Jon Meacham on E.B. White and American Democracy

"White’s patriotism is clear-eyed; his nationalism nonexistent."

 To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand—it has so special a meaning.
–E.B. White

*

Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t get enough of the piece. At the suggestion of his advisor Harry Hopkins, the New Dealer turned wartime consigliere, the president of the United States took a moment away from the pressures of global war to read a July 3, 1943, “Notes and Comment ” essay from The New Yorker. Occasioned by a letter from the Writers’ War Board, a group of au­thors devoted to shaping public opinion about the Al­lied effort in World War II—the board was led by the mystery novelist Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, the orchid-loving New York City detective—the small item tackled the largest of subjects. Speaking in the magazine’s omniscient vernacular, the New Yorker au­thor wrote, “We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The Meaning of Democracy,”‘ continuing:

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It 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 through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recur­rent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feel­ing of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in rationed coffee.

FDR thought it brilliant. “I LOVE IT!” he said, “with a sort of rising inflection on the word ‘love,”‘ according to the Hopkins biographer and playwright Robert E. Sherwood. The president read the piece to different gatherings, punctuating his recitation with a homey coda (or at least as homey as the squire of Hyde Park ever got): “Them’s my sentiments exactly.”

They were, importantly, the sentiments of the au­thor of the “Notes and Comment,” the longtime New Yorker contributor E.B. White, whose writings of free­dom and democracy captivate us still, all these years distant. Few things are as perishable as prose written for magazines (sermons come close, as do the great majority of political speeches), but White, arguably the finest occasional essayist of the 20th century, endures because he 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. Known popularly more for his books for children (Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little) than for his corpus of essays, White is that rarest of figures, a writer whose ordinary run of work is so extraordinary that it repays our at­tention decades after his death.

White lived and wrote through several of the most contentious hours in our history, ones in which America itself felt at best in the dock and at worst on the scaffold. The Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthyite Red Scare, the Cold War, the civil rights movement—all unfolded under White’s watchful eye as he composed pieces for The New Yorker and for Harp­er’s. He was especially gifted at evoking the universal through the exploration of the particular, which is one of the cardinal tasks of the essayist. His work touched on politics but was not, in the popular sense, political, and the writings here underscore the role of the quiet observer in the great dramas of history. For White was not a charismatic speaker—he avoided the platform all his life—nor was he an activist or even a partisan in the way we think of the terms. He was, rather, a wry but profound voice in the large chorus of American life.

In the first days of World War II, in the lovely Amer­ican September of 1939, after Nazi Germany launched the invasion of Poland, plunging Europe into a war that would last nearly six years, White described a day spent on the waters in 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. “This was it. Either we would continue to have it or we wouldn’t, this right to speak our own minds, haul our own traps, mind our own business, and wallow in the wide, wide sea.”

“If an unhappy childhood is indispens­able for a writer, I am ill-equipped: I missed out on all that and was neither deprived nor unloved.”

That fight seems to be unfolding still in the first de­cades of the 21st century, a time when an opportunistic real estate and reality TV showman from White’s beloved New York has risen to the pinnacle of American politics by marshaling and, in some cases, manufacturing fears about changing demography and identity in the life of the Republic. We can’t know for certain what White would have made of Trump or of Twitter, but we can safely say that E. B. White’s Amer­ica, the one described in this collection, is a better, fairer, and more congenial place than the 45th president’s.

Reflecting on the Munich Pact of 1938, the agreement, negotiated by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, that emboldened Adolf Hitler to press on with his campaign to build a 1,000-year Reich, White wrote, “Old England, eating swastika for breakfast instead of kipper, is a sight I had as lief not lived to see. And though I’m no warrior, I would gladly fight for the things which Nazism seeks to destroy.” Reading him now, at a time when so many Americans live with sights we would have lief not lived to see, is at once reassuring and challenging, for White’s America, which should be our America, is worth a glad fight.

*

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899, Elwyn Brooks White, the youngest of six children, grew up in comfort. “If an unhappy childhood is indispens­able for a writer, I am ill-equipped: I missed out on all that and was neither deprived nor unloved,” he re­called. His father was a successful businessman who created a secure enclave for his family in Westchester County, just 25 minutes from New York City. “Our big house at 101 Summit Avenue was my castle,” E. B. White, who was nicknamed “En,” wrote. “From it I emerged to do battle, and into it I retreated when I was frightened or in trouble.” There were summers in Maine, public school in Westchester, the warmth of a sprawling family. He was sensitive, too, from an early age. “The normal fears and worries of every child were in me developed to a high degree; every day was an awesome prospect. I was uneasy about practically everything: the uncertainty of the future, the dark of the attic, the panoply and discipline of school, the transitoriness of life, the mystery of the church and of God, the frailty of the body, the sadness of afternoon, the shadow of sex, the distant challenge of love and marriage, the far-off problem of a livelihood. I brooded about them all, lived with them day by day.”

White’s father, Samuel Tilly White, perhaps sensing something of his youngest child’s anxious nature, wrote the lad a cheerful birthday note in 1911. “All hail! With joy and gladness we salute you on your natal day,” the senior White wrote. “May each recurring anniversary bring you earth’s best gifts and heaven’s choicest bless­ings. Think today on your mercies. You have been born in the greatest and best land on the face of the globe under the best government known to men. Be thank­ful then that you are an American. Moreover you are the youngest child of a large family and have profited by the companionship of older brothers and sisters. . . . [W]hen you are fretted by the small things of life re­member that on this your birthday you heard a voice telling you to look up and out on the great things of life and beholding them say—surely they all are mine.”

From an early age, then, White was exhorted to think of America in the most reverential of ways.

From an early age, then, White was exhorted to think of America in the most reverential of ways. For all its faults, the nation was a place of particular merit, and a place worth defending. At 18, he debated whether to enlist in the Great War, but decided against it. (He also thought about joining the ambulance corps on the grounds that he “would rather save than destroy men.”) Instead, he headed for Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, and became a writer who did indeed look up and out (as well as inward).

The founding of The New Yorker magazine in 1925 proved a turning point for White and for American letters. Brought into being by Harold Ross, the weekly was, like Ross himself, chaotic and brilliant.

“The cast of characters in those early days,” White recalled, “was as shifty as the characters in a floating poker game.” James Thurber was among them, as was Katharine Angell, who became Mrs. White in 1929. “During the day I saw her in operation at the office,” White recalled. “At the end of the day, I watched her bring the whole mess home with her in a cheap and bulging portfolio. The light burned late, our bed was lumpy with page proofs, and our home was alive with laughter and the pervasive spirit of her dedication and her industry.”

The year he married Katharine, White approvingly cited a dissenting opinion of Supreme Court justice Oli­ver Wendell Holmes, thus inaugurating, in a sense, the canon of his work on freedom and democracy. Reading reports of a commencement speech at West Point by the secretary of war, White wrote that he hoped the young graduates would heed a recent observation of Holmes’s: “All West Point graduates should read [Holmes’s] words, brighter than sword-thrusts: ‘… 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.”‘

*

He was not a predictable party man. Musing about fashionable talk of a government-controlled economy in the middle of the Depression, White wrote, “Much as we hope that something can be done to adjust the State, reduce inequalities in fortune, and right wrong, we are yet skeptical about the abandonment of private enterprise . . . Cooperation and public spirit are, we do not doubt, increasingly necessary in the scheme of our economy; but we wonder how far they go in our blood, and whether great music will be written under the guidance of a central planning board whose duty it shall be to coordinate our several harmonics.” And when President Roosevelt proposed to pack the Su­preme Court after the 1936 presidential election in or­der to ensure rulings friendlier to the New Deal, White was having none of it. Americans, White wrote, should “decline to follow a leader, however high-minded, who proposes to take charge of affairs because he thinks he knows all the answers.”

In June 1940, as the Germans marched into Paris, White weighed in for The New Yorker. “To many Americans, war started (spiritually) years ago with the tor­ment of the Jews,” White wrote. “To millions of others, less sensitive to the overtones of history, war became actual only when Paris became German. We looked at the faces in the street today, and war is at last real, and the remaining step is merely the transformation of fear into resolve Democracy is now asked to mount its honor and decency on wheels, and to manufacture, with all the electric power at its command, a world which can make all people free and perhaps many peo­ple contented. We believe and shall continue to believe that even that is within the power of men.”

“The least a man can do at such a time is to declare himself and tell where he stands.”

The common denominators in White’s thinking about democracy were a sense of fair play and a love of liberty. He was for that which defended and expanded freedom, and he was against that which did not. “If it is boyish to believe that a human being should live free,” he wrote in September 1940, “then I’ll gladly arrest my development and let the rest of the world grow up.”

And he was quite willing to call the rest of the world onto a rhetorical carpet if circumstances warranted it. Chatting with other New Yorkers in the fall of 1940, a time when isolationism remained strong in the United States despite the harrowing fall of France and the Battle of Britain, White was disappointed that one man, “discovering signs of zeal [about the war] creeping into my blood, berated me for having lost my detachment, my pure skeptical point of view. He an­nounced that he wasn’t going to be swept away by all this nonsense, but would prefer to remain in the role of innocent bystander, which he said was the duty of any intelligent person.”

At least one intelligent person, White, chose to dis­agree. “The least a man can do at such a time is to declare himself and tell where he stands,” he wrote. “I believe in freedom with the same burning delight, the same faith, the same intense abandon which attended its birth on this continent more than a century and a half ago. I am writing my declaration rapidly, much as though I were shaving to catch a train. Events abroad give a man a feeling of being pressed for time I just want to tell, before I get slowed down, that I am in love with freedom and that it is an affair of long standing and that it is a fine state to be in, and that I am deeply suspicious of people who are beginning to adjust to fas­cism and dictators merely because they are succeeding in war. From such adaptable natures a smell arises. I pinch my nose.”

Freedom was not optional; nor was it, in the first instance, political. Working within an ancient Western tradition that viewed liberty as an inherent right and free will as the oxygen of humanity, White traced free­dom to its intuitive origins:

[Freedom begins] with the haunting intimation (which I presume every child receives) of his mystical inner life; of God in man; of nature pub­lishing herself through the “I.” This elusive sensation is moving and memorable. It comes early in life; a boy, we’ll say, sitting on the front steps on a summer night, thinking of nothing in par­ticular, suddenly hearing as with a new percep­tion and as though for the first time the pulsing sound of crickets, overwhelmed with the novel sense of identification with the natural company of insects and grass and night, conscious of a faint answering cry to the universal perplexing question: “What is ‘I’?” Or a little girl, returning from the grave of a pet bird, leaning with her el­bows on the window sill, inhaling the unfamiliar draught of death, suddenly seeing herself as part of the complete story. Or to an older youth, en­countering for the first time a great teacher who by some chance or mood awakens something and the youth beginning to breathe as an individual and conscious of strength in his vitals. I think the sensation must develop in many men as a feeling of identity with God—an eruption of the spirit caused by allergies and the sense of divine existence as distinct from mere animal existence. This is the beginning of the affair with freedom.

Fascism is openly against people-in-general, in favor of people-in-particular.

As he often did with such grace and fluidity, White turned from the intimate to the general:

The United States, almost alone today, offers the liberties and the privileges and the tools of free­dom. In this land the citizens are still invited to write plays and books, to paint their pictures, to meet for discussion, to dissent as well as to agree, to mount soapboxes in the public square, to enjoy education in all subjects without censorship, to hold court and judge one another, to compose music, to talk politics with their neighbors without wondering whether the secret police are listen­ing, to exchange ideas as well as goods, to kid the government when it needs kidding, and to read real news of real events instead of phony news manufactured by a paid agent of the state . . . To be free, in a planetary sense, is to feel that you belong to earth. To be free, in a societal sense, is to feel at home in a democratic framework.

White’s writings are remarkably free of cant and of cliche, as one might expect from the coauthor of The Elements of Style. Bombast bored him, and he loved be­ing let alone. Writing in the Paris Review, Brendan Gill, a fellow New Yorker mainstay, once observed, “Andy White is small and wiry, with an unexpectedly large nose, speckled eyes, and an air of being just about to turn away, not on an errand of any importance but as a means of remaining free to cut and run without the nuisance of prolonged goodbyes.”

White’s patriotism is clear-eyed; his nationalism nonexistent. A case in point: in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, he wrote warmly of American values, noting, “America has been at a great disadvantage in relation to the Axis. In this country we are used to the queer notion that any sort of sporting contest must be gov­erned by a set of rules. We think that the football can’t be kicked off until after the whistle is blown. We be­lieve the prize fighter can’t be socked until he has come out of his corner. . . . So it was quite to be expected that America grew purple and pink with rage and fury when the Japanese struck us without warning.”

And yet White simultaneously believed, and began to argue in the first week of December 1941, that the future belonged to the supranationalists—those who saw that national rivalries were perennial and fatal and had to give way to a broader system of global governance.

“The passionate love of Americans for their America will have a lot to do with winning the war,” White wrote. “It is an odd thing though: the very patriotism on which we now rely is the thing that must eventually be in part relinquished if the world is ever to find a lasting peace and an end to these butcheries.” Musing on the snow swirling outside his window in these final weeks of the year, White went on: “Already you can see the beginnings of the big post-war poker game, for trade, for air routes and airfields, for insular possessions, and for all the rest of it,” he wrote Harold Ross in the fall of 1944. “I hate to see millions of kids getting their guts blown out because all these things are made the prizes of nationality. Science is universal, music is universal, sex is universal, chow is universal, and by God government better be, too.”

He would make the case, unsuccessfully, for years, most explicitly in a 1946 book entitled The Wild Flag. Whatever White’s (self-acknowledged) weaknesses as an architect of a kind of technocratic New Jerusalem, he remained an astute critic of democracy’s rivals. In a piece on fascism, he defined the phenomenon as “a nation founded on bloodlines, political expansion by surprise and war, murder or detention of unbelievers, transcendence of state over individual, obedience to one leader, contempt for parliamentary forms, plus some miscellaneous gymnastics for the young and a general feeling of elation. . . . Fascism is openly against people-in-general, in favor of people-in-particular.”

People are, if anything, more touchy about being thought silly than they are about being thought unjust.

After World War II, he worried about fascistic tendencies in America, the very nation that had done so much to defeat the Axis. In 1947 he spoke out against the New York Herald Tribune‘s editorial support for blacklisting those who did not swear loyalty to the United States. The anticommunist campaign, White wrote in a letter to the editor of the paper, meant that employees had to “be required to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs. The idea is inconsistent with our Constitutional theory and has been stubbornly opposed by watchful men since the early days of the Republic. . . . I hold that it would be improper for any committee or any employer to examine my conscience. They wouldn’t know how to get into it, they wouldn’t know what to do when they got in there, and I wouldn’t let them in anyway. Like other Americans, my acts and my words are open to inspection—not my thoughts or my political affiliation.”

His work touched on the central domestic struggle of the 20th century, too: the long battle against Jim Crow, the system of racial segregation that had grown out of the failures of Reconstruction in the wake of the Civil War. “The South,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1956, “is the land of the sustained sibilant. Everywhere, for the appreciative visitor, the letter S insinuates itself into the scene: the sound of sea and sand, in the singing shell, in the heat of sun and sky, in the sultriness of the gentle hours, in the siesta, in the stir of birds and insects.” But, White added, in contrast to the softness of its music, the South is also “hard and cruel and prickly.”

He was reporting about a visit to Jim Crow Florida, calling himself a “beachcomber from the North, which is my present status.” It had been two years since the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down school segregation, and not long before, a collection of legislators from the Old Confederacy had issued a defiant Southern Manifesto pledging to defy federal efforts to integrate the region. Writing from Florida, White described a conversation with his cook, a Finnish woman, about “the mysteries of bus travel in the American Southland.”

“When you get on the bus,” White told her, “I think you’d better sit in one of the front seats—the seats in the back are for colored people.”

The cook, who was white, saw through it all. “A look of great weariness came into her face, as it does when we use too many dishes, and she replied, ‘Oh, I know—isn’t it silly!'”

Then came a brief meditation by White that captured much about what W.E.B. Du Bois had called “the problem of the color-line”:

Her remark, coming as it did all the way from Finland and landing on this sandbar with a plunk, impressed me. The Supreme Court said nothing about silliness, but I suspect it may play more of a role than one might suppose. People are, if anything, more touchy about being thought silly than they are about being thought unjust. I note that one of the arguments in the recent manifesto of Southern congressmen in support of the doctrine of “separate but equal” was that it had been founded on “common sense.” The sense that is common to one generation is uncommon to the next. Probably the first slave ship, with Negroes lying in chains on its decks, seemed commonsensical to the owners who operated it and to the planters who patronized it. But such a vessel would not be in the realm of common sense today.

The pressures of the Cold War gave White plenty of opportunities to offer thoughts on democracy, and he took many of them. When universities were debating loyalty and “Americanism,” White wrote, “A healthy university in a healthy democracy is a free society, in miniature. The pesky nature of democratic life is that it has no comfortable rigidity; it always hangs by a thread, never quite submits to consolidation or solidification, is always being challenged, always being defended.”

The concern of a democracy is that no honest man shall feel uncomfortable, I don’t care who he is, or how nutty he is.

The key thing—and White worried about this, volunteering his pen in the cause—is the nature and the fate of the defense in the face of those inevitable challenges. White anticipated the antidemocratic forces of our own era: political tribalism (“We doubt that there was ever a time in this country when so many people were trying to discredit so many other people,” he wrote—in 1952); media saturation (“This country is on the verge of getting news-drunk anyway; a democracy cannot survive merely by being well informed, it must also be contemplative, and wise,” he wrote—in 1954); and the need for a free and disputatious press (“There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases” he wrote—in 1976). He believed strongly, too, in the virtues of a diversity of ownership in the media, arguing that oligarchical and monopolistic tendencies in terms of the control of the means of information were bad for democracy, and therefore a threat to freedom.

White was always mindful about the mind itself, which he considered, with its cousins the imagination and the conscience, the wellspring of all good things. Amid the debates about the role of religious observance in the public arena in the 20th century, he brilliantly laid out an inspired test for those who would compel others to share their beliefs. “Democracy, if I understand it at all, is a society in which the unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. . . . I believe that our political leaders should live by faith and should, by deeds and sometimes by prayer, demonstrate faith, but I doubt that they should advocate faith, if only because such advocacy renders a few people uncomfortable. The concern of a democracy is that no honest man shall feel uncomfortable, I don’t care who he is, or how nutty he is.”

At heart, White’s vision of democracy is about generosity of spirit and a kind of self-interested covenant—the best way to guarantee freedom and fair play for ourselves is to guarantee it for others. In this way, anyone who attempts to subvert the system or abridge another’s rights is instantly shown to be a hypocrite whose will to power threatens to hijack an ethos where no one kicks the ball until the whistle is blown, and no one can tell you what to think or whom to worship or what to do. In leaving us this understanding of how we have lived, and how we ought to go on living, White is a kind of conversational Thomas Jefferson, a 20th-century Benjamin Franklin, an accessible James Madison.

*

A final thought. In early 1942, White was summoned to Washington for several days of meetings about a wartime project: the production of a pamphlet, authored by several of the nation’s finest writers (Max Lerner and Reinhold Niebuhr among them), to expound on President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. A year earlier, in his January 1941 State of the Union address, FDR had first articulated his vision of a united front against the march of dictatorship. “I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world—assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace,” Roosevelt had told the Congress. After laying out a practical program for rearmement and aid to the Allied forces, the president broadened his sights. “In the future days, which we seek to make more secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” he said. He enumerated the freedom of speech and conscience and the freedom from want and from fear. “That is no vision of a distant millennium,” he added. “It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

Now, with the war upon America in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Archibald MacLeish, the poet and Librarian of Congress, wanted White to take charge of a Four Freedoms publication for wide distribution. The task was to expand on Roosevelt’s general themes, a job that White found daunting. In letters to Katharine, he was honest about his trepidation. After a series of conversations, including a lovely pasta-and-wine lunch at MacLeish’s Georgetown house, White had what he called “thousands of untranscribed notes—the kind of thing you scribble on your program in a dark theatre—and the burden of collecting these into a document which will suit the President and the Supreme Court justices and Mr. Churchill . . . and which will explain to a great man young men why they are about to get stuck in the stomach.” There was enough meandering in the debates about the project that White thought about, but did not mention, an obvious possibility. “Two or three times during the proceedings I was tempted to ask why, if the pamphlet was to be an extension and n interpretation of the President’s formula, we shouldn’t just go and ask him what he meant.” They never did, and neither can we. But we can ask E.B. White about freedom and democracy, and through his collected writings, he can answer.

__________________________________

This introduction is to On Democracy, by E.B. White, which is out on May 7, 2019 from Harper.

Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power; American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House; Franklin and Winston; Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush; and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.





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