First published in 1942, One Man's Meat has been in print almost without interruption. Now these classic essays on Maine life have come home to roost with a Maine publisher. E. B. White began this collection as a series of pieces for Harper's when he left New York City and moved to a saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine. His observations on town meetings, poultry, the weather, songbirds, com-post, taxes, war, winter, and much more will resonate just as strongly today--to anyone attuned to Maine life--as they did more than half a century ago.
“While the old wars rage and the new ones hang like hawks above the world, we, the unholy innocents, study the bulb catalogue and order one dozen paper-white Grandiflora Narcissus (60 cents) to be grown in a bowl of pebbles. To the list my wife made out I have added one large root of bleeding heart to remind us daily of wounded soldiers and tortured Jews.” (14)
Let’s look at catalogues, oh by the way there is this awful thing going on and you should think about that! He used this technique successfully, in my opinion, throughout the text. Of everything I read during this period, the craft of this text impressed me the most (which surprised me because I did not like Charlotte or Stuart). In places it appeared stream of consciousness, while in others crisp journalistic prose. In no situation did he seem to not be in control of the writing.
White’s original/intended audience likely didn’t read his work as critically, or perhaps as writers would. White offers his reader a lot of carrots. A “regular” reader of his work in Harpers may come to expect a level of politics in his essays—because, at least at this point in his writing, it is present more often than not. White had to have been aware of that.
In my opinion, White is a consummate writer. It appears, over the distance of sixty years, that he was concerned about his audience. He is both eloquent and economic in his use of the language. He has shown amazing discipline, craft-wise. He didn’t send me searching for obscure references, I wasn’t lost in a maze of footnotes, reading dictionary in hand, working to decipher meaning, there were precious few dead-ends in the text, and I wasn’t left asking why. Occasionally, I checked a World War II timeline – to refresh my memory as to the order of events (I remember being surprised at how early he was writing about the Holocaust in an American publication)—but it was strictly for my own edification—such clarity was not necessary for the content of any specific essay.
One can see the future writer of children’s books in many of the essays. His use of vivid imagery is, to me, amazing – who couldn’t see those peeps/chicks huddled up in overcoats? Or a crazed over-stimulated dog? Or even a trailer park in the Keys? He didn’t show us anything – he immersed us in it: the sights, smells, feels and the emotional impact of each situation. And yet, he rarely loses the context of the larger world around him—this is the approach most successful writers of juvenile literature write.
I think we lose something if we don’t read for the beauty in a piece—what is meaning without beauty, even if that beauty is terrible (as Yeats suggests). When the artistry is completely removed we end up with Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and not Bernini’s Trevi Fountain (1629) in Rome. Over time bold political statements fade away and all that remains is the beauty.
As to “One Man’s Meat”, what White is saying is there is no such thing no matter how far one works to remove themselves from the whole – we are all in this together. He comes back to this over and over again in some very subtle ways, in hunting, in school trips, in helping his neighbor with the sick ewe, in taking the government subsidy (and thus connecting himself to a larger structure). Even in the beginning with the $450 turkey – he is acknowledging that we are interdependent. We depend on our community as individuals – and nations must depend on a world community. In “The Practical Farmer” he acknowledges that his taste in meat (so to speak) may not be for everyone—and that it does take an outside income to survive.
It is important to remember that these essays originally appeared in 3-4pg segments. Two-hundred-seventy-five pages of farming, fishing, and foreign affairs might seem overwhelming – four pages might not. This text successful as a whole.
Since these essays coincided with WWII, it was a topic that was very much on E.B. White's mind so many of these essays are about war vs. peace, freedom, democracy, diplomacy and foreign relations, uniting with other countries, patriotism, etc. But during this time in White's life, he, his wife Katherine, and their children, all packed up and moved to a small coastal town in Maine where he started keeping sheep, chickens, and some pigs and eventually a cow. White grows vegetables, does some boating and makes his own boat, and goes hunting. There are many essays about city life vs. country life since he mostly lives in Maine but his family still makes regular trips into New York City. The essays almost alternate being about something farm-related and then something political but many times the topics interweave.
I think White was very prescient and much smarter and more literary than he gave himself credit for in many of the interviews he did. It was obvious from One Man's Meat that he was a reader. White read very widely including newspapers, magazines, the children's books his wife got from publishers, farming manuals, dog training guides, Mein Kampf, some Charles Darwin and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, new books that were coming out at that time about WWII, poetry, etc. I have almost a full notebook page of the writers and books he referenced. And White made a few predictions about what would happen in the U.S. in the coming years some of which have came true and some of which haven't although some of it is debatable.
I honestly wasn't expecting to like this book as much as I did but it's just a treasure trove of insights and great writing. I can't wait to read more E.B. White essays.