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Book Reviews

Milt Gross Book Review: "One Man's Meat" by E. B. White
By Milton M. Gross
Jul 22, 2012 - 2:07:15 AM

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The cover of One Man's Meat takes one -- such as me -- back to a past era of writing. Note E.B. White's electric typewriter, old board table and bench, and the view out his rustic "writing studio." Photo by Milt Gross.
One Man's Meat is fun to read. It is a classic of the I-moved-to-the-country type genre, and it is different.

Not about how the writer became a farmer from living in the big city, Manhattan, in a serious way, E. B. White's essays are far more casual. A kind of accidental gentleman farmer.

At least that's the impression this book leaves.

But the late Elwyn Brooks White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985), according to Wikepedia, was a well-known skilled writer who penned his columns, articles, and 17 books for the "biggies." He saw his first article published in The New Yorker in 1925 and went from there, was a The New Yorker staffer, a columnist for Harper's Magazine from 1938 to 1943, and wrote much, much more.

We've all read or viewed as a film Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. I don't recall where I read that these two of his most famous books came from his observation of and imagination about a spider and a pig on his Brooklin, Maine, 42-acre farm, not many miles down the peninsula from our one-acre non-farm.

The edition we keep with our beloved collection in our living room was published in 1997 by Tilbury House in Gardiner, Maine. But it was first published in 1938 and a half-dozen more times before this paperback copy appeared.

This collection of columns and other articles, kind of describing his move out of Manhattan to the Maine coast, I find delightful for its lightness and casual take on life -- and moving from Manhattan to gentleman farming.

He writes about leaving his city house in the big city. I can't imagine how one would go about leaving New York City. I can barely find my way into it for a day's visit or just to traverse it on my way from somewhere outside the city to somewhere else outside it.

White begins this tale in July of 1938, writing that, "Several months ago, finding myself in possession of one hundred seventeen chairs divided about evenly between a city house and a country house, and desiring to simplify my life, I sold half my worldly goods, evacuated the city house, gave up my employment, and came to live in New England."

He left his employment in the Big Apple, but his wife, Katharine, didn't. She continued as an editor-by-mail with the New Yorker while she ran their farm's household. What White himself did in this book was to bring the writer-farmer lifestyle to all of our lives as the kind of dream many would like to pursue.

In the first chapter, White relates how he rid their moving-to-Maine household of a gold mirror. This story kind of strikes me as a lot like Dolores and mine, since we are unable to sell or even give away anything we no longer need or want. He describes the mirror as "...a large but fairly unattractive one..." and he continues about getting rid of the large, unattractive beast.

"So I walked out the door hatless and in my shirtsleeves and went round the corner to a junk shop on Second Avenue...." "The proprietor stood in the doorway.

"'Do you want...' I began. But at that instant an El train joined us and I had to start again and shout.

"'Do you want to buy a gold mirror?'"

"The man shook his head."

"'It's gold!' I yelled. 'A beautiful thing!'"

After more city noise, the proprietor said he wasn't interested with the comment, "'I'm nut taking it.'"

"A few minutes later, after a quick trip back to the house, I slipped the mirror guiltily in a doorway, a bastard child with not even a note asking the finder to treat it kindly. I took a last look in it, and I thought I looked tired."

But not too tired to move to the farm and begin a new life. In the introduction, White looks back after many years by writing, "The saltwater farm that served as the setting for this most tumultuous episode in my life has seen many changes in forty years. The sheep have disappeared, along with several other accessories. The elms have disappeared. I am still visible, pottering about, overseeing the incubations, occasionally writing a new introduction for an old book. I do the Sunday chores. I stoke the stove. I listen to the runaway toilet. I true up the restless rug. I save the whale. I wind the clock. I talk to myself."

He did a lot more than that on the farm, where he remained the rest of his life, much of which is described in One Man's Meat.

"A seacoast farm," he writes in a chapter titled "Salt Water Farm," such as this, extends far beyond the boundaries mentioned in the deed. My domain is arable many miles offshore, in the restless fields of protein. Cultivation begins close to the house with a rhubard patch, but it ends down the bay beyond the outer islands, handlining for cod and haddock, with gulls like gnats round your ears, and the threat of fog always in the pit of your stomach.,"

His chapters cover such topics as "Clear Days," "Sabbath Morn," "Hot Weather," "Camp Meeting," "The Flocks we Watch by Night," "The Practical Farmer," and many more.

From "Town Meeting," which caught my attention since I attended so many as a non-industrious reporter of the Bumpkinville, Maine, Courier -- or whatever the one and the others were called, I drag this tidbit.

"It began when one of the citizens, who we all knew was loaded for bear, rose to his feet, walked to the front, drew from his pocket a small but ominous sheet of paper, and in soft pacific tones began:

"'Mr. Moderator....'

"This was when democracy sat up and looked around. This was the spectacle the townfolk had walked miles for. Half way through the speech, when the air was heavy with distilled venom, my neighbor turned to me and whispered: 'I get so excited here it makes me sick. I'll commence to shake by and by.'"

And so it went, typical of so many Maine town meetings, where citizens, unlike those large cities and states and nations, really can make their voice heard directly and plainly.

Skipping much of the prose about living on his Brooklin farm, "Memorandum" begins, "Today I should carry the pumpkins and squash from the back porch to the attic. The nights are too frosty to leave them outdoors any longer. And as long as I am making some trips to the attic I should also take up the boat cushions and the charts and the stuff from the galley and also a fishing rod that belongs up in the attic."

The next five pages tells of the chores he "ought" to do that day and ends like a lot of our days of knowing what we "ought" to do end.

"I've been spending a lot of time here typing, and I see it is four o'clock already and almost dark, so I had better get going. Specially since I ought to get a haircut while I am at it."

Which is how White wrote.

Making it little wonder why so many readers are still so fond of his works.

I am too, and, like White, while writing this, I should have been outdoors, cutting grass, pulling some weeds in the garden, pondering why only one carrot plant has risen above it all, and a host of other chores that won't get done today.

Because I'm next off to the town dump to take a bag or two to its unpleasant destination.

And see if I can find a book or two worth reading in the recycling section. (Unlike the great classic One Man's Meat, which Dolores bought new for me to celebrate some long-past occasion.)

It is Saturday, after all.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

Milt Gross Down the Road A Piece Column

Milt Gross Book Reviews


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