I inherited a copy of The Letters of EB White at some point. The copy I have is satisfyingly tattered, a book that my parents gave to great-Grandma Brockbank in 1977 (the inscription is on the inside cover) and then later, meandering down through the line, it was given to me.
I'll admit I've harbored a little long-held literary crush on Elwyn Brooks White. It started, of course, with Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. I can’t get enough of his New England wit and quick humor, his ease with sentiment and words. I knew he could write well but his letters provide this open window to his personal relationships and reveal much more of his warm soul and side glancing winks.
On Being* recently posted the following letter that re-sparked and reminded me of my EB White fangirlhood. Mr. White wrote it to his young niece, Judy, in the midst of her uncertainty about her life's path. Who hasn't been there at some point? Who wouldn't love to get a letter like this?
"I know just how you feel, Judy. Frustration is youth's middle name, and you mustn't worry too much about it. Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination. In a way, our lives take form through a simple process of elimination. We discard what we don't like, walk away from what seems to inspirit us. My first job was with the United Press, but I knew within half an hour that my heart was not in it and that I would never be any good at gathering straight news under great difficulties and with the clock always running out.
Your majoring in English was no mistake, even though you do not become a critic or a publisher's assistant or a playwright or a novelist. English and English literature are the rock bottom of our lives, no matter what we do, and we should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. 'To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.' I agree with Mr. Thoreau himself a victim of youthful frustration. You seem to me a girl whose head is on straight and I don't worry about you, whether you are majoring in English or in bingo. Joe, my son majored in English for two years at Cornell, then realized that what he really liked was boats. He transferred to M.I.T., took a degree in Naval Architecture and now owns and operates a boatyard in Brooklin — hauling, storing, and repairing and building boats. Keeps him busy 24 hours of the day, and keeps him outdoors, where he prefers to be.
We've just had three great gales here and are still picking up the pieces and sawing up the fallen trees. Aunt K. is not well, and there isn't much the doctors can do for her, as her trouble is in her arteries.
Thanks for your nice letter — I wish I could write you a better reply, but your question is essentially unanswerable, except by yourself, and you supplied the answer when you said you wanted to live fruitfully and honestly. If you truly want that you will assuredly bear fruit and be an adornment to the orchard whatever it turns out to be.
*Have you discovered the wonderful radio show/podcasts/blog called On Being with Krista Tippett? The conversations and interviews with interesting people mostly center on belief (it was originally called "Speaking of Faith") and "what does it mean to be human and how do we want to live." It's a gem.