E.B. (Elwyn Brooks) White

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From October 1938 to March 1943, E. B. White contributed a column to Harper’s Magazine called One Man’s Meat, which he wrote from his farm in North Brooklin, on the coast of Maine. “I have been making my living by describing my antics with sheep and poultry,” he wrote in 1941, “to an audience which appears to be half envious, half contemptuous.” Many of the essays, which also touched upon World War II, nationalism, and a single world government, were published as a volume in 1942. One Man’s Meat went on to win the Limited Editions Club’s Gold Medal, awarded every three years to the book considered most likely to attain the stature of a classic, and was briefly banned by the Army.

Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899, the prosperous second year of William McKinley’s presidency, in Mount Vernon, New York. “Pop was a golden man living in a golden age, doing it well,” he wrote to his brother Stanley in 1954, “and barely realizing that he was dumping six kids into an age of terror and destruction.”

In one of his earliest columns for Harper’s Magazine, White posited: “It must be a lot of fun to write for children—reasonably easy work, perhaps even important work.” His first children’s book, Stuart Little, was published in 1945, a year after he sought a doctor’s aid for having “mice in the subconscious”; Charlotte’s Web (1952) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1973) cemented his place in the canon. Soon after he ceased to write his monthly column for Harper’s Magazine, he complained of “sketchy health”: “I never realized nerves were so odd, but they are,” he wrote. “They are the oddest part of the body, no exceptions.”

Among his other works are the poetry collection The Lady is Cold (1929); a comic collaboration with James Thurber, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel The Way You Do (1929); Here Is New York (1949), which The New Yorker deemed “the wittiest essay, and one of the most perceptive, ever done on the city”; and a revision of William Strunk, Jr.’s popular English-language style guide, The Elements of Style (1959). White received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and in 1978 he won a Pulitzer Prize for “his letters, essays and the full body [of] his work.”

Article — From the October 1999 issue

At Walden Pond

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Readings — From the December 1985 issue

One man’s meat

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Wraparound — From the July 1975 issue

Wraparound

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Article — From the September 1960 issue

Saving radiance?

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One man’s meat — From the May 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Goose’s return

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Editor

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Interruptions

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Victory Corps

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Legislation

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Woollcott

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Anthologists

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One man’s meat — From the April 1943 issue

Seed potatoes

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One man’s meat — From the March 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the March 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the March 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the March 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the February 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the January 1943 issue

One man’s meat

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One man’s meat — From the December 1942 issue

One man’s meat

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I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

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I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

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The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

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The Red Dot·

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That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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