essay canon dispatch no. 6 — “Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White (40’s)

image found here
image found here

So according to the CNF essay canon, this short and sweet piece by the scribe of grade school treasure CHARLOTTE’S WEB is THE essay of the 1940s. The author describes cherished memories of visiting a lake in Maine with his dad, and then later returning with his own son. The blurb on the webpage doesn’t do much to sell it at first, calling it

a nostalgia piece about fathers and sons, often serving as a prompt for a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay.

But there is something creepy and sinister working through the text. As i think about it, i cant settle on right model to get at what im feeling. Is it a wholesome on the surface with the skeeviness kept hidden? Or maybe a center-margin sort of thing, that is, while the body of the work is about safety and eternity and the glorious summers of youth, at the margins is encroaching destruction and death.

White’s writing voice is just so on point. It’s not only well-written and transporting, but just reading it has a relaxing effect. My hunch: it’s all the smells that he describes, of the swamp, the wooden cottages, the pines. Smell seems to be a distinct sensory input, whatever effects an odor might have seem more direct and intense for me compared to sound, sight, or tactility. Certain passages call forth a Norman Rockwell vision of white American security that might function as a literary emetic.

Something White describes through the text is this feeling of transposition or displacement, that he is becoming his son as he watches him enjoy the lake and the woods, and he becoming his father.

I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation.

i think whatever’s happening here is different from nostalgia. To my mind (actually Amy Elias’s work is what im using here), nostalgia is a recognition of the distance between the past and your present. It’s a bittersweet feeling that constructs perhaps not so much a desire to change the past and fix mistakes (like guilt or regret) but a desire for a stable sense of the past at all.

But here time is a actually congealing. Bodies are shifting, the lake is the same, it actually has not changed. The space between past and present has closed and all is one. It’s a very intense and sublime sort of moment.

The CNF canon article has it that the piece first appeared in Harper’s under an album called “One Man’s Meat.” Yeah, i giggled. And it’s appropriate given the very final image. Actually the whole final sequence is great, depicting a thunderstorm moving over the lake, in open language that evokes a symphonic percussion session, or a titanic calamity. White’s son pulls up his soggy trunks to revel in the storm, and the author’s “groin felt the chill of death.” Disaster is looming, perhaps the death that will come to us all, or maybe the rise of fascism and the violent century and world order his son is destined to inherit. In any event, perhaps our experiences can somehow go beyond our bodies, and another young lad will enjoy the lake, and the experience as an experience will be the same. A weird way to think about it.

This excerpt will actually focus on the differences that White notes, specifically the introduction of noisy motor boats. What struck me about this bit the most is the difference he emphasizes in the experience of time. As a child the wagon ride to the camping ground takes longer, and the anticipation and the duration make for a rewarding experience. The modern car trip is so fast and fleeting that it belongs in a parenthetical. im very much in agreement with this assessment. time, as it has been commodified and endlessly subdivided for the evil world of productivity and work, currently owned by our bosses. And whatever free time you do have goes too quickly. Time, unlike tea, is best enjoyed in gulps, not sips.

“Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White

It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving. There had been jollity and peace and goodness. The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pineladen air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden. (Arriving was less exciting nowadays, when you sneaked up in your car and parked it under a tree near the camp and took out the bags and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks.)

Peace and goodness and jollity. The only thing that was wrong now, really, was the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors. This was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving. In those other summertimes all motors were inboard; and when they were at a little distance, the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep. They were one-cylinder and two-cylinder engines, and some were make-and-break and some were jump-spark, but they all made a sleepy sound across the lake. The one-lungers throbbed and muttered, and the twincylinder ones purred and purred, and that was a quiet sound too. But now the campers all had outboards. In the daytime, in the hot mornings, these motors made a petulant, irritable sound; at night, in the still evening when the afterglow lit the water, they whined about one’s ears like mosquitoes. My boy loved our rented outboard, and his great desire was to achieve singlehanded mastery over it, and authority, and he soon learned the trick of choking it a little (but not too much), and the adjustment of the needle valve. Watching him I would remember the things you could do with the old one-cylinder engine with the heavy flywheel, how you could have it eating out of your hand if you got really close to it spiritually. Motor boats in those days didn’t have clutches, and you would make a landing by shutting off the motor at the proper time and coasting in with a dead rudder. But there was a way of reversing them, if you learned the trick, by cutting the switch and putting it on again exactly on the final dying revolution of the flywheel, so that it would kick back against compression and begin reversing. Approaching a dock in a strong following breeze, it was difficult to slow up sufficiently by the ordinary coasting method, and if a boy felt he had complete mastery over his motor, he was tempted to keep it running beyond its time and then reverse it a few feet from the dock. It took a cool nerve, because if you threw the switch a twentieth of a second too soon you could catch the flywheel when it still had speed enough to go up past center, and the boat would leap ahead, charging bull-fashion at the dock


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