'Minor' Writings By E. B. White Provide Major Pleasure

November 18, 1990|By ANNE TYLER

Writings From The New Yorker, 1927-1976.

E. B. White; edited by Rebecca M. Dale.

HarperCollins.

244 pages. $20. Around this time last year, the New Yorker issued a collection of all its past covers -- 65 years of witty, urbane, sophisticated pTC illustrations. At least, readers expected them to be sophisticated; but the surprise was how touchingly naive some of those pictures looked to citizens of the '80s. The silhouette of a spooning couple inside a Model T in 1925, an aerial view of a sedately lit, astonishingly tidy New York City in 1930 -- many of the scenes were quaint, almost cozy. Or did they only seem that way because we knew how long ago they were, and what tumult was to follow?

We might ask the same question about E. B. White's "Writings From The New Yorker, 1927-1976." A piece celebrating the arrival of the first seed catalog of 1952 would have made good reading even in 1952, but it's downright poignant now that so many later seed catalogs have come and gone. John Updike is referred to as "Young Writer John Updike," the editor's footnotes identify such exotica as Bendix washing machines and Adlai Stevenson, and White's own aerial view of New York reveals a city still manageable in size and more or less civilized in temperament.

A piece call "Vigil" will break your heart; it was written just hours after Hitler invaded Poland, while White was glued to his radio waiting to hear if war would be declared. "It is three o'clock in the morning," he writes. "The temperature in New York is 70 degrees, sky overcast." Those facts are so concrete, and so quietly stated, that suddenly we're sitting there in the room with him. We're holding our breaths in suspense, and yet at the same time we know all too well how the story will end.

Very few pieces are full-fledged essays. They are more on the order of snippets, often culled from the New Yorker's "Notes and Comments"' section, to which White contributed for many years before his death in 1985. The fact is that the best of his work has already been anthologized, most notably in "Essays of E. B. White," and what we have here is an assemblage of leftovers.

Still, E. B. White's leftovers could pass for another writer's finest efforts. The book is not a cheat, by any means. Clearly it's the product of a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, fresh-minded observer of his times, a man who was often amused by the shenanigans of his contemporaries.

Who else would notice that H. G. Wells, having announced the imminent end of the world, then went to the trouble of taking out a copyright on his article? Or that a petition to save the Alaskan grizzly from the paper-pulp industry happened to be printed on paper? (White suggests parchment instead, "preferably made from the hides of sheep especially killed for the purpose by grizzly bears.")

Defending Thoreau against an imaginary attack from Sen. Joseph McCarthy, he proposes (with "quiet desperation") that Thoreau was responsible for a great American institution: the motel. He is convulsed by a Nazi attempt to infiltrate the coast of Maine with saboteurs wearing topcoats, and he chortles when a posh Manhattan sports shop begins selling leather-trimmed brandy kegs for St. Bernards. ("Of course, New York is a town of eight million inhabitants, many of them buying fools, but even so whole hours must slip by without anybody's dropping in to pick up a keg for a St. Bernard.")

The most telling quotation of all is this description of an elderly aunt: "There is nothing stiff-backed about the furnishings of her mind, but it is her nature to sit erect, to stand erect, and to speak an upright kind of English that is always graceful and exact." Obviously, the aunt passed her virtues on to her nephew. For its upright English, its gracefulness and exactitude, "Writings From The New Yorker" is a pleasure.

Ms. Tyler's latest novel is "Breathing Lessons."

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