August 23 – September 30, 2019Vol. 21, No. 12

E.B. White on Democracy

by Martha F. Barkley

During these turbulent times, it is helpful to read our "Once More to the Lake" bard and lover of all things here in the summer, E.B. White. He canoed our Great Pond shores from age six onwards into his eighties around Snug Harbor, Bear Springs, and, of course, to the village store run by L.L. Bean's younger brother Irvin. Buying Moxie and little birch bark canoes were all the thing before crossing the lake once again. I have E.B. White's marvelous words framed in my dining room camp by Great Pond:

I returned to Belgrade. Things haven't changed much...The clothesline behind Walter Gleason's house is flapping with white wash...and below you the lake hangs blue and clear, and you see the islands plain. (1936 version, revised essay over 40 years many times)

So now we have On Democracy, a new collection of his words to read in 2019, edited by his granddaughter Martha White, who resides on the coast of Maine. Jon Meacham, author of Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush about our forty-first president, who enjoyed his last summer in 2018 at Kennebunkport's Walker Point and the wedding of his twin granddaughter, writes an introduction in full for E.B. White. The 32-page introduction encapsulates many helpful quotes about democracy. Jon Meacham's summary is helpful for our immediate decisions we have as citizens in our next local, state and national elections:

[H]e wrote plainly and honestly about the things that matter the most, from life on his farm in Maine to the lives of nations and of peoples...White is the rarest of figures, a writer whose ordinary run of work is so extraordinary that it repays our attention decades after his death.

During the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, "White described a day on the waters of Maine. 'It struck me as we worked our way homeward up the rough bay with our catch of lobsters and a fresh breeze in our teeth that this was what the fight was all about,' he wrote". Almost six years of WWII in Europe.

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.
We don't mind changing to a different economy, as to a different shirt, but we will not submit, even for a split second, to controlled opinion. If it is controlled, it isn't opinion.

Turning off the radio was another helpful hint from White. The all encompassing media at that time was radio. Isn't that good advice today for our mass media of 24 hour onslaught, much of it entertainment, not news?

Democracy "is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt...." So much advice from a favorite writer...