EB WHITE

in this century

 

 

By NATALIA MUNOZ

 

I have returned to E.B. White many times over the years, especially whenever the world - or my world in journalism - reeled in chaos. Now’s a good time again.

 

His essays interrupt the vertiginous thoughts that trip me, and steady me on the surer ground found in contemplative essays. With every reading of "Bedfellows," on his relationship with his obstinate dog Fred, I am just as delighted as the first time I read the essay more than two decades ago. In his profile of the fastidious grammarian "Will Strunk," I learn something new about economy of words. Even now, on the eighth or ninth read, a letter to his wife on his comically disastrous appearance for an honorary degree at Dartmouth makes me laugh long. White picked each word with purpose, never settling on approximations as to what he means either in what he says or how he says it.

 

For him, writing was a way of discovering himself, he said, and of pulling things closer. It was a private matter that found its keep in the public eye. He marveled before life's big and small moments, and so wrote about big and small affairs with equal dedication.

 

His voice on paper has the authority of a flag; it summons recognition, if not respect, for its power. It is poignant and comforting and true. But what keeps me irrevocably latched to White is how he prized the indispensable function of an independent press in democracy, how often he rose to its defense with composure of tone and breathtaking elegance of style.

 

Had he known that years beyond his lifetime AOL Time Warner would gobble an array of publications, movie studios, radio stations and television networks, and that thousands of journalists would lose their duplicitous jobs in this new unhappy media family, he probably would have dispatched a reasonably irritated letter to the editor of his local Maine paper condemning it.

 

As things were in the late 1970s, when Xerox Corporation paid a journalist $40,000, plus $15,000 for expenses, to write a 23-page long article about his travels through the United States in Esquire magazine, White saw the looming menace where others were – and remain – indifferent.

 

"It doesn't take a giant intellect to detect in all this the shadow of disaster,” he wrote to the editor of the Ellsworth (Maine) American. “If magazines decide to farm out their writers to advertisers and accept the advertiser's payment to the writer and to the magazine, then the periodicals of this country will be far down the drain and will become so fuzzy as to be indistinguishable from the controlled press in other parts of the world."

 

The director of communications at Xerox read the letter, and asked White to explain his position a little more. White complied:

 

The press in our country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and to dwell in the light. The multiplicity of owners is crucial. It's only when there are few owners, or, in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails. For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other's follies and peccadilloes, correct each other's mistakes, and cancel out each other's biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters - the truth.

 

Our problem now is not so much that advertisers pay for articles, although this cunning transaction does take place in some publications, but that conglomerates keep adding media outlets to their takeover spoils. So whatever Time magazine writes, you can bet that CNN will announce it via its string of attractive news anchors, then it will be divvied up among the programs: dissected by career politicos on “Politics with Judy Woodruff,” discussed by retired generals on “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” debated loudly by hysterical ideologues on “Crossfire” and denounced by the person in question on “Larry King Live.” Then Warner Bros. will produce a movie about it (music provided by its stable of singer-songwriters) and Little Brown will publish it and AOL members will chat about it. The chosen topic is news because AOL sez so. You may be seated.

 

So we’re in trouble, as White would say.

 

In the days following Sept. 11th, much was written about the horror that had enveloped the United States that morning. I read essays by John Updike and Susan Sontag, columns by Maureen Dowd and Christopher Hitchens. Like many people, my insatiable need to know what-the-/how it/why it happened was constant. I read even rumors, one of which was featured on the Times' web site, on the NYPD's fantastically lucky break in finding one of the terrorist's passport among the ruins in New York. The wretchedness of that day was described weakly, inanely in the major media. "It was like a movie," so many people said, because Hollywood – not press coverage of the world – is the epicenter of knowledge, the institution of higher learning, the reference librarian for life. Correspondingly, headlines shrieked "Terrorist attack," "America under attack," "Terror!" and even resorted to the six-decade old speech "Day of Infamy.”

 

The imagination by media titans had come up against an event so nameless in its malevolence they were rendered inarticulate. Without greater insight into why many countries want to bring down the U.S., beyond that the terrorists were “evil doers,” a nation soon reverted to collective nostalgia (a 1940s-style almost grave Oscar presentation with the men in black, women in unadorned simply cut long dresses) and formed a $200M herd to watch “Sum of All Fears,” as if they hadn’t just about lived it a few months before.

 

As a journalist, I counted on related stories to appear but they didn’t; mainstream media echoes itself along the same valley of news. There was a hopeful time when some of us thought that the Internet would bring the world closer, not just by making it easy for someone from Japan to buy a CD by Ricky Martin on Amazon.com, but because small – not only big – stories also reveal communities and countries. The belief that news has to interest Aunt Louise in Idaho is the only news worth telling is wrong a dozen ways. I believe in pleasing Aunt Weezie, as well as many other kinds of readers. The press continues to fortify frontiers by not crossing them unless something terrible has happened, but only for a short while. We are as far away from each other as ever despite an awesome technology that can tear down these walls.

 

Worsening matters, the Bush administration continues to take cruel advantage of Americans’ fear. Like schoolyard bullies they bluntly knocked down civil rights that took years of relentless pursuit to establish. Bookshops now must submit client lists and what they buy to the FBI without question. You are guilty until you can disprove you are not. You can be tried in a secret court without the aid of a lawyer, without the benefit of your peers distilling contradictory claims made about you or the press reporting on what is going on in there. We are in danger even within our own political system.

 

I look for words that make sense, beyond the clichés of the day, the frightful warnings, the decadence of greed. I went to my bookshelf and back in time to White's plain-spoken manner, itself a soothing truth. I picked up "Letters of E.B. White" and "Essays of E.B. White" and through his measured sentences to convey a day at his farm, growing old, or what he thinks journalism is about after all, I found, again, that this eloquent warrior wrote for the ages. In 1949 he composed a defining essay called "Here is New York":

The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition... This race – this race between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man – it sticks in our all heads. The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of non-violence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.

 

White's essays tendered a kind of consolation after Sept. 11th, maybe not enough but with enough nuance to make me think as if someone had handed me a folded flag to ease my sadness.

Copyright 2002 Natalia Muñoz