For most of us, the name E.B. White conjures up one of two things: the charming animal stories of our childhood – Charlotte’s Web, Trumpet of the Swan, or Stuart Little – or The Elements of Style, the authoritative manual written by White’s mentor and revised by White in the 1950s. It wasn’t until I read The Points of My Compass that I discovered the E.B. White that made both of those previous associations possible – the New Yorker columnist, the thoughtful essayist, the man of farm and city.
The essays which comprise this volume are from a period when White styled himself as a foreign correspondent – who didn’t leave home. In the spirit of fashionable bylines from Paris or Beijing, his letters came from all points of the compass – that is, a compass aligned with his apartment in New York. Most essays are appended with a postscript written at the time they were compiled into this volume – commentary on his own commentary, or an update on the direction of world events during a tumultuous, exciting, and often bewildering period of American history. In the introduction to the volume, White compares revisiting these essays to an afternoon spent in the attic with an box of old love letters:
“The world that I’m in love with has not resisted my advances with anything like the firmness it is capable of, and I love it as passionately as though I were young, and so it’s no wonder I have been heavily involved, no wonder an occasional passage in [the letters that make up this book] makes me wince.”
And with that, I was hooked. The letters range in topic from the characteristics of New York pigeons to the nature of the newly-formed United Nations to the fate of the railroads in the state of Maine. Each is quiet, thoughtful, and absolutely anchored to the real world, a rare trait in political essays. I was shocked by the currency of his observations – change a few facts, and many of the essays could’ve been published in the New Yorker in the last year. Like this:
“The farm as a source of individual need and a supplier of personal wants has almost vanished from the scene. In its place is a sort of dirt-factory operation, and the land is not so much cultivated as it is mined for gold. Curiously enough, among the new farmers who are still doing things in an old-fashioned or backhanded way are fellows like me, not truly countrymen at all but merely dudes who have the time or the money, or both, for such bygone frivolities as raising some of the stuff they eat and drink.”
Not so different from this, which makes me sad. But that’s the way with these essays – they are at turns sobering and heartwarming, pastoral and urban, equally likely to provoke a smile or a frown. They’re wonderful. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Photo by Lost Bob Photos