If E. B. White chartered a plane and crashed in East Africa, the news would probably make the bottom of the front pages of the New York Times and Herald Tribune and pass almost unnoticed in the rest of the nation's press. Yet he is easily one of the two or three finest Jiving American writers and certainly one of the handful of truly great writers this country has produced.
His newest book, The Second Tree from the Corner, has at least three outstanding virtues. The first is simply that it is a collection of E. B. White; and that is virtue enough for any book. It is not so superb a book as some of his others--that would be too much to ask. One Man's Meat, after all, is probably the finest volume of essays in American literature.
But The Second Tree does have more than enough individual masterpieces. For my money, the six-page piece entitled "The Door" is worth considerably more than three dollars all by itself. Another--a page and a half in length--is a perfect example of White's extraordinary genius. It concerns a woman who was convicted of "disorderliness"--she was found sleeping in two empty cartons in a hallway, wearing all the clothes she possessed, although she was gainfully employed and owned a reasonably fat bank account.
"Mrs. Wienckus may be disorderly, but one pauses to wonder where the essential disorder really lies. All of us are instructed to seek hallways these days (except school children, who crawl under the desks), and it was in a hallway that they found Mrs. Wienckus. We read recently that the only hope of avoiding inflation is through ever increasing production of goods. This to us is always a terrifying conception of the social order--a theory of the good life through accumulation of objects. . . We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond belief."
Not all the items are perfect jewels, or course. A few are trivial, a few fail stylistically, at least in sports, and the poems are generally unsuccessful. But the first rate predominates--the title piece, "Farewell, My Lovely," "The Morning of the Day They Did It," "Air Raid Drill," and "Death of a Pig," for instance, are as fine as almost anything White has written.
The third chief virtue of this book should recommend it equally to those familiar and those unfamiliar with E. B. White. The Second Tree is in effect both a resume and a nearly complete sampling of his career and his work. Ranging in date from 1935 to 1953, its contents include pieces in each of the styles presented in previous homogeneous collections: parables, satires, and parodies (Quo Vadimus), essays of the more classic form (One Man's Meat), notes from the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" (Every Day Is Saturday and The Wild Flay), and songs and poems (The Fox of Pea-pack).
While its very variety makes the book somewhat unsatisfactory for consecutive reading, it has the happy result of revealing clearly the breadth and the highly specialized nature of White's particular genius. It reveals also, in White's own words, "a man unable to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time, untouched by the dedication required for sustained literary endeavor, yet unable not to write."
Neither a "creative writer," nor a journalist, nor a poet (although he has, apparently, always hankered for the latter estate), White is a rare combination of philosopher and humorist, who writes because of a compulsion "to tie his love for the world into a convenient bundle, accessible to all."
He partakes of all that is finest in American literature--the sense of nature and of revelation of Emerson and Thoreau, the sharp and pessimistic but compassionate wit of Twain, Lardner, and Marquis, the enthusiasm of Whitman, the highly developed awareness of fantasy and symbolism of Melville, James, and Faulkner, the sense of social forces of Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Steinbeck, and the linguistic facility of Thurber and Perelman. Add to this the satiric ability of George Orwell.
Is this too fulsome a list of attributes for one writer? Then say of White what he said of the spider-heroine of Charlotte's Web: "She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."