book One Man’s Meat

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 59 ~ April, 2002

I got a letter from a lightning rod company this
morning trying to put the fear of God in me, but with small success. Lightning
seems to have lost its menace. Compared to what is going on on earth today,
heaven’s firebrands are penny fireworks with wet fuses. (“Removal,”
July 1938)

A bit of history: in 1938 E. B. White quit his job at The
New Yorker
and moved his family to a farm on the coast of Maine, where he
was to live a dual existence as subsistence farmer and writer. For the next
five years he chronicled this double life in a series of articles for Harper’s
; these were subsequently collected and published in a single volume,
titled One Man’s Meat, that been continuously in print since 1944.

In 2000 my husband and I, after several years in New
York and Chicago, moved to the hills of western Massachusetts. We bought a house
surrounded by woods, in a town with a population of 700. Not long after that
I found a copy of One Man’s Meat in a used-bookstore. I’d long been a
fan of White’s books for children, and thought I’d find some resonance in his
city-mouse-in-rural-New-England tales, so of course I bought it. Not until this
winter did I get around to reading it, and his essays resonate indeed – but
not in the way I’d expected.

My thirty-six pullets are ready to go into the laying
house, and all the pamphlets say I must cull them rigidly. It strikes me
the Federal pamphleteers are strangely out of date in their terminology:
isn’t “purge” the word they are groping for? (“Security,”
September 1938)

The above quote comes at the end of an essay almost exclusively
concerned with matters of financial security in small towns in the last years
of the Depression. White touches on the cost of raising turkeys, the career
paths favored by local high school girls (more and more aspired to be airline
hostesses), and the popularity of a tattoo artist at the county fair, who helpfully
tattooed people’s social security numbers on their forearms so they would not
forget them and be deprived of their benefits. That last detail, with its unwitting
foreshadow of the Holocaust, all but leaps off the page, but it’s the remark
about “purging” the henhouse that chilled me. Like the comment on
lightning in an essay about moving to Maine, or passing references to France
and fascism in a piece that centers on a Sunday Sabbath radio broadcast in early
1939, that bit about the henhouse struck a nerve.

White is an unusually prescient writer no matter what
topic he takes up. Having seen a demonstration of television, he prophesies
that “television is going to be the test of the modern world….We shall
stand or fall by television” – but he worries that people will “forget
the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote,” in
that the world we see on television will come to seem more important and more
real than the world we see around us. Elsewhere he muses on the impact of the
automobile on American society, the strange shrinking of the world brought about
by radio and long-distance telephony, and his conviction that what he refers
to as “multinationalism” (countries banding together for the common
good) is a prerequisite for future peace. He is always an engaging writer, witty
and personable, drawing the reader in with elegant prose that suggests sincerity
of purpose mixed with a healthy sense of humor.

In his often whimsical short essays, White is ostensibly
concerned with the subject of life in his small New England town. Yet he keeps
glancing over his shoulder, tracking events on the other side of the world with
a wary concern that grows until it overwhelms his apparent subject matter. He
writes of day-to-day tasks, the greater meaning of small actions, and it’s a
pleasant world he depicts, but all the while one senses that dark forces are
on the move – far away, perhaps, and not affecting White directly, but they’re
coming for him and his way of life, and he knows it. Even last summer, this
sense of danger would have seemed dated and quaint.

Not anymore. While television and telecommunications
have made the world ever smaller, and while we get more multinational all the
time, large passages of One Man’s Meat could be published as op-ed pieces
today and nobody would suspect the text wasn’t recent. Consider White’s comment
in November 1941, when the United States was building up local defense programs:

The absence of the tangible foe, the unlikelihood of
his soon appearing in military guise, these give the whole thing a certain
incredibility without lessening its intensity.

Or these words, written three days after Pearl Harbor:

In this country we are used to the queer notion that
any sort of sporting contest must be governed by a set of rules. We think
that the football can’t be kicked off until after the whistle is blown.
We believe the prize fighter can’t be socked until he has come out of his
corner….So it was quite to be expected that America grew purple and pink
with rage and fury when the [enemy] struck us without warning. There are
still…people who seem to feel that a universal referee will step in and
call a penalty.

Sound familiar? After months of being on a heightened state
of alert, it’s downright startling to come across remarks like these in a sixty-year-old
book – the more so when reviews of that book make no mention of its life-during-wartime
aspects. Presumably those aspects aren’t so prominent for a peacetime reader;
for the reader of today, they effectively hijack the manuscript.

And if read with that in mind, One Man’s Meat
becomes an ardent and sobering guidebook for those of us trying to live our
day-to-day lives now. White gracefully captures the conflicting emotions that
arise in times like these: he loves his country but is deeply suspicious of
nationalism; he abhors war but believes it must be fought and won if there is
ever to be real peace. He speaks admiringly of his fellow Americans’ zeal to
defend their country, but after an instance of anti-Semitism goes unnoticed
in his town, states that “[t]here would never be a moment, in war or in
peace, when I wouldn’t trade all the patriots in the country for one tolerant
man.” Ultimately his greatest loyalty is to freedom, and he takes any restriction
on anyone’s freedom as a personal affront – as well he should. “I am in
love with freedom,” he announces; “it is an affair of long standing
and…it is a fine state to be in.” According to the proverb, one man’s meat
is another man’s poison, but I believe if more people were to try E. B. White’s
diet, we’d have a better and safer world.

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.