never been elevated by the attempt to drag another person down.

Finally, in an essay simply titled “Unity,” from 1960, EBW wrote: “Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”

White was no theologian, but his words remind us what true peace looks like. It isn’t the absence of conflict, but the presence of well-being. It’s not simply the lack of fighting, but the condition where all is as God intended it to be: life made whole, relationships restored, where the meek really do inherit the earth. This certainly isn’t where we are now, but it’s where we are going. It takes faith to see it, faith to work toward it, and faith to hold onto it when all around seems otherwise.

Here’s to a new year that brings us closer to God’s ultimate vision of peace – where we have the eyes to see Good Things Happening, hands & feet to bring about such Good Things, and faith to trust that all of this is from God – who will one day make All Things New.


2 thoughts on “learning from E.B. White

  1. The rascality and perfidy of some people today along with their jiggery-pokery can be disheartening. Good article. Robin

  2. The Greek idea of peace was close to the first described by White. Something like “conflict less bliss” “eirene. The Hebrew concept of peace, shalom, included good health, property, salvation , good relationships as well as absence of conflict. The opposite of shalom is not war, but evil.

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