Posted tagged ‘Battle For France’

Quote for the Day — Weekend E. B. White edition

May 31, 2008

“Proposition: The duty of a democracy is to know then what it knows now.”

— E. B. White.

White is now probably mostly known as the author of glorious children’s books — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan for three — but in the day he was recognized for the brilliant essayist he was. To get a sample, check out the collection, One Man’s Meat, still in print more than half a century after it was first published, is both a delight and, quietly, surreptiticiously, one of the best guides to writing well I know.

The quote above comes from that collection, an essay called “Compost.” It was written, White tells us, four days into the battle for France in 1940. It is at once his meditation on what could, should, one hoped had been done to prevent matters from ever getting to that pass, and an homage to one of true laureates of American literature, Don Marquis.

It’s a tricky, complex essay, seemingly a grab bag of occasional thoughts, actually a very carefully composed whole. White could really write.

Like all writing worth reading, there is a bite inside the apparently simple prose and argument, one that leaps out now: to intervene, to preempt or not. It’s a great piece. Seek it out.

And by the way — if anyone thinks that the author of Charlotte’s Web isn’t tough enough for such stuff, consider this quote from the same essay. White was moved to write the piece, he says, when he joined a club called “Friends of the Land,” — to celebrate which event he proposes to drag his chair up to his compost heap to give him a place to go “whenever I feel sociable and friendly to the land.”

A couple of paragraphs down, he shifts focus:

So great is the importance attached to news from abroad even my club intends to have foreign correspondents. I should imagine today would be a discouraging day for the northern France correspondent of Friends of the Land. The organic matter now being added to French soil is of a most embarrassing nature. Until we quit composting our young men we shall not get far with a program of conservation.

Oh yes.

Image: Anonymous, photograph of World War I military graves in the Alsóvárosi cemetery in Pápa, Hungary. Licensed under a Gnu Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Source: Wikimedia Commons.