[White wrote a lot about death, but he also celebrated the world’s beauty.]

E. B. White captured farming’s mythic pull and practical difficulty.

There is no doubt about it, the basic satisfaction in farming is manure, which always suggests that life can be cyclical and chemically perfect and aromatic and continuous.—E.B. White, One Man’s Meat

[“Andy” White and friend.]

During the years I worked on Shepherd: A Memoir, I learned that literary folk interested in country matters wanted to know my agrarian pedigree was pure. Maybe that I had one. Those early draft-readers wanted assurance that I’d read Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. At first this irked me. Sure, I knew their work. Their writings on agriculture and American society have informed my thinking from early adulthood; Berry’s Jayber Crow is one of my all-time favorite novels.

But why was it crucial that I let readers of my story know that?

I wondered if they knew about Maine organic proponent Eliot Coleman; about Australian permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison; about Zimbabwe-born Allan Savory, whose Holistic Resource Management is the most profound treatise on conservation and human decision-making I’ve ever read.

As it was, Shepherd explored my boyhood hero worship of Ohio farm memoirist Louis Bromfield; and my being influenced as a practitioner by Bromfield’s more pragmatic eco-farming successor, Joel Salatin; and my discovery of Charles Allen Smart’s classic memoir, RFD, set in the same region where I ended up struggling to become a farmer. Plus my day job was in publishing, so there was plenty more about books in my memoir.

I finally decided that concerns about my literary lineage were a kind of backhanded praise. As if those readers were saying, “This book is by a writer, not just some farmer.” So I dutifully mentioned Berry and Jackson.

Now it strikes me as odd that nobody mentioned E.B. White (1899–1985).

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true farmer and a good writer. White was both.


As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.—E.B. White, “The Ring of Time”

E.B.White-One Man's MeatI reread One Man’s Meat years ago, about the time I started my own book. I saw that White, a genuine man of letters, was farming on a significant scale for the times. His place was no gentleman’s hobby farm. Or not merely that. Thus he’d earned genuine insights into the mythic pull and the practical difficulty of farming.

It wasn’t until recently, when I read White’s newest biography, Michael Sims’s The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, that I learned he had a full-time hired man. I didn’t have sense enough to get a helper myself until I’d gotten seriously injured in a farming accident. White had grown up with servants, in a Victorian manse near Long Island Sound, and he and his wife kept several folks on their payroll. She edited and he wrote, both stalwarts and stars for decades at the New Yorker, and for years they commuted between their Maine coast farm and Manhattan.

Sims’s biography is great on the writer’s early years. White grew up in an orderly, affluent world, with two loving parents. His father ran a company that made musical instruments, and adored his youngest child, Elwyn Brooks White: “Oh, the joy, the joy of my little boy; we have lots of good times together.” As for little Elwyn, he was both artistic and outdoorsy. Also: anxious, terrified, sickly, and melancholy. The kid was a hot mess. Having been a similar child myself, I now identify with him even more.

White made good use of his thin-skinned temperament, which fuels his writing and courses in an elegiac vein through it. Only a sensitive soul could have crafted this lovely line, from One Man’s Meat: “I am always humbled by the infinite ingenuity of the Lord, who can make a red barn cast a blue shadow.” (While working at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, I titled one of our P.L. Gaus Amish mysteries Cast a Blue Shadow.) It’s striking how much of White’s work, including his famous essay “Once More to the Lake,” is about death. This preoccupation was balanced by his love of the city’s busy workaday world and of nature close at hand. Many of us share his adoration for birds and dogs. A few of us see how genuinely he appreciated humble livestock.

And White is the only prominent farmy writer I’ve read who mentions something else we sadly share: allergies. Hay fever is a particularly cruel and ironic affliction for a farmer. White’s description in One Man’s Meat of his periodic malaise could be my own in ragweed season. Writing so personally has kept White’s work fresh, whereas Bromfield’s farm adventures, still hugely enjoyable, have taken on a sepia cast.

I wish during my memoir-writing I’d reread White’s “Death of a Pig,” a fine essay that appeared after those collected in One Man’s Meat. Here’s its famous opening paragraph:

I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.

“Death of a Pig” bares a timeless dilemma of animal husbandry: tending and heroically ministering to animals that one day you’re going to betray. That jarring shift in roles from nurturer to killer shocked and troubled me as a farmer—I write about it in Shepherd. So here’s a case where my invoking an agrarian-writer forefather would have been highly appropriate. Dang.

Beyond its compelling content, there are writing lessons in “Death of a Pig.” There’s the humor, which takes the curse off this story of death, makes it more entertaining than harrowing. And the humor signals the perspective of a wiser narrator, a survivor who is invoked and mocked at the same time. And who fearlessly gives away the game at the start—the pig died—because he’s come not just to tell the tale but to inform us of the incident’s deeper meaning. White is witty without seeming too pleased with himself; his sentences are strong without feeling ostentatious.

As in his other work, White’s artistry—in the form of persona, style, and narrative structure—shields “Death of a Pig” from the implicit “Why should I read your story?” challenge that haunts personal nonfiction. His material is always solid, his rhythms pleasing, but it’s his wry view of himself and his situations that may be his most effective move in making art from experience.


After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.— Charlotte’s Web

E.B. White = Charlotte's Web

 I owe E. B. White a personal debt, too, though that story didn’t make my book either. One day when we were living on our farm in southeastern Ohio, my son, then in fourth grade, came home upset. Fighting back tears, he said, “I’m going to die.” He meant one day, which was worse to deal with, for him and for me, than some passing irritation. Years later, I can’t forget that moment in our family room. Sunlight fills the windows, the green world burgeons outside, and we stand looking at each other. His precocious despair robbed me of easy words. The moment lasted forever—in my mind’s eye we’re paused there still—but my response arrived in an instant.

What I did was turn from his swollen face and pop in a videotape. It was the animated Charlotte’s Web, a Hanna-Barbera musical released in 1973, the year of my graduation from high school, way down in Florida, where I’d grown up grieving my father’s loss of our family farm. My grabbing the movie seemed instinctive, and later it puzzled me—I hadn’t yet read the book and had watched the movie without conscious assessment. Now I can see why I did it. Wilbur barely escapes his intended destiny of becoming bacon. And his aging spider friend Charlotte does expire, though her story continues with her renewal in the form of baby spiders. Rebirth is her final gift as Wilbur gains three new friends from among her 514 offspring.

Friendship is the novel’s suggestion for coping with the death part of the life cycle. It does make a world of sense, if you need to justify fellowship, because people surely do need people. As Woody Allen puts it in his play Don’t Drink the Water, “Life is an adventure you go through with someone you care about.” Charlotte’s Web adds, And if you’re able, fill the world with new allies—procreate. That’s what I’d done.

But my and Charlotte’s reproductive solution wasn’t a relevant strategy for my nine-year-old son. So showing him the video now seems lame—why not question him, hug him, reveal something? Yet in the midst of my comparatively complacent middle-aged life, standing before him blank and panicky, I seized upon Charlotte’s Web.

I’d have a better answer today, I think. But maybe not, in the moment.

White’s magical story was relevant. So I thank him for helping me out of a parental jam. But then E.B. White, as an artist, was so nicely balanced between that hypersensitive life-loving pig and that tough-minded creative spider.

[White once gave an interesting interview to The Paris Review, which I excerpted here. The New York Times ran his obituary.]


  • Richard, This article moved me so deeply that I truly believe I have to say that it is–among all the many articulate and evocative articles you’ve written–my favorite (so far) and one I love. E. B. White is passingly familiar to me as the author of bits and pieces I’ve read, and mainly of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” which was a gospel guide my undergraduate years, but you have in one fell swoop made me aware of the man as a complete human being, and shown me how woefully undereducated I really was about him. Now I feel that I want to do some research on him and find out more, much more. And there is no better feeling than that to have about another’s work, both yours and his. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and the top of my mind!

    • Richard says:

      You are so gracious, Victoria. I am truly pleased and rather humbled by your response. And I must say, you do have some pleasure ahead of you vis a vis Mr. White’s opus. I think you might enjoy his collected essays. His range was great. Three great ones that can be found on line are “Death of a Pig,” “Once More to the Lake,” and the rather astounding “The Ring of Time.”

      By the way, my publisher has just agreed to use his quote about manure that heads this post as the epigraph for one of my book’s sections! So I feel I am making up somewhat for not mentioning him in the text of my memoir.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Lovely, lovely. I too love E. B. White and enjoyed “Death of a Pig” when a friend shared it with me. “Once More to the Lake” is one of those essays I taught in Expository Writing that has embedded itself in my heart. I’ve forgotten almost all the others.

    I enjoyed your annoyance of being asked to prove your agrarian literary bonafides.

    And I sympathize with the frustration of not being able to include every good thing in a book.

    BTW, I recommend sending this essay to your son. And it’s never too late to give him that hug. Beautiful image of the two of you facing the reality of death together in a sun-filled farmhouse.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Shirley! I have shared it with my son. Who went in search of his own answers—he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy, won a Fulbright to study Kierkegaard in Denmark, got a master’s in intellectual history at Cambridge, and this fall entered a PhD program in sociology. I’m much more interested now in what he thinks than what I do.

      I know you can relate to the stuff left on the cutting-room floor. Can’t any writer, especially if she’s published a book? I am at that phase where I suddenly panic and wonder if XYZ did get in. Mostly it did, because my book is kind of long, but there are some bits—like this, really—that I am working into stand-alone essays.

  • I’d have to write a whole essay, or two, to respond adequately to this (and perhaps I will some day). For now, my sincere, “Thank you and well done,” will have to suffice. I’d hate to have to stop reading your blog for the reason that I too frequently allow you to distract me from my own pursuits–so I’m printing this out and putting it in that file that says “someday,” with the knowledge that I actually do get around to working through most of those ideas, eventually.

    Have you asked your son how he felt about your response to his sorrow (or whether he remembers that moment)? My hunch is, the video was exactly what he needed. Most nine-year-old boys I’ve known don’t really want their parents to yak at them with wordy explanations, or even too make much of their heartaches by coddling and cuddling them. Your response showed that you heard and understood, which is all most of us ever want from the people we share our heartfelt feelings with. My sons watched that version of Charlotte’s Web a zillion times (and so did I).

    One more thing: my husband keeps asking me for reading suggestions. Now that he’s retired and has undistracted time on his hands, he spends hours every day making up for the many years when he was consumed with running a business and simply couldn’t free his mind up to escape the work-a-day world with an imaginative book. He has a very finicky taste in subject matter and absolutely no patience for mediocre writing. He does not find sensationally graphic descriptions of the more vulgar side of life in the least bit entertaining (he finds them vulgar), and he detests blatant proselytism in any form. I’m running out of ideas.

    But of course, I hadn’t thought of E.B. White! Ken will love the whole opus, including the children’s literature (surprisingly, he turns out to be quite a fan of well-crafted children’s chapter books). So, for this tip, I thank you kindly.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Tracy. I see your point about what I did, and think I may develop this into an essay in which I am a little less hard on myself. My response seems lame to me now because I imagine my later crystalized own form of faith would be more comforting to him. But when I try to imagine explaining my beliefs to a child, whew.

      The funny thing about that incident is that what he really remembers is my wife’s response. Because as soon as she got home, I unloaded the problem on her! She got upset and emotional trying to explain how she deals with death. When we discussed this recently, he said that was the day he saw his parents as human.

      I just watched the new movie of Charlotte’s Web and it’s pretty good, a solid three stars, but that old animated version on videotape (not sure about the quality of its transfer to DVD; have heard it is poor) is a solid four stars. It is so faithful to the book, richly evocative, and the songs add so much.

      Now White hated it, for those songs. But a writer isn’t always right about the movie made from his book. For my money, the films made from To Kill a Mockingbird and Fried Green Tomatoes are both somewhat better than the books, which drag a bit to me. But in any case, as the recent Gatsby movie shows, to be faithful to a book sometimes requires a filmmaker to seemingly depart from it a tad. A straight telling of Charlotte’s Web might’ve seemed too sober and pious, whereas the musical numbers address the story’s gravity, give it emotional depth, and emphasize the novel’s themes of the world’s beauty and the importance of friendship.

      • I agree that the songs added immensely to the animation.

        And I think book writers probably should not see the films of their books (unless they’re also gifted screenwriters, but I don’t know any novelists who also do great screenplays). A novel usually can’t, in my opinion, be very authentically translated into a film in any kind of way that will please its author. It can, however, inspire a great film that evokes what the novel evokes.

        Oh, dear, this is threatening to get snarled. I’d better stop tangling this thread.

        • Richard says:

          Thanks for the followup, Tracy—I actually just found your comment in spam, which I haven’t been checking, and haven’t a clue why it went there. Anyway, glad you agree the songs add a lot. I want to see it again, but we don’t really have a tape player and I’m uncertain whether to try the DVD transfer . . .

  • You have paid tribute to a great man of letters in E.B. White, a favorite of many readers. Written with admiration and a sense of respect and dignity, you have shared a lovely essay on writing and writers.

  • Olga says:

    I love “Death of a Pig”, too. It’s on my list of unforgettable essays/short stories along with “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote and Arthur Miller’s “Beavers.”

    Thank you, Richard, for your wonderful essay and the lovely weekend evening I had watching “Charlotte’s Web.”

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