October 1: On this day in 1985 E. B. White died at the age of eighty-six. Though connected to both the city and the magazine for much of his writing life, White’s ambivalence towards being a New Yorker started early. In his late 20s he was buying into a summer camp in northern Ontario; by 1933 he and his wife Katharine Angell had purchased the forty-acre farm in North Brooklin, Maine that would become their summer, and then, as they both became part-time writer-editors, their full-time home. White’s often-quoted Here is New York “love letter” was published in the late 40s, but a decade earlier he had made his reasons for leaving the place clear and convincing:
A certain timbre of journalism and the stepping up of news, with the implication that the first duty of man is to discover everything that has just happened everywhere in the world…. The acceptance, by individual and state, of the ideal of publicity, as though the sheer condition of being noticed were the ultimate good…. It is a little hard to get on paper, but I smell something that doesn’t smell good. There is a decivilizing bug somewhere at work; unconsciously persons of stern worth, by not resenting and resisting the small indignities of the times, are preparing themselves for the eventual acceptance of what they themselves know they don’t want.
Interviewed at the farm on his 70th birthday, White said he was only writing a little, and when he did “I wish instead I were doing what my dog is doing at this moment, rolling in something ripe he has found on the beach in order to take on its smell. His is such an easy, simple way to increase one’s stature and enlarge one’s personality.” When asked what he cherished most in life, White replied: “When my wife’s Aunt Caroline was in her nineties, she lived with us, and she once remarked: ‘Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.’ I cherish the remembrance of the beauty I have seen. I cherish the grave, compulsive word.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.