Posted by annmcolford

About the Title

Back in 1938, writer E.B. White set out from the high-flying writing and publishing world of New York to a saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine, a tiny burg mainly populated by farmers and the occasional fisherman. He sent columns back to his pals at Harper’s — he called them “dispatches” — describing life in what was seen as a hinterland by the fast-paced city folk. Although his columns ostensibly focused on the minutiae of daily living, White’s narratives ranged far beyond his property lines to draw in his community and the world events unfolding beyond its borders. In this example, from a 1938 essay titled “Clear Days,” he begins with repairing his barn roof and moves on from there:

“… I stayed on the barn, steadily laying shingles, all during the days when Mr. Chamberlain, M. Daladier, the Duce, and the Fuhrer were arranging their horse trade. It seemed a queer place to be during a world crisis, an odd thing to be doing — there was no particular reason for making my roof tight, as the barn contained nothing but a croquet set, some swallows’ nests, and a stuffed moosehead. In my trance-like condition, waiting for the negotiations to end, I added a cupola to the roof, to hold a vane that would show which way the wind blew.

“In some respects, though, a barn is the best place anybody could pick for sitting out a dance with a prime minister and a demigod. There is a certain clarity on a high roof, a singleness of design in the orderly work of laying shingles: snapping the chalk line, laying the butts to the line, picking the proper width shingle to give an adequate lap. One’s perspective, at that altitude, is unusually good. Who has the longer view of things, anyway, a prime minister in a closet or a man on a barn roof?”

White’s columns were gathered into a volume called One Man’s Meat, originally published in 1942 and still in print. And even though he wrote them roughly 70 years ago, his essays retain their relevance.

So I’m setting a high bar by echoing White’s title here. It’s an act of writerly hubris to think I might be able to come close to his model for essays, or “dispatches.” But the general shape of the thing is what I’m after: musing on one small topic and then seeing what emerges, letting the impulse for rumination take hold. I don’t promise profundity; I only commit to an honest attempt to be engaging company during the meals.

  • Pages

  • Archives