Sunday, January 17, 2010

E.B. White and Mortality

I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a duel 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.

from Once More To The Lake, E.B. White

One of my favorite essays from high school English class. Read it again a few nights ago while packing up books for our upcoming move. It left an impression when I first read it, though I was primed for it having been an ardent fan of White's Charlotte's Web from 4th Grade on.

I don't know what I admire most about the essay. It's a gentle but never saccharine meditation on an old childhood vacation spot in Maine White's family would visit each August. And it's a deceptively gentle essay, plump with White's descriptive aplomb and storytelling gracefulness. But it's also a darkly ruminative meditation on the passage of time and mortality. It deals frankly with how one's memory for a cherished place or time and the nostalgia such things are inevitably seasoned with, are made sometimes to confront a raw and disparate present.

The essay is also one of the finest, most aspirational examples of how to employ foreshadowing effectively. There's a beautiful thunderstorm White describes at the end of Once More To The Lake that masterfully frames its final paragraph. It's the essay's ending, "the chill of death", that I remember the most.

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