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Notes on Our Times
by E. B. White
The estimable E. B. White
(The Elements of Style; Charlotte’s Web)
penned the essays contained in
Notes on Our Times a half century ago.
And yet...how timely they still are today.
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excerpts from four of the 23 essays.
An arresting quality in modern man is his attitude toward his natural surroundings,
a quality likely to get him in trouble and even shorten his stay on earth. He commonly
thinks of himself as having been here since the beginning—older than the crab—and
he also likes to think he’s destined to stay to the bitter end. Actually, he is
a late comer, and there are moments when he shows every sign of being an early leaver—a
patron who bows out after a few gaudy and memorable scenes. It is entirely in keeping
with man’s feeling about nature that when he suddenly notices his drinking fountain
losing pressure, he should ascend to heaven and beat a cloud over the ears. Petulance,
coupled with insatiable curiosity, and the will to dominate. “Somebody doesn’t want
it to rain, I take it,” said the Mayor, while the lightning played all around his
Up early this day, trying to decide whether or not to bequeath our brain to our
alma mater, which is making a collection of such stuff. It struck us as odd that
the decision will have to be made by the brain itself and that no other part of
us—a foot or a gall bladder—can be in on the matter, although all are,
in a way, concerned. Our head is small and we fear that our brain may suffer by
comparison if arranged on a shelf with others. Spent part of the morning composing
an inscription to go with our brain, but all we got was this:
Observe, quick friend, this quiet noodle,
This kit removed from its caboodle.
Here sits a brain at last unhinged,
On which too many thoughts impinged.
The miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the
hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart—over so many years,
through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts
and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting
and triumphant, at the end of confusion. We once went out at night with coon-hunters
and we were aware that it was not so much the promise of the kill that took the
men away from their warm homes and sent them through the cold shadowy woods, it
was something more human, more mystical—something even simpler. It was the
night, and the excitement of the note of the hound, first heard, then not heard.
It was the natural world, seen at its best and most haunting, unlit except by stars,
impenetrable except to the knowing and the sympathetic.
We commend to historians the steer wrestler who has been commuting between Chicago
and New York by plane, in order to throw steers in the rodeos of both cities. In
this pendulous cowboy, if cowboy is the word for him, our century comes to a sort
of head: the winged ranch hand, his eye on two steers at once, and the steers a
thousand miles apart yet capable of being thrown by the winged, neither steer needing
to be thrown, each existing only to be thrown. The cowboy rises from the head of
the fallen animal, dusts the seat of his pants, walks stiff-legged to the waiting
airliner. The spectators, yearning for the open West and its herds of cattle on
the ranges, rise from their mezzanine seats, stiff-legged, dust off their unfulfilled
desires, walk to the exits.
© Allene White. Excerpted from Notes on Our Times by E.B. White.
llustrations by Edward Barbini. Levenger Press, 2007.