Saturday, June 24, 2006

Watching an endless armada entering the harbor (E. B. White Revisited: Part 3)

Want to read more of E. B. White’s work? Now it’s easy to look him up in his original showcase.

For anyone who likes to read and has enjoyed The New Yorker over the years, it’s hard to imagine a greater value than “The Complete New Yorker,” the 8-DVD boxed set that was published last fall. It contains all 4,109 issues published between February of 1925 and the 80th anniversary issue last year. It’s searchable, though a bit klunky to use, and everything’s there in PDF form -- half a million words, all the cartoons, and all the ads. It was a bargain at the original list price of $100, but it’s even more of a bargain at today’s street price.

I’ve put off the pleasure of grazing all the way through the collection for fear that I would simply disappear into this tempting electronic pasture and forget to come back out. Fortunately, James Wolcott ventured forth recently and returned to tell the tale. Wolcott worked there from 1992 to 1997, and his affectionate essay, “Tales from the Crypt” (a reference to Tom Wolfe’s famous satirical profile, “Tiny Mummies!”), is a fascinating stroll down a memory lane that winds through 80 years of American history.

I enjoyed what Wolcott has to say about the magazine’s “most valuable player.”
Behind its mask, the magazine was prematurely middle-aged, due in part to Ross’s chronic worrywart nature, but most of all to the enduring qualms of its most valuable player, E. B. White, whose folksiness, wry humor, and Yankee pith rested, like Robert Frost’s, on a bed of thorns. A prodigious miniaturist who composed hundreds of cartoon captions, newsbreaks, short stories, essays, and Talk of the Town notes and comments (scroll through his credits on the archive search and it’s like watching an endless armada enter the harbor), White taxed his feathery touch of concentration to the breaking point.
Wolcott draws on a Wilfred Sheed review of a book of White’s letters for an apt characterization.
Where Thurber had used edginess as a purely comic device (the edge of a tantrum as often as not) with White it was a simple statement of fact. He is, it seems, so finely strung that keeping his sanity has been a struggle at times and writing brightly for The New Yorker a potential torture. No wonder his stuff seemed almost preternaturally sane and well-balanced. It had to.
Wolcott sums up White’s contribution to The New Yorker with a marvelous phrase.
Under White’s tutelage, The New Yorker didn’t lose its sense of humor; its humor gained a shadow of implication.
It’s that “shadow of implication” that I was trying to get at in my last post, “The generation that didn’t trust adjectives.” And it’s that shadow that falls across “Elements of Style” and makes Language Log’s critiques (here, for example) of White’s contribution to the book seem so inadequate and one-dimensional. E. B. White just can’t be summed up that simplistically.

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