The Major’s Daughter will be released this Tuesday, July 29th. I’m excited. It’s a new field for me….historical fiction. I hope the novel finds its readership. Publishing is very different now than when I first began. My first novel, The Family Man, came out in 1982, I think. Atheneum published it. It was extremely exciting, but my expectations for the novel — and for publishing in general — were unrealistic. The Family Man is about a discontented dad living in suburbia. It has a young, pushy style. I’m not sure why I was surprised that it wasn’t greeted with open arms and great critical reception! I was young, I suppose, which is not a fault. I wrote The Family Man on a typewriter in an apartment in Portsmouth, NH. The beginning of the novel was written in Mopti, Mali, West Africa. That was a long time ago. Obviously, that was before Facebook and the internet and word processing. When a book came out, it received little attention, usually. I may have had a half dozen reviews of The Family Man before it disappeared. The reviews were merciful — I was 24! — but reserved. I’ve never gone back to read that novel. I suspect I’m afraid to see what it was….
So here’s to publishing and books and libraries and the whole wonderful process of bringing out a book. Thirty-two years after The Family Man appeared, I am still at it, still enjoying it, still chasing that mysterious inner voice that compels me to write. I’ve stopped asking why a long time ago. It’s what I do. And on Tuesday, July 29th, — with the help of editors and agents and copyreaders and readers, of course, because readers bring the circle full– I’ll do it again.
I’ve been reading Cabin by Lou Ureneck and enjoying it very much. I’m a sucker for cabin stories. Get a parcel of land, add a little elbow grease, and you have a house….and you have me as a reader I’ve always liked that idea. I’ve also recently watched Alone in the Wilderness (for the 100th time!), another great story about building a cabin.
An older book — Nine Mile Bridge — is also a favorite. It’s about a young woman living up by the logging camps in Maine. Great read. I love books about old Maine.
Love this site….great documentaries and features on women’s contributions….use it with my students all the time…
MAKERS: Women Who Make America tells the remarkable story of the most sweeping social revolution in American history, as women have asserted their rights to a full and fair share of political power, economic opportunity, and personal autonomy. It’s a revolution that has unfolded in public and private, in courts and Congress, in the boardroom and the bedroom, changing not only what the world expects from women, but what women expect from themselves. MAKERS brings this story to life with priceless archival treasures and poignant, often funny interviews with those who led the fight, those who opposed it, and those first generations to benefit from its success. Trailblazing women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey share their memories, as do countless women who challenged the status quo in industries from coal-mining to medicine. Makers captures with music, humor, and the voices of the women who lived through these turbulent times the dizzying joy, aching frustration and ultimate triumph of a movement that turned America upside-down.
In 1938, as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain worked out a controversial agreement in Munich that was meant to prevent World War II, the writer E. B. White was atop his barn, installing a new set of shingles to keep it dry throughout the cold, snowy winters that visited his farm in coastal Maine.
The next year, as England and France declared war against Nazi Germany, White walked to his garage and began sorting nails. And when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached his household on December 7, 1941, White noted that his wife had lost the stopper to a hot water bottle, a minor mishap that seemed, somehow, to underscore the larger disorder shaking the world to its knees.
Even so, the homely reports from White’s farm to readers of his “One Man’s Meat” essays in Harper’s Magazineseemed, at first glance, a far remove from the global conflagration causing so much suffering among millions of soldiers, sailors, and, civilians.
And yet White was the writer that many American fighting men chose to read. His “One Man’s Meat” columns, collected in a book of the same name, were a hit among the troops. “Soon my casual pieces depicting life on a saltwater farm in New England were finding their way to members of the Armed Forces in a paperback Overseas edition, and letters of thanks were arriving from homesick soldiers in distant lands,” White later recalled of those war years.
“This relieved my mind, as I had been uneasy about indulging myself in pastoral pursuits when so many of my countrymen were struggling for their lives, and for mine.”
White needn’t have worried about his relevance to the war effort. His essays—plainspoken, self-deprecating, and with a gentle but abiding skepticism about institutional authority—seemed to express the basic qualities for which his nation was fighting.
White’s farm inspired not only his essays, which are still highly regarded as classics of the form, but children’s stories, such as Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan, that have endured as touchstones for generations of children. His accomplishment seems all the more remarkable because, unlike so many literary geniuses, White appears to have enjoyed a relatively happy childhood, although his youth was complicated by chronic shyness that would plague him throughout his life.
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, into a prosperous family in Mount Vernon, New York. He was the youngest of six children, and his father’s success as a business executive meant good things for young Elwyn and his siblings.
Elwyn “owned the first small-sized bicycle on the block, and when he was only eleven he was given a sixteen-foot, dark green Old Towne canoe that, as his father might have said, was ‘the best that money could buy,’” author Scott Elledge notes in his biography.
White’s boyhood home also included a series of memorable dogs, along with pigeons, chickens, a turkey, ducks, and geese. White loved the backyard stable, which had a hutch for his rabbits, too. His affection for animals stayed with White into manhood, leading him to the farm that became his defining landscape, and informing the tales for children still read by millions of youngsters.
“From early childhood, Elwyn found the dark and pungent stable intoxicatingly rich in romantic associations of life and death and adventure,” says Michael Sims, the author of a popular study of Charlotte’s Web. “But it was also a refuge where a thoughtful young boy could spend time by himself.” Sometimes painfully reserved, White “felt more at home with animals than with people, and he kept pigeons, dogs, snakes, polliwogs, turtles, rabbits, lizards, singing birds, chameleons, caterpillars, and mice,” author Dale Kramer wrote.
As a college student at Cornell, White edited the campus newspaper, but a brief stint at the Seattle Times after graduation convinced him that daily journalism wasn’t for him. His poetic sensibility didn’t square with conventional news reporting, and his exacting, gimlet style was hard to pull off under the pressure of constant deadlines. Like many young dreamers, he eventually migrated to New York City, taking a series of unsatisfying jobs in advertising and freelance journalism. His lyrical worldview didn’t seem to have a natural home.
Then, in a providential turn, the New Yorker opened its doors in 1925, creating a venue that was tailor-made for White’s jeweled prose. Along with contemporaries such as James Thurber and Robert Benchley, he became one of the magazine’s formative voices. Harold Ross, the magazine’s first editor, quickly realized White’s potential.
“White was an individualist and an admirer of nature, especially of Henry Thoreau’s writings,” Kramer, a historian of the New Yorker’s early days, has written. “Whenever he went anywhere he packed his Walden as naturally as his toothbrush. But he was aware that solitude was to be found in the city too. His life had fitted him almost perfectly for the wide-eyed yet deep-felt eagerness that Ross needed.”
Gotham, teeming with life, ironically seemed a place where White could be inconspicuously alone. Years later, White elaborated on that contradiction in a famous 1948 essay, “Here Is New York”:
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
White’s essay about New York came to the minds of many Americans after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack against the World Trade Center. Here’s White, writing more than a half a century before that fateful day:
The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak about much but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
White’s alertness to New York’s vulnerability to attack wasn’t the only time that his observations proved prophetic. In the 1930s, after White attended a demonstration of a fledgling technology called television, he immediately saw through the razzle-dazzle and understood how the medium would change society:
Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light—these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang on the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice.
Literary critic Clifton Fadiman suggested that White could see the future so clearly because he had such a sharp view of the present. “The spur of Mr. White’s realism is the fact that he has the eye of a poet, a poet being a man who sees through things,” Fadiman noted. “Having the eye of a poet he is intensely aware of our taken-for-granted environment. He is aware of the millions of substitutes for things, the millions of substitutes for ideas, the millions of substitutes for emotions, the millions of substitutes for human beings. Out of this awareness the sweet and bitter of his prose continually wells.”
By 1938, White seemed to be at the top of his game. In a country still wracked by the Depression, he enjoyed a well-paying job at the New Yorker and the admiration of his peers. He had married New Yorker editor Katharine Angell in 1929. The Whites’ family included Nancy and Roger Angell, Katharine’s children from a previous marriage. Roger Angell eventually became a New Yorker staffer himself. The Whites’ son Joel was born in 1930.
But touched by a midlife crisis of sorts, White decided to leave the New Yorker—and New York itself—and move to a saltwater farm in rural Maine. Katharine, in spite of her stature as one of the most influential editors in America, agreed to go along, striking an arrangement with the New Yorker that allowed her to do some editing work long-distance through the mail.
White had no clear plan for making a living. But shortly before White’s departure from Manhattan, Harper’s editor Lee Foster Hartman asked White to write the monthly essays about rural life that would become “One Man’s Meat.” The essays satisfied White’s longstanding desire to write in the first person—something that the New Yorker, with its fetish for the editorial “we,” hadn’t allowed him to do. Farm life also renewed White’s imagination and sense of possibility.
After a few years, White returned to the New Yorker, but his real home remained in Maine. “Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me,” White wrote of his move to New England. “Confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances—including the characters in the barnyard, who were later to appear inCharlotte’s Web—I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had a chance to get some of it down on paper.”
In staging his daring retreat, White could look to a fellow New Englander, Thoreau, for inspiration. In “A Slight Sound at Evening,” his 1954 tribute to Thoreau, White quoted admiringly from Thoreau’s journal: “A slight sound at evening lifts me up by the ears, and makes life seem inexpressibly sweet and grand. It may be in Uranus, or it may be in the shutter.”
Thoreau’s gift for divining profound insights from the unassuming rhythms of domestic life is also what makes White’s writing so sublime. His 1940 essay about cars isn’t really about automobiles, but about how consumers blindly follow the whims of industry—and, in the process, condition themselves to be passive citizens, too. Here, in a single sentence, he tangibly describes how individuals quickly get lost within institutions: “The ultimate goal of automobile designers is to produce a car into whose driving seat the operator will disappear without a trace.”
In “Once More to the Lake,” perhaps his most widely anthologized essay, White recalls returning with his son to the same summer vacation spot that he once enjoyed with his own father. Throughout most of the essay, time seems suspended, the experience unblemished by the passage of years. But then, while watching his son throw on some wet swimming trunks for an afternoon swim, White realizes that his own boyhood has passed, leaving him a middle-aged man in the shadow of mortality. Here’s how White expresses that sentiment in a handful of words: “As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
That gift for distilling complex ideas and feelings so concisely is the ideal at the center of The Elements of Style, a handbook on writing that White updated from a manual first printed by one of his Cornell professors, William Strunk, then published in 1959. The book, known affectionately by its fans as “Strunk & White,” has sold millions of copies and become a cultural fixture. White embraced Strunk’s cherished dictum, “Omit needless words.” As Strunk wrote:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
White’s basic credo of writing also expressed itself in Charlotte’s Web, his classic children’s tale in which the title character, a highly literate spider, saves a pig from slaughter by spinning words of appreciation above its head. The gesture seems miraculous to human observers, but White suggests that the real miracle isn’t Charlotte’s web trick, but the abiding gratitude that inspired Charlotte to write in the first place. White thought that the best writers were “recording secretaries” for wonders large and small. “As a writing man, or secretary,” White once confessed, “I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even one were to be lost.”
He took his obligations as a writer seriously: White could be deeply self-critical, endlessly revising his essays and stories until, paradoxically, the end result seemed casual and conversational. The intensity of his vision sometimes sharpened his nerves. Periodically, White suffered from anxiety and hypochondria.
White’s troubles, and the graceful prose he managed to craft despite his challenges, are what make him so admirable, according to Susan Allen Toth, a master essayist in her own right. “Thinking of White as a man who knew fear, anxiety and self-doubt, but who still reveled in life, I continue to want him as a guide,” Toth wrote. “It is not easy to write prose, or live a life, with his humor, resilience and staying power.”
Despite his worries about decline, White’s physical health remained quite good into advanced age. Not until his eighties did White really begin to slip, as he showed symptoms of the Alzheimer’s disease that would eventually claim his mind and body. In his final weeks, when White was bedridden, his son Joel would visit each evening and read to him, sometimes from White’s own books. With his mind failing, White’s self-consciousness faded, too. He could hear—and enjoy—his own prose as a reader, not as a critic.
That appreciation is shared today by millions of readers in the United States and abroad. E. B. White died on October 1, 1985, at age eighty-six, but most of his books remain in print, and he continues to attract new fans.
In spite of his exceptional talent, White endures because he so aptly expressed the joys and sorrows of the common man. White “took pains not to be grand and all for naught,” Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell noted after White’s death. “He wound up grand for all his avoidance of grandeur, and the more he avoided noble and elevated style the more convinced his readers were that he was noble—a word not always trotted out for writers of short and casual pieces. . . . He has been called the best American essayist of the century, though most of his readers possibly have wondered who the competition was supposed to be.”
*This article was updated on January 24, 2014, to correct a misattributed quotation.
I heartily recommend this short film about the life span of the 17 year cicada. It’s by Samuel Orr and it is worth every moment. You wouldn’t think such a film could be moving….but you’d be wrong, I promise.
I always thought these flying suits are terrific. I am mesmerized by any base jump. Take a look.
I used to write now and then for the Valley News, a paper in Vermont. Here’s an article I wrote about sledding. It’s prompted by the cold weather we’ve had here in New Hampshire these past few days….
by Joseph Monninger
It’s a painful dilemma for Pie, my nine year old sledding companion. He received a new Flexible Flyer for Christmas — the new boards almost yellow, the runners barn red — though his old sled, one he nicknamed Arrow, is perfectly sound. Watching him inspect both as they hang on our shed wall, I appreciate his struggle. He wants to be loyal to the old sled, a short bed Flexible Flyer I bought in a yard sale for ten dollars two years before, but the appeal of the new sled is undeniable. Ideally he would take both, alternating them on various runs, but we both know that is unrealistic. He has to choose. Behind me his mom, Wendy, tells him to make up his mind.
“Rocket,” he says, which is the name for the new sled.
He looks at me to see if I disapprove. Because we have been sledding together before, he knows I am fond of yard sale sleds, the ones that have turned the color of horse harness. I collect them as some people collect tools or duck decoys, and I always have five or six around the place. I like the way they look and I like the way the front assemblage can bend and twist, a calf’s neck being bulled by a cowboy. I hoist my long one from the wall, a sled named Thunder Boy, and his mom, my girlfriend, selects Mustang.
“Maybe I’ll take Arrow,” he says, referring to the old sled.
“No, use Rocket,” I say. “It needs to be broken in.”
He stares up at me, uncertain. He wears a blue snowsuit, a red hat, and wide, clunky boots. He is a superb sledder, fearless in ways I have left behind long ago. He looks for icy patches and jumps, while I prefer a long, smooth ride through the hills of Warren, NH. He finds spin-outs fun. He loves to tip over.
After he breaks our stare, he nods and helps me lift Rocket off the wall. He scoots it down the driveway and lifts it into the back of my pick up where my Labrador retriever, D-Dog, already waits.
Fifteen minutes later we stand at the top of a long run, one packed solid by snowmobiles the night before. But the snowmobiles are gone and now the forest is quiet except for an occasional chickadee calling from winter branches. Pie doesn’t wait. He folds the rope back, squares it carefully so it won’t dangle down while he’s moving, then makes a short, rump-high run, his arms extended to the bed of his sled, his legs churning behind. His snowsuit makes a whistling sound as he runs, his tiny legs pushing to gain speed. Then he grunts and lunges forward, his belly umphhhing a bit when he hits the bed of the sled. As he turns the corner of the first section, his arms steering the sled perfectly, he shouts back over his shoulder, “To infinity and beyond,” one of his favorite lines from Toy Story and Toy Story 2. His voice is enough to get D-Dog started. She tears after him, her paws flicking up snow, her fur covered by glistening frost. She runs head down, flat out, chasing Pie’s whoops as he goes down the mile run that is one of four or five sledding destinations not more than ten minutes from my house.
* * *
Although I sledded as a kid in suburban New Jersey, going to a place called Richter’s Hill, I had largely forgotten about it — about the cold walks on winter afternoons and the numbness in one’s fingers, the fast, hard ride only inches from the packed snow — until a few years ago when I moved to Warren, New Hampshire. Like most of my neighbors, when it snowed I thought primarily of skis. But I didn’t grow up on skis and wasn’t particularly skilled on them. When I went for long cross country treks into the woods and hills around my home, I never felt entirely comfortable. Cross country skis are difficult things in the woods because they have no edges, making turns on narrow trails nearly impossible. Travelling alone, I lived with the fear of slamming into a tree or falling and breaking a leg, no one around to help me but D-Dog. At the same time, I thought it a waste of energy and opportunity to trudge down such wonderful hills in a thick pair of Bean boots.
After one particularly large snow, and a bad fall on cross country skis, I bought my first sled on impulse in an antique store near Newfound Lake. The next day I found myself, at 45, hurtling down a remote snowmobile trail, my hands clutching the wooden bow of the Flexible Flyer. After my first run in over thirty years, an all out blitz that carried me approximately a mile down hill in one beautiful glide, I let out a loud, goofy laugh that seemed more genuine and much younger than my laugh had been in a long, long time. Snow covered my face, and my hat had pulled back on my forehead, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
* * *
“Creating childhood memories since 1889,” is actually the corporate motto of Flexible Flyer, based in West Point, Mississippi. Sledding, or coasting as it was commonly called in the 1800’s, was the passion of a young man named Samuel Leeds Allen. Allen was born in 1841 in Philadelphia. At eleven his parents sent him to the Westtown Boarding School, a Quaker Academy popular among prominent families of the day. In 1861 at the age of twenty, Allen decided to learn agriculture on his father’s farm near Westfield, New Jersey. He worked long and hard hours to understand every aspect of farming. In 1866 he married Sarah Horton Roberts in the meeting house at Westtown School, and together they took up residence at Ivystone Farm. In the same year, Allen invented two pieces of farm equipment — a fertilizer drill for spreading guano and seed drill called the Planet Junior. These two inventions were the impetus to the founding of the S.L. Allen Co., manufacturers of “Planet Junior” farm equipment. By 1881 the company was selling its equipment throughout the United States and Europe from sales and manufacturing offices in downtown Philadelphia.
Allen’s early attempts at inventing the best sled for coasting were all tried out on his daughter, Elizabeth, on the hill at Westown School or Ivystone farm in New Jersey. Allen designed intriguing variations — a Phantom, a Fleetwing, an Aeriel, and a Fairy Coaster — before hitting on the Flexible Flyer. As A.L. Jacoby, sales manger of the S.L. Allen Co. in 1889 wrote in an account of the invention noted:
“Mr. Allen worked up a sled with only one pair of rounded runners, and had these runners weakened at one point about half way back to form a sort of hinge, so they could be bent sidewise there. This gave the steering effect of a double runner sled, but with a continuous runner. This first flexible runner sled was never tried out on snow, but it gave Mr. Allen the right idea, and a sled with flexible t-shaped runners and a slatted seat was soon made, and after it was a proven success, was named by Mr. Allen, the Flexible Flyer.”
The sled’s design has changed little in the last century. Made from American hardwood and steel by American workers, the sled comes in 42”, 48”, 54”, and 60” lengths. It retails for somewhere between $35-60, which is not much more than Mr. Allen’s original price for his Fairy Coaster, a sled designed to hold four or five adults in the late 1800’s.
The sled was not an immediate success. Allen’s own salesmen, accustomed to the farm equipment business, did not like trying to sell the sleds because the sales season cut their vacations short. But in 1900’s, with the revival of golf in the United States and the resultant interest in tennis, skating, tobogganing, and other outdoor sports, the sled finally made its mark in American consciousness. Allen Co. salesmen succeeding in convincing two big name department stores of the merits of the sled — Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and R.H. Macy’s in New York. By 1915 Samuel Allen wrote to his wife in a letter sent just before Christmas 1915:
“We have been selling sleds at a great pace, averaging right along about 2,000 per day, and the demand so urgent we are sending whole car loads of about 1,200 each to New York, New Haven, and Pittsburgh by express: perhaps five full cars in all. There seems little doubt but that we will sell out clean, in all about 120,000; and it also seems likely that the dealers will sell out clean.”
Since then, the Flexible Flyer has been a staple under American Christmas trees. The sleds can be found pictured on holiday greeting cards, in advertisements, on TV, in the movies, and even in the Smithsonian. Ask most children to draw a sled, and you have a fifty-fifty chance of receiving a drawing of Santa’s reindeer pulling his large sleigh, or of the impeccably designed, wonderfully efficient Flexible Flyer.
* * *
Pie, of course, doesn’t know any of this history. When he disappears from view, his mother, Wendy, charges forward and glides off into the middle distance, her shouts equally aimed at Pie and at me. I wait a ten count, then run with the sled pressed against my chest, my feet sliding, the sled certain in my grip. Then for a second I jump forward, landing with a krummph on the slated boards, the runners hissing underneath me. For a moment the world comes at me slowly. My vision is filled by mounded snow banks and pine boughs trapped by late night storms, but little by little my speed increases. When I round the first bend I see Wendy in front of me, D-Dog bobbing around her still trying to divine how humans can make no motion yet travel at such speeds. Then suddenly I know I am going fast, flicking along the ground, covering ice and snow, wind grinding against my cheeks. I yell out, “To infinity and beyond,” because it is what Pie likes us all to yell and because it seems a sensible thing to yell on a sled, and I glimpse him down at the bottom of the run, climbing onto the snow bank. As I go toward him, Thunder Boy solid beneath me, it is hard to resist the obvious conclusion: that we sled to go back to a younger day. That boys like Pie will always be waiting at the bottom of coasting runs, reminding us by their existence of what we had forgotten. And I know I will only be good for two or three runs today, that I will never sled all day and wobble home to hot chocolate and the incredible warmth of one’s boyhood kitchen again. But I will be in the kitchen waiting for Pie, and my heart will lift to see him return in the last light with his sled behind him, his future and my past caught somewhere between us.
Thought this was interesting. Here’s a graph describing how many paid vacation days workers in various industrialized countries receive. It might surprise you to see that the U.S. is one of the lowest. Americans work hard.