Monday, December 16, 2019

Matthew Vollmer: On the Enduring Power of E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

When I asked my friend Kevin Moffett, author of Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, if he had any suggestions about the kinds of essays I should assign for a Creative Nonfiction class, he suggested E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Boring, I wrote back, not because I’d read it recently but because I’d remembered having seen it in so many anthologies over the years, especially those that I’d used when teaching freshman composition. In fact, if the anthology in question included a section on “Personal Essays,” you could bet that “Once More to the Lake” would appear there. Even though I’d only read it a time or two, it felt like an overly familiar choice—traditional, maybe even a bit stuffy. The arcane diction of its title had always struck me overly wistful, a phrase that might be spoken by a pensive aristocrat in a film from the 1940s: Let us go then, you and I… Once more to the lake. Moreover, the essay’s ubiquitous appearance in dozens 20th century lit anthologies made me presume that undergrads in a creative writing class would surely have encountered it before and might roll their eyes at the idea of being asked to read it again (not that they wouldn’t roll their eyes no matter what I assigned). But Kevin persisted. “You might overestimate how many of them have read it,” he said. “I think people think it's old-fashioned, which is a shame, because it's really, really good.”
     Before I talk about “Once More to the Lake,” let me talk about some things about E. B. White that I discovered after entering his name into a search engine. The “E. B.” in his name stands for “Elwyn Brooks.” Thankfully, the universe mercifully decided against calling ol’ E.B. “Elwyn,” as he was eventually dubbed “Andy,” a nickname given to any male with the last name “White” who happened to be matriculating through Cornell University at the time, in honor of the university’s founder, Andrew White.
     White was remembered as shy and reserved. In a Paris Review “Art of the Essay” interview, Mr. White has this to say about himself:
As a child, I was frightened but not unhappy. My parents were loving and kind. We were a large family (six children) and were a small kingdom unto ourselves. Nobody ever came to dinner. My father was formal, conservative, successful, hardworking, and worried. My mother was loving, hardworking, and retiring. We lived in a large house in a leafy suburb, where there were backyards and stables and grape arbors. I lacked for nothing except confidence. I suffered nothing except the routine terrors of childhood: fear of the dark, fear of the future, fear of the return to school after a summer on a lake in Maine, fear of making an appearance on a platform, fear of the lavatory in the school basement where the slate urinals cascaded, fear that I was unknowing about things I should know about. I was, as a child, allergic to pollens and dusts, and still am. I was allergic to platforms, and still am. It may be, as some critics suggest, that it helps to have an unhappy childhood. If so, I have no knowledge of it. Perhaps it helps to have been scared or allergic to pollens—I don’t know.
In the same essay, White confesses that: “I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.”
     I perked up here. Although I love to read, I don’t think I’ve ever been “voracious” about it, either. Even so, it’s not something I see many writers admitting. It seems like we writers would rather give the impression that we’re gobbling up books as fast as we can get our hands on them.
     White had a number of things to say about writing, including: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
     Hard to argue with that, I thought.
     About discipline, he says:
There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.
     I also came across a letter he wrote to a young girl referred to as “Miss R.” and reproduce it here in its entirety. Bear with me, because I think it has some wisdom to impart upon young writers.
Dear Miss R—: 
At seventeen, the future is apt to seem formidable, even depressing. You should see the pages of my journal circa 1916. 
You asked me about writing--how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published, save for a couple of short items in St. Nicholas. If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing, write about it. A great deal of writing is not "plotted"--most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, "Who cares?" Everybody cares. You say, "It's been written before." Everything has been written before.  
I went to college but not direct from high school; there was an interval of six or eight months. Sometimes it works out well to take a short vacation from the academic world--I have a grandson who took a year off and got a job in Aspen, Colorado. After a year of skiing and working, he is now settled into Colby College as a freshman. But I can't advise you, or won't advise you, on any such decision. If you have a counselor at school, I'd seek the counselor's advice. In college (Cornell), I got on the daily newspaper and ended up as editor of it. It enabled me to do a lot of writing and gave me a good journalistic experience. You are right that a person's real duty in life is to save his dream, but don't worry about it and don't let them scare you. Henry Thoreau, who wrote Walden, said, "I learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." The sentence, after more than a hundred years, is still alive. So, advance confidently. And when you write something, send it (neatly typed) to a magazine or a publishing house. Not all magazines read unsolicited contributions, but some do. The New Yorker is always looking for new talent. Write a short piece for them, send it to The Editor. That's what I did forty-some years ago. Good luck.  
E. B. White 
(Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition, edited by Martha White, HarperCollins, 2006).
     What struck me about “Once More to the Lake” this time around was 1). its commitment to simplicity and clarity, and 2). its ability to harness the energies of nostalgia and yearning and use them as a kind of propulsive engine. Memory is nothing if not mobile—what I mean is that it can and often does go wherever it wants, stringing along association after association, and though “Once More” is obviously structured in deliberate ways, it gives the reader the exhilarating sensation of movement from one glorious spectacle to the next.
     Also, the prose is active but never, I don’t think, showy: White wants to take his son with him because he’s apparently never spent time at a lake in the woods. But instead of simply stating that, he zeroes into a specific and elemental action in the phrase “never had any fresh water up his nose”— it’s description embedded in the suggestive nature of action. And the line about the son who had “seen lily pads only from train windows” evokes the natural world as seen from a distance. Those seven simple words conjure the image of a boy, the interior of a train, a window framing wetlands, and the image of those lily pads, fleeting and remote.
     Sensory details, like the lake and campsite and surrounding words themselves, are resonant and effective because they are presented, I’d argue, with clarity, simplicity, economy, and precision. In describing the cabin, White says, “I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.” “Lumber” is a choice word here, nice to say, and adequately conveys—to me, anyway—the rustic-ness of the cabin, as does the scent of “wet woods” entering through the window screen. This is a writer who knows the power of the right word, and deploys language in a controlled manner that nevertheless feels effortless.
     There’s a strong sense in returning to the lake that nothing has changed for our narrator—in the fourth paragraph, after the dragonfly lands on the his rod, we are told that this event “convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” In the next sentence, the narrator uses the word “same” five times and ends the next paragraph with the phrase “there had been no years.”
     And yet, there had. Things were the same, but different. Before, there were inboard motorboats. Now: outboard. Before, the narrator had been a son: now, he’s a father. It is this ever-present duality—the paradox of time passing and time seeming simultaneously to stand still—that generates tension and thus a palpable “alive-ness” to the essay. At the end, after the climactic storm—a terrifying spectacle rendered in the pleasant, if not ultimately safe, language of a musical performance—when the father watches his son “wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment,” the father’s own groin suddenly feels the “chill of death,” the essay takes a powerful turn.
It seems like such an unexpected ending for such a nice little nostalgic tale, doesn’t it? Father takes son to lake, enjoys motorboating and fishing and the smell of cabins and woods, but the defining moment occurs when his son dons on a cold, wet suit and the father identifies with the discomfort of that moment, and somehow it portends his own inevitable demise.
     The poet Wallace Stevens once famously wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty.” Another way of putting it might be that we’re only here in this life for a little while, and any honest meditation on the passage of time or on nature’s ephemeral splendor must also acknowledge that our own consciousness, however manifold and complex, is but a spark in the light of our universe. Part of the savoring of experience is the knowledge that each one is fleeting. It’s not always summer. We’re not always on vacation. And, like it or not, we won’t always be here.


Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as two collections of essays—inscriptions for headstones and Permanent Exhibit. He is the editor of A Book of Uncommon Prayer, which collects invocations from over 60 acclaimed and emerging authors, and is co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. He teaches creative writing and literature in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he is an Associate Professor.

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