The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “The Eye of Edna”


Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

E.B. White sent in dispatches to The New Yorker (and other magazines, but primarily The New Yorker) from his farm in Maine. He wrote about the rhythms of the seasons, he wrote about the “death of a pig,” (a famous essay, especially considering how iconic Wilbur the Pig would eventually be.)

charlottes web some pig

He wrote about nature, and watching the animals, and all of the little ups-and-downs of country life, and he did so without being precious, or “twee,” or gaga about his own purity of purpose (as some nature-lovers do). His pieces are practical, in many ways, and so well-drawn that you feel like you can see the house he shares with his wife in your mind’s eye. You can see the kitchen, the porch, the out-buildings, the nearby creek. His humor is always in operation, even in more thoughtful pieces. It’s not uproarious humor, but gentle observational humor, personal and understated. He’s an extremely unselfconscious writer. It’s certainly a “voice,” and it is his own, but it is not a self-conscious voice, a voice aware of being a voice, if that makes sense. That effect can only be achieved by a writer who knows what the hell he is doing. So many personal essays come off as performance-art pieces. Or there is a level of self-protection going on. Something. E.B. White seems clear as water. He’s not “up to” anything. Personal essay or no, they do not feel self-involved.

“The Eye of Edna” is a perfect example. Hurricane Edna (1954) was on the move, and he and his wife were in Maine, listening to its progression on the radio. The essay certainly shows that while the weather-obsession has gotten worse in our day and age, with a 24/7 weather channel, and Hurricane Hysteria at an all-time high (although with examples such as Katrina and Sandy in our recent memory, I certainly don’t think the hysteria is unwarranted), the same shit was going on in 1954, although on a smaller scale. The hurricane has not hit yet. And for a good 24 hours, the radio cannot stop the hurricane programming. E.B. White and his wife sit in their house, and it’s still clear skies, no storm yet, and they listen to the doom and gloom on the radio, the ridiculous “filler” put on the air, just to keep people tuned in. “Nothing to report, but still: KEEP PANICKING” is the overall message. Stuff that isn’t even local news is reported as ground-breaking, even though whatever is going on, rivers flooded, schools closing, is hundreds of miles away. Hurricane Edna was, indeed, a bad one, and it wreaked a lot of havoc.

E.B. White is mainly interested in his experience of the lead-up. The wary and strange in-between moment when the storm has not arrived yet but the mood on the radio is apocalyptic. I grew up in Rhode Island. I am a veteran of hurricanes. The destruction from the 1938 hurricane still haunts Rhode Island. It’s similar to those who grew up in twister territory, I imagine. 1954 is way way before my time but it’s a good and funny reminder that human nature doesn’t change all that much. We may just have more venues to broadcast our hysteria, but the hysteria has been there all along.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “The Eye of Edna.”

Back indoors, the storm, from which I had enjoyed momentary relief by taking a stroll in it, was on me again in full force – wild murmurings of advance information, almost impossible to make head or tail of. Edna’s eye was at sea, and so was I. The eye was in New Jersey. No, it was in Long Island. No, it was going to hit western Long Island or central Massachusetts. It was going to follow a path between Buzzards Bay and Nantucket. (This called for an atlas, which I produced.) All of New England will get the weaker part of the storm, but the Maine coast, “down Bar Harbor way,” can be hit hard by Edna late this afternoon. I bridled at being described as “down Bar Harbor way.”

Not only were the movements of the storm hard to follow but the voices were beginning to show the punchy condition of the poor, overworked fellows who had been blowing into their microphones at seventy miles per hour for so many hours. “Everything,” cried one fellow, “is pretty well battered down in Westerly.” I presumed he meant “battened down,” but there was no real way of knowing. Another man, in an exhausted state, told how, in the precious hurricane, the streets of Providence had been “unindated.” I started thinking in terms of unindated streets, of cities pretty well battered down. The wind now began to strengthen. The barometer on my dining-room wall was falling. From Rockland I got the “Top of the Farm News”: 850,000 bales of cotton for August; a new variety of alfalfa that will stand up to stem nematode and bacterial wilt; a new tomato powder – mix it with water and you get tomato juice, only it’s not on the market yet. Low tide will be at 4:23 this afternoon. The barometer now reads 29.88 and falling. A chicken shoot is canceled for tomorrow – the first chicken shoot I ever heard of. All Rockland stores will close at three o’clock, one of them a store carrying suits with the new novelty weave and novel button and pocket trim. If this thing gets worse, I thought, I’ll have to go outdoors again, even though they tell you not to. I can’t take it in here. At 1:55 p.m., I learned that visiting hours at the Portsmouth Hospital, two hundred miles to the southwest of me, had been canceled, and, having no friend there, I did not know whether to be glad about this or sorry.

The time is now two o’clock. Barometer 29.50 and falling. Wind ESE, rising. It seems like a sensible moment to do the afternoon chores – get them over with while the going is good. So I leave the radio for a spell and visit the barn, my peaceable kingdom, where not a nematode stirs.

When I resumed my vigil, I discovered to my great surprise that Rockland, which is quite nearby, had dropped Edna for the time being and taken up American League baseball. A Red Sox-Indians game was on, with the outfield (I never learned which outfield) playing it straight-away. My wife, who despises the American League, was listening on her set, and dialing erratically. I heard a myna bird being introduced, but the bird failed to respond to the introduction. Then someone gave the rules of a limerick contest. I was to supply the missing line for the following limerick:

I knew a young lady named Joan
Who wanted a car of her own.
She was a sharp kid
So here’s what she did
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The line came to me quickly enough: She ordered a Chevy by phone. I was to send this to Box 401 on a postcard, but I didn’t know what city and I wasn’t at all sure that it was a General Motors program – could have been a competitor. The whole thing made no sense anyway, as cars were at that moment being ordered off the roads – even Joan’s car.

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12 Responses to The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “The Eye of Edna”

  1. He’s so hilarious in his understated way. ‘Edna’s eye was at sea, and so was I.’ Simple, but not.

  2. I remember Edna. She happened a week after Carol, which traumatized the region, particularly Rhode Island. My brother and I were at our grandparents’ lake cottage on cinderblocks, which was dancing about merrily, and then the sun came out and the radio said we had been the “tail,” so we all packed up and drove back to Providence. It turned out we were in the eye. I remember thinking that the sight of people’s umbrellas turning inside out was hilarious. We made it back to the East Side okay. But elsewhere there was ruinous flooding, widespread destruction, and loss of life…which is why, when Edna started to bear down, everybody went batshit.

    I miss hurricanes.

    • sheila says:

      I love that you miss hurricanes – and Winner of the National Book Award SO GETS that crazy Rhode Island hurricane behavior!

      Wow, I didn’t know Edna had come so soon after Carol. Devastating.

  3. Yeah. Chip and I were at Johnson Pond in Coventry, surrounded by birch trees, and we should have stayed there, since if a birch tree falls on you it’s no big whoop. We drove past falling oaks to get to my grandparents’ apartment. Now I’m thinking we must have come through downtown just before the flood.

    Some day I will have to tell you about the hurricane at Camp Hoffman.

    • sheila says:

      Wow. There is nothing more hair-raising than the sound of an oak falling – that first split. I remember huddling in my parents’ house during Hurricane Gloria and hearing that sound outside. Our house is surrounded by oak trees. Luckily none of them fell on the house.

      Hurricane at Camp Hoffman sounds like an awesome edition of a Trixie Belden book or something. Camp Hoffman! I did some Girl Scout trips there. Before I quit Girl Scouts in a blaze of indignation at having to sew duffel bags.

  4. Rachel says:

    //I quit Girl Scouts in a blaze of indignation at having to sew duffel bags.//

    Hahaha! I was thrown out of girl scouts after I was summarily dismissed from a meeting for wearing non-regulation socks (and made an example of before the group as though we were in basic training) and made my displeasure known with some hopscotch chalk on the sidewalk outside the meeting. The f-word was deployed.

    • sheila says:

      hahahaha!! Bad-ass – I love it!!

      I just was not crafty. At ALL. I’m still not. I couldn’t tolerate that part of it, so finally I just walked out and never came back and my parents didn’t give me a hard time about it, thank goodness. I like your quitting story better. Hopscotch chalk! F-word!

  5. Rachel says:

    Believe it or not, my parents didn’t give me a hard time about it either. I came home enraged and crying angry tears about the scout leader’s humiliating me. I told my side of it and then the phone call came. I can’t remember much more. This scene was repeated–sort of–a generation later when my son went on some overnight trip with his class. He was goofing around and got called to the front of the class. One of the teachers made him hold a pushup while he berated him. My son complied for a while. Then stopped. There was no chalk available so he used his voice.

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, that is horrible. I am glad your son fought back with his voice. That is awful!

      I am shocked, in retrospect, that my parents let me quit. You know, “finish what you started,” etc., but I clearly had no interest in being there and was busy with drama club and writing novels about Andrea McArdle’s rise to fame – clearly I had many activities to keep me busy and happy.

  6. Rachel says:

    Obviously, a girl committed to telling the world about Andrea McArdle’s rise to fame has no time for sewing duffel bags.

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