“In the Words of E.B. White,” edited by the great essayist’s granddaughter, Martha, is a treasure trove of his writing — including his personal letters.
Although White has been gone for 35 years, I never fail to find something interesting, something well-written, something timely in it. Today was no exception.
Included in the collection is White’s often-quoted response to a man who had written to him in 1973 while White was still on the staff at “The New Yorker.” The letter-writer, a Mr. Nadeau, asked White what he thought the future held for the human race, for he felt the coming years were to be, at best, dismal, filled with despair and unhappiness.
I am presuming that many of us right now, in the midst of what we can conservatively call a mess, may tend to be just as pessimistic.
I share White’s response knowing that some of my readers may have already read it, but, like any good devotion, it’s worthy of looking at again. If you have never seen it, you will find hope in it, for the world now, although hotter and more crowded, really isn’t much worse off than it was nearly 50 years ago. Or even a century ago when we were digging our way out of a catastrophic world war and a deadly pandemic and considerable political upheaval. H
Humanity tends to ignore its own history, but gaining perspective on our current problems is one reason we should no longer make the subject sit in the back of the bus.
My editor may wonder if I plan to write much that is original here, but I have to include all of White’s response:
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread, and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But, as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
If I were still teaching this year (my respect goes out to those who are), White’s reply to Nadeau would be my first reading assignment and writing response; I think students would appreciate and identify with his perspective.
White’s letter rings true to me each time I read it, just as it did again last week after long-time friend Brad Byers sent a video to me that features the poet, Wendell Berry. Brad is an old soul of sorts who finds poetry and folk tales and songs great comforts in tough times; I guess he felt he needed to share “It’s Hard to Have Hope” with me.
The poem is long, but wise, and as he opens it, like a flower, Berry says that “It is hard to have hope,” and “it is harder as you grow old.” He writes: “You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality/of the future, which surely will surprise us,/and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction any more than by wishing.”
I have found it interesting that both White and Berry, who came from a tougher generation than mine and those after it, say essentially the same thing.
We’ll beat this pandemic, and we’ll get back to work; we’ll eventually learn that different colors of people can live side-by-side, and, hopefully, we’ll begin to take better care of the planet before it is too late. It won’t be easy, just like beating back the Great Depression and Nazi oppression and the fascist thinking of Joe McCarthy weren’t easy a lifetime ago.
The future will surprise us, and it will not reveal itself by prediction. All we can do is wind the clock and get ready for another day.