News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

October 6, 2013

‘Writing is an act of faith ...’ Visiting writer E.B. White, in Brooklin, Maine

Editor’s Note: Today, we’re back on the road with Mike Lunsford for the third installment of his “New England Journal.” In November, head to Cambridge, Mass., and a tour through poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Craigie House.

BROOKLIN, MAINE — This town of 820 souls sits in the middle of a wonderful nowhere, its craggy toes dangling from rock ledges that hover above the blue Atlantic. For a place that doesn’t seem to have much going on, it has plenty to see, so one day this summer, my wife and I, a week or so into our New England journey, hoped to find the home of writer E.B. White, who lived nearby for over half a century.

The road to White’s “saltwater farm” door is a narrow, winding bit of asphalt known as State Road 175 — also called Bay Road. Over what seemed to be a maze of humps and blind curves, we pointed our car southward toward Brooklin, thinking more than once that we had passed his place on the way into town.

But wanting to be certain, we cruised the rest of the way in to see if Mainers — I hope they pardon that expression, for I also call them “fortunate” to be living where they do — were as tight-lipped about White as I had heard they could be about all things, at least as far as strangers are concerned.

“Oh, his place isn’t open to the public,” I was told at the town’s library within a few seconds of inquiring there. “It’s privately owned, and besides no one is home; they’re out of town,” we learned.

In life, White was himself notoriously private, a trait that I admire nearly as much as his ability to wield his Underwood portable like a magic wand. Most may know him for the adventurous Stuart Little or a loyal pig named Wilbur, but I am an essay man, and without a doubt, White wrote the very best that I have read. “Writing is an act of faith, nothing else,” he once wrote. “And it must be the writer, above all others, who keeps it alive — chocked with laughter or with pain.”

White was, in fact, so private, that he would often avoid public gatherings altogether. In the introduction to a book of quotations she has compiled about her famous grandfather, Martha White relates a story about Roger Angell (the great baseball writer and E.B.’s stepson). Angell delivered the eulogy at White’s funeral, and said of E.B., “If he could have been here today, he wouldn’t have been here.”

Elwyn Brooks White was born in July 1899 in North Vernon, New York. The youngest of six children, he had an “uneasy” nature, a shyness that lent him a life-long aversion to public speaking and the pomp of fame, even when he was the object of its attention. His shyness by no means dulled his skills as an observer of things, and it wasn’t long before the quiet thin boy who disliked his name but did like spiders and mice (he often kept a pet mouse in his jacket pocket), barns and stables, boats and bicycles, was writing about what he saw. He was just 9 years old when he won his first writing award, it coming from “Women’s Home Companion.” By 1917 he was enrolled at Cornell University, where he studied under Will Strunk, whose classic, “The Elements of Style,” White re-edited decades later. It was also at Cornell that White, who earned the nickname, “Andy,” was writing for the university newspaper.

In 1925, White ended up at the then-new “New Yorker,” finding a writing niche, and eventually a wife (Katharine Angell, the already-married fiction editor) and literary partner there. Through the years, and 1,800 published pieces, many of them columns and essays that he wrote and posted long-distance from his Maine farm, “The New Yorker” was established as the best literary magazine in the country. White, along with his good friend, James Thurber, and the caustic Dorothy Parker, were among its luminaries.

By 1937, White had convinced Katharine that their farm north of Brooklin needed to be their permanent home. They had purchased the 40-acre spread four years earlier, and for most part, the Whites lived there, improving and working it, for the rest of their lives. There were interludes of commuting back and forth to New York — most notably the 15 years between 1942 and 1957 — but the Whites settled into an active life in Brooklin (Katharine was critical to the success of the library), working together to edit their “Subtreasury of American Humor,” raising chickens, and writing classic children’s books. Late in life, White told his friends that they were his happiest years.

We drove into Brooklin on a gray day, a bit of rain spitting on our windshield. I had read just enough about the Whites to know that I wanted to find the “Friend Memorial Library,” where Katharine had volunteered much of her time. I had hoped that we could take a walk around the farm too, just as a writer who inquired at the newer owner’s door was allowed to do several years ago, his account just one I read in preparation for our trip (the best short discussion of the writer’s life that I read is Hal Hager’s “About E.B. White,” found at the back of “Essays of E.B. White”).

Brooklin is a town with a long history: a place best known for barrel making and boat building and lobster canning. We drove past the library without knowing it, following the road into what looked like many small town main streets these days. Dropping down toward yet another split in the highway, we pulled up to a massive old green clapboard building, the “Odd Fellows” hall — built in 1896 in the Second Empire style — that was apparently undergoing major foundation repairs. Most of the attention at the time, however, was focused not on looking at bricks and mortar, but on the healthy clump of honeybees swarming under the eaves. We were there in time to watch a man being helped into a beekeeper’s helmet and gloves, a sure indication that the bees were soon to be on the move. The beekeeper’s helper doled out instructions that turned us back in the direction from which we came, and we soon crossed paths with the library, a proud “1912” boldly placed above its well-kept white doors. It is located almost nearly across from a tiny grocery that White frequented, I was told, after a brisk trip by bicycle into town from his farm.

Librarian Nancy Randall served as host; she confirmed that indeed we had passed the White home on the way into town — apparently, it is officially in North Brooklin — but then delivered the news to us that the owners no longer encouraged admiring pilgrims to knock on their door.

We were disappointed, of course, but understood, and we decided then and there that we’d respect the rules of the day. After all, White himself notoriously protected his privacy, once telling a reporter to write: “To discourage visitors, we hereby report that he [White] lives in a New England coastal town, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Cuba.”

Before we left Brooklin, Joanie engaged in librarian shop talk with Nancy, while I headed outside to visit the Circle of Friends Garden, dedicated to the memory of the Whites. The library, named for a major benefactor rather than the Quakers, is a beautiful place, as is the tiny garden that sits to its north, but I couldn’t enjoy a bench and its serenity there for long. Four young Brooklinites were hawking lemonade not 20 feet away. They were dangerously close to the road — at times in it, sloshing overfilled cups on their fingers — and Joanie emerged from the library with quarters in hand, so we could sample their wares. We soon learned that their names were Delia, Fiona (aptly named with her bright red hair), Henry and Cyrus, and we managed to get affirmation from them that they had all read White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” although Cyrus was sneaking peeks at a book — “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” — he’d just checked out.

A bit defeated, and not overly anxious to head back toward the pretty little town of Blue Hill (and a construction site headache) and Ellsworth, where we’d have an early supper, we visited the Whites anyway. Just out of town, we turned into the Brooklin Cemetery, and following the goodly librarian’s directions, promptly drove to its far back corner to find Katharine and Andy’s simple graves; their son, Joel, a noted boatmaker, is buried alongside. A few minutes later, we left them to the solitude they had always craved.

As we drove past White’s farm, we were tempted to steer into the drive and boldly knock on the door — for it appeared as though someone was there — to ask if we could walk through the barn, or even down to the cove to see if we could get a sense of what White felt and saw when he wrote of Charlotte and her extravagant web. Felt it he did, for it was said that he’d often tear up a bit as he read the book aloud to children. Instead, we pulled off to the side of the road, and I snapped just a single photo of the house from a respectable distance. From our vantage point, we saw very little, but that would have to do, and we headed north.

In his later years, after Katharine had passed and with his health in decline, White still trudged down to the water to write and daydream in the old boathouse that served him as both writing space and mooring place for his small sloop. He wrote in his masterful essay, “The Sea and the Wind that Blows,” “Waking or sleeping, I dream of boats — usually rather small boats under a slight press of sail.”

In his final year, Angell recalled that Joel would often read things aloud to the old man that White himself had written. White would listen intently to the end, then would ask his son who’d written the words. “You did, Dad,” Joel would answer.

“Well, not bad,” White added.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac” will be released this month.

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