Drifting with E.B.  White

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 3:04pm

While aimlessly drifting in my sailboat off the north end of Jamestown in Narragansett Bay, I was reading a bunch of E. B. White's essays. The book was a gift from a friend. White was a scribbler and a sailor—he also tended to a farm up in Maine. While reading his essay, "The Sea and the Wind That Blows," I felt a kinship(bad pun intended) to White.

    As a writer, White is a stylist of the highest order. As a sailor, he was a guy who truly understood the freedom and aimlessness of sailing a boat to windward, and then downwind, for no other reason other than to get from point A, and then to point B. The following sentence reveals the depth of White's objective passion for sailing." If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailboat is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble."  The sub-text of that sentence begs some great questions about being engaged in life— of being alive. As I said, the guy is a stylist.

    E.B. White knew that scribblers are daydreamers with meandering minds, who feel some urge to fill up blank pages. He also knew that a sailboat was the perfect platform to daydream; the crucible of a restless mind. White notes how a sailboat is, "a home that is stable without being stationary."  Moreover, a small cruising sailboat has an orderliness to it. It's the owner's prerogative as to what will be contained in his vessel, and how said things will be organized. The boat owner has autonomy over his nautical domain, just as a scribbler has autonomy over his topic. (I'd love to be able to share this metaphor with E. B. White.)

    The picture of E.B. White crunching the keys on his typewriter reveals much about the man—White is in his boathouse in Maine. (It is a shed of sorts.) He is focused on the blank page and constructing his words as he damn well pleases—having a smoke. His desk is bare except for an ashtray and some boxes next to his typewriter. They probably contained pencils and erasers. The window faces a body of water, and there is a sailboat in the distance. Most importantly, it's a space that has nothing that is not needed. Just like the scribbler's prose.



Nota Bene: E.B. White's son Joel, was  a notable boat designer from Maine. He built dinghys, sailboats and powerboats. They were designs based on simplicity. Joel White was not a guy who liked gadgets on a boat. His designs were austere and functional; yet they had style and a pleasing aesthetic.