Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Gopnik on White

I offered some admiring remarks the other day about EB White.  Here now is his spiritual legatee Adam Gopnik with a fuller appreciation:
White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and Beerbohm suddenly look stuffy and literary. White has an amazing ability, which I still marvel at, to come very close to a faux-naïve simplicity that’s excessive and then pull it back.

I’m just picking up one of his collections. I’m going to open it up at random and look for a sentence that captures White. Here’s one from a piece called “The Trailer Park”:

“Before sitting down to draft a preamble to the constitution of a world federations of democracies uniting free people under one banner, I decided I would mosey over to the trailer park at the edge of town and ask some of the campers whether they favoured any such idea of this union.”

The virtue of White’s kind of writing is to start with something that sounds pompous and editorial and then use a verb like “mosey over” to make it work. He cleans up the prose of the essay. Both Beerbohm and Woolf are belle-lettrist sort of writers and they connect to that leisurely tradition. White is a much more urbane and American writer.
Gopnik prompts me to remember one of my own favorite lines from White (I quote from memory but I'm pretty sure I have it right."  White is in a hospital and is morning is disturbed  by the minstrations of a nurse.  To whom White speaks:

Sister why wakest though me with this  morning dumbshow?

Love to have heard her answer.

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