Reading dead white guys (DWGs) is passe, if not downright anti- this & that. Leave some Conrad or Mailer on your table, you’re surely a scoundrel. I base this loosely on schooling and past retail experience, the latter involving an intellectual comaraderie well-suited to judgment. In college, and largely still, I read a lot of current fiction.1 A healthy dose of these are Native American authors, owing to an inscrutable professor2 of that literature in college, who also turned me onto my other fiction-passion: Jews. I branch into other Eastern European authors, but at heart I want the Yid perspective. A course in comparative African literature left lingering interest in the literatures of that continent.3 So aside from some honkeys like DeLillo, O’Brien, Vonnegut, and Barth (I’ll leave Pynchon for Conan, out of deference), most of my reading post-college has been of authors like Szjkvldstykstzkskz.4
The above is unnecessary, really; my point follows. I was inspired to writing by Conan’s recent post about The Swan Thieves. While he described exiting a book in abject misery, really just giving up, I was, how should we say, in-the-text. I was living it up, wallowing in the Word. I didn’t want to rub C’s nose in it then (well, sort of), but he’s of thick hide it would seem. That specific Good Prose was Barth’s The Development which I recommend. Curiously, next I brought home a stack from my public library of E.B. White and John Cheever, white guys dead and buried both. I looked at them. What’s come over me, I thought? I turn 30 and look here. Looking back reveals a pattern. Over Christmas I crossed the ponde to scan some Wodehouse – gasp! Last summer I picked my way through Ten short modern novels, reading several authors notorious for lacking melanin but holding a y chromosome: Faulkner, Mann, Gide. And last winter, gobs of Stephen Crane (M verily forced it on me, but I loved it). Hmm, I wondered.
I promised a point; I’ll attempt delivery. Lately I’ve been in John Cheever’s Journals and E.B. White’s Letters & Writings from the New Yorker. I’ve never read any Cheever that I recollect. His covers are awesome, so here we are. The Journals interest me for several reasons. It’s the prose behind the prose, the ‘inner writing’ of a professional writer, that still reads on the page as professional and inspired writing. I guess that’s talent? It is interesting to glimpse what concerns a novelist in the day to day: money, family, writers’ block (writing well about writers’ block…), alcohol, sex. Other entries are splendid mini-stories, really sublime. Surely the journal is a writer’s device to aid creativity.
Now White. Again, save the children’s classics and his little grammar aid, I can’t recall reading any E.B. His prose is concise but not proud. There would seem little chance for self-deprication in such style, but it surfaces beautifully, and we see in White’s brevity humanity at once arresting, personal, and universal. Read ‘Hunger’ where the narrator bumps into an old friend starving himself to death because he’s increasingly paranoid about what lurks in our food. It’s absurd, but it reveals systemic societal paranoia, some founded some not. Kudos. Read ‘Tomorrow Snow’ where a diner waiter delivers heavy news:
“I’ve been listening to the radio,” he said. “Tomorrow snow, turning to rain.” He was a man carrying foreknowledge in his breast, and the pain was almost unbearable. We don’t remember a winter when people followed the elements so closely and when foreknowledge so completely destroyed any chance of momentary bliss.5
I nearly cried reading this late one night, after yet another day of scraping the frozen muck the plow spreads back across my driveway each morning. This has been a winter of great Sisyphean shoveling here. You’ll note I employed the same tactic as White, I envied it so: I nearly cried, like the waiter’s pain was almost unbearable. White belies a stoicism that attracts me. We suffer through, this is our predicament, all that jazz. Updike, another DWG, introduces the Letters and hints at a nervous condition that kept White on edge, or something like that. White’s New Yorker writings intimate this, from the food paranoia to a piece on dizziness. My Personal Private Affliction puts my world topsy-turvy too, leaves me reeling from the sun, and I delight in well-wrought prose capturing similar experience. Nothing is mentioned in White of migraine save for the odd ‘headache’ reference in letters. New Yorker editor Harold Ross allegedly said of Thurber and White, “Look at them, my two best writers, one can’t see to cross the street and the other is afraid to.”6 So I pretend a comrade and commiserate. Content aside, White’s prose, for those of us here at Literary Gibberish who revel in such matters, is downright breezy. Browse a passage and marvel at the space between words where you surely would have put words. ‘Omit needless words’ is a Strunk and White rule. Right ho!
Reading this stuff of late I am transcended, I am on a plane I can only describe– like earlier– as refreshingly in-the-text, a sort of formalist mind ill aware of the politics of DWGs nor any other critical meta whatnots. Reader, surely I lie– I earlier described White the humanist and hinted at a fictional narrator submerged in Cheever’s Journals; my training won’t be stymied. But this is pleasurable, heavenly, delightful reading so elegantly wrought that looking upon it is much like appreciating distinctly American furniture– far from lacking refinement in its understated forms and simple designs.
1 Mostly post-WWII, so comparably current in the span of English Letters.
3 Black, White, Afrikaaner esp.
4 Not real
5 Writings, 6.
6 Letters, photo insert.