I had no idea that this writer of charming children’s books wrote prolifically for adults too. He was a newspaper man and one of the things that stands out in this collection is his discussion of the way in which newspapers have to fill their pages and the consequent lowering of the standards of what is written. Like now, except that newspapers were not a bottomless internet pit. His credentials to be this critic? Well, he was the rewriter of The Elements of Style, which might be the most famous of its genre.
He writes of war, of sport, of the nuclear threat, of robots, of cheating at chess. He writes of many things in ways that speak now. Amazing!
He is humorous like this, from a section called ‘Answers to Hard Questions’ where he harvests questions to newspapers searching for advice and gives his own take.
L.D. writes: Is there any likelihood that the temporary physical condition a man is in would have an effect on his offspring? In other words, should a man hesitate about becoming a father during the time he is suffering from hay fever? – Health column in the Chicago Tribune.
This is a question many a man has had to face, alone with his God. Sensitivity to pollen, the male element of flowers, is at once an exalted and a pitiable condition and inevitably suggests to a prospective progenitor the disquieting potentialities inherent in all propagation. Like father like son is the familiar saying: big sneeze, little sneeze. There is little doubt that allergy to hay, so deep-seated, so shattering, is inheritable; and it is just as certain that a sensitive man, during the season of his great distress, is as eager for life and love as in the periods when his mucosae are relaxed. We cannot conscientiously advise any man to abstain from fatherhood on a seasonal, or foliage, basis. The time not to become a father is eighteen years before a world war.
There it is, that fabulous juxtaposition where he kicks you in the gut, no warning, just kapow. Fantastic. Brilliant line. Brilliant timing. I’ve read it two dozen times now and it still makes my insides curl up.
This is what you got when you read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly between 1935 and 1955, the time span of the chosen pieces.
The Newark police arrested a very interesting woman the other day – a Mrs Sophie Wienckus – and she is now on probation after being arraigned as disorderly. Mrs Wienckus interests us because her ‘disorderliness’ was simply her capacity to live a far more self-contained life that most of us can manage. The police complained that she was asleep in two empty cartons in a hallway. This was her preferred method of bedding down. All the clothes she possessed she had on – several layers of coats and sweaters. On her person were bankbooks showing that she was ahead of the game to the amount of $19,799.09. She was a working woman – a domestic – and, on the evidence, a thrifty one. Her fault, the Court held, was that she lacked a habitation.
‘Why didn’t you rent a room?’ asked the magistrate. But he should have added parenthetically ‘(and the coat hangers in the closet and the cord that pulls the light and the dish that holds the soap and the mirror that conceals the cabinet where lives the aspirin that kills the pain).’ Why didn’t you rent a room ‘(with the rug that collects the dirt and the vacuum that sucks the dirt and the man that fixes the vacuum and the fringe that adorns the shade that dims the lamp and the desk that holds the bill for the installment on the television set that tells of the wars)?’ We feel that the magistrate oversimplified his question.
Mrs Wienckus may be disorderly, but one pauses to wonder where the essential disorder really lies. All of us are instructed to seek hallways these days (except school children, who crawl under desks), [The US expectation of nuclear attack against them colours much of White’s writing in this sort of way] and it was in a hallway that they found Mrs Wienckus, all compact. We read recently that the only hope of avoiding inflation is through ever increasing production of goods. This to us always a terrifying conception of the social order – a theory of the good life through accumulation of objects. We lean toward the order of Mrs Wienckus, who has eliminated everything except what she can conveniently carry, whose financial position is solid, and who can smile at Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond all believe.
If, like me, you don’t know the reference to Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, pancocojams discusses it here. It’s a song about paying rent.
I challenge the reader not to be moved by this, surely every bit as pertinent now as when it was written.
The Dream of the American Male
Dorothy Lamour is the girl above all others desired by the men in Army camps. This fact was turned up by Life in a routine study of the unlimited national emergency. It is a fact which illuminates the war, the national dream, and our common unfulfillment. If you know what a soldier wants, you know what Man wants, for a soldier is young, sexually vigorous, and is caught in a line of work which leads towards a distant and tragic conclusion. He personifies Man. His dream of a woman can be said to be Everyman’s dream of a woman. In desiring Lamour, obviously his longing is for a female creature encountered under primitive conditions and in a setting of great natural beauty and mystery. He does not want this woman to make any sudden or nervous movement. She should be in a glade, a swale, a grove, or a pool below a waterfall. This is the setting in which every American youth first encountered Miss Lamour. They were in a forest; she had walked slowly out of the pool and stood dripping in the ferns.
The dream of the American male is for a female who has an essential languor which is not laziness, who is unaccompanied except by himself, and who does not let him down. He desires a beautiful, but comprehensible, creature who does not destroy a perfect situation by forming a complete sentence. She is compounded of moonlight and shadows, and has a slightly husky voice, which she uses only in song or in an attempt to pick up a word or two that he teachers her. Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a fern, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place. For millions of years men everywhere have longed for Dorothy Lamour. Now in the final complexity of an age which has reached its highest expression in the instrument panel of a long-range bomber, it is a good idea to remember that Man’s most persistent dream is of a forest pool and a girl coming out of it unashamed, walking toward him with a wary motion, childlike in her wonder, a girl exquisitely untroubled, as quiet and accommodating and beautiful as a young green tree. That’s all he really wants. He sometimes wonders how this other stuff got in – the instrument panel, the night sky, the full load, the moment of exultation over the blackened city below….
Fantastic. He’s a genius hidden away in the ephemeral nature of the daily (or weekly, or monthly) press.
This book came my way because a stranger died. She left behind a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s observation of the world as reported by the novelist, the poet, the children’s writer, the essayist. A history you can see and touch – I simply cannot understand how a USB stick can possibly have the meaning of a room of books. This is one of those I kept and I regard it as a complete treasure, falling apart paperback with cheap yellowing paper. A couple of the pieces in it puzzle me as to their presence. But mostly, oh wow. Sheer bliss.
What about this one?
We are delighted with the recent censorship ruling in the matter of motion-picture harems. Some scenes in a Paramount picture now in production are set in a harem, and after careful deliberation the censors have decided to allow this type of polyform allure provided the boudoir does not contain the sultan. The girls can mill about among the pillows, back and side having gone bare, but no male eye must gaze upon them – save, of course, yours, lucky reader. This harem-but-no-sultan decision belongs in the truly great body of opinion interpreting the celebrated 1939 ruling on the exposure of female breasts in the Flushing World of Tomorrow, which provided that one breast could be presented publicly but not two, and thereby satisfied the two seemingly irreconcilable groups: the art-lovers, who demanded breasts but were willing to admit that if you’d seen one you’d seen them both, and the decency clique, who held out for concealment but were agreed that the fact of concealing one breast established the essential reticence of the owner and thereby covered the whole situation, or chest. That subtle and far-reaching ruling carried the Fair, as we know, safely through two difficult seasons, and we imagine that the aseptic harem will do as much for Hollywood.
and on the poet:
You read, perhaps, about the man who stole four tyres from a car in Norfolk, Virginia, and left a purse and a diamond ring untouched on the front seat, with this note: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, we like your jewels but your tyres are new.’ the papers said it was a case of a thief who had a flair for poetry. This is palpable nonsense. It was a case of a poet who was willing to attempt desperate thing, even larceny, in order to place his poem. Clearly, there was a man who had written something and then had gone up and down in the world seeking the precise situation which would activate his poem. It must have meant long nights and days of wandering before he found a car with jewels lying loose in the front seat and four good tyres on the wheels. Poets endure much for the sake of their art.
The Hour of Letdown is a sci-fi chess story.
THE HOUR OF LETDOWN
When the man came in, carrying the machine, most of us looked up from our drinks, because we had never seen anything like it before. The man set the thing down on top of the bar near the beerpulls. It took up an ungodly amount of room and you could see the bartender didn’t like it any too well, having this big, ugly-looking gadget parked right there.
“Two rye-and-water,” the man said.
The bartender went on puddling an Old-Fashioned that he was working on, but he was obviously turning over the request in his mind.
“You want a double?” he asked, after a bit.
“No,” said the man. “Two rye-and-water, please … .” He stared straight at the bartender, not exactly unfriendly but on the other hand not affirmatively friendly.
Many years of catering to the kind of people that come into saloons had provided the bartender with an adjustable mind. Nevertheless, he did not adjust readily to this fellow, and he did not like the machine — that was sure. He picked up a live cigarette that was idling on the edge of the cash register, took a drag out of it, and returned it thoughtfully. Then he poured two shots of rye whiskey, drew two glasses of water, and shoved the drinks in front of the man. People were watching. When something a little out of the ordinary takes place at a bar, the sense of it spreads quickly all along the line and pulls the customers together.
The man gave no sign of being the center of attention. He laid a five-dollar bill down on the bar. Then he drank one of the ryes and chased it with water. He picked up the other rye, opened a small vent in the machine (it was like an oil cup) and poured the whiskey in, and then poured the water in. 72
The bartender watched grimly. “Not funny,” he said in an even voice. And furthermore, your companion takes up too much room.” Why’n you put it over on that bench by the door, make more room here.”
“There’s plenty of room for everyone here,” replied the man.
‘Tain’t amused,” said the bartender. “Put the goddam thing over near the door like I say. Nobody will touch it.”
The man smiled. “You should have seen it this afternoon,” he said. “It was magnificent. Today was the third day of the tournament. Imagine it — three days of continuous brainwork! And against the top players in the country, too. Early in the game it gained an advantage; then for two hours it exploited the advantage brilliantly, ending with the opponent’s king backed in a corner. The sudden capture of a knight, the neutralization of a bishop, and it was all over. You know how much money it won, all told, in three days of playing chess?”
“How much?” asked the bartender.
“Five thousand dollars,” said the man. “Now it wants to let down, wants to get a little drunk.”
The bartender ran his towel vaguely over some wet spots. “Take it somewheres else and get it drunk there!” he said firmly. “I got enough troubles.”
The man shook his head and smiled. “No, we like it here.” He pointed at the empty glasses. “Do this again, will you, please?”
The bartender slowly shook his head. He seemed dazed but dogged. “You stow the thing away,” he ordered. “I’m not ladling out whiskey for jokestersmiths.”
” Jokesmiths,” said the machine. “The word is “jokesmiths.”
A few feet down the bar, a customer who was on his third highball seemed ready to participate in this conversation to which we had all been listening so attentively. He was a middle-aged man. His necktie was pulled down away from his collar, and he had eased the collar by unbuttoning it. He had pretty nearly finished his third drink, and the alcohol tended to make him throw his support in with the underprivileged and the thirsty.
“If the machine wants another drink, give it another drink,” he said to the bartender. “Let’s not have haggling.”
The fellow with the machine turned to his new-found friend and gravely raised his hand to his temple, giving him a salute of gratitude and fellowship. He addressed his next remark to him, as though deliberately snubbing the bartender.
“You know how it is when you’re all fagged out mentally, how you want a drink?”
“Certainly do,” replied the friend. “Most natural thing in the world.”
There was a stir all along the bar, some seeming to side with the bartender, others with the machine group. A tall, gloomy man standing next to me spoke up.
“Another whiskey sour. Bill,” he said. “And go easy on the lemon juice.”
“Picric acid,” said the machine, sullenly. “They don’t use lemon juice in these places.”
“That does it!” said the bartender, smacking his hand on the bar. “Will you put that thing away or else beat it out of here. I ain’t in the mood, I tell you. I got this saloon to run and I don’t want lip from a mechanical brain or “whatever the hell you’ve got there.”
The man ignored this ultimatum. He addressed his friend, whose glass was now empty.
“It’s not just that it’s all tuckered out after three days of chess,” he said amiably. “You know another reason it wants a drink?”
“No,” said the friend. “Why?”
“It cheated,” said the man.
At this remark, the machine chuckled. One of its arms dipped slightly, and a light glowed in a dial.
The friend frowned. He looked as though his dignity had been hurt, as though his trust had been misplaced. “Nobody can cheat at chess,” he said. “Simpossible. In chess, everything is open and above the board. The nature of the game of chess is such that cheating is impossible.”
“That’s what I used to think, too,” said the man. “But there is a way.”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me any,” put in the bartender. “The first time I laid my eyes on that crummy thing I spotted it for a crook.” 74
“Two rye-and-water,” said the man.
“You can’t have the whiskey,” said the bartender. He glared at the mechanical brain. “How do I know it ain’t drunk already?”
“That’s simple. Ask it something,” said the man.
The customers shifted and stared into the mirror. We were all in this thing now, up to our necks. We waited. It was the bartender’s move.
“Ask it what? Such as?” said the bartender.
“Makes no difference. Pick a couple big figures, ask it to multiply them together. You couldn’t multiply big figures together if you were drunk, could you?”
The machine shook slightly, as though making internal preparations.
“Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, multiply it by ninety-nine,” said the bartender, viciously. We could tell that he was throwing in the two nines to make it hard.
The machine flickered. One of its tubes spat, and a hand changed position, jerkily.
“One million seventy-five thousand three hundred and thirty-eight,” said the machine.
Not a glass was raised all along the bar. People just stared gloomily into the mirror; some of us studied our own faces, others took carom shots at the man and the machine.
Finally, a youngish, mathematically minded customer got out a piece of paper and a pencil and went into retirement. “It works out,” he reported, after some minutes of calculating. “You can’t say the machine is drunk! ”
Everyone now glared at the bartender. Reluctantly he poured two shots of rye, drew two glasses of water. The man drank his drink. Then he fed the machine its drink. The machine’s light grew fainter. One of its cranky little arms wilted.
For a while the saloon simmered along like a ship at sea in calm weather. Every one of us seemed to be trying to digest the situation, with the help of liquor. Quite a few glasses were refilled. Most of us sought help in the mirror — the court of last appeal.
The fellow with the unbuttoned collar settled his score. He walked stiffly over and stood between the man and the machine.
He put one arm around the man, the other arm around the machine. “Let’s get out of here and go to a good place,”he said.
The machine glowed slightly. It seemed to be a little drunk now.
“All right,” said the man. “That suits me fine. I’ve got my car outside.”
He settled for the drinks and put down a tip. Quietly and a trifle uncertainly he tucked the machine under his arm, and he and his companion of the night walked to the door and out into the street.
The bartender stared fixedly, then resumed his light housekeeping. “So he’s got his car outside,” he said, with heavy sarcasm. “Now isn’t that nice!”
A customer at the end of the bar near the door left his drink, stepped to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out. He watched for a moment, then returned to his place and addressed the bartender. “It’s even nicer than you think,” he said. “It’s a Cadillac. And which one of the three of them d’ya think is doing the driving?” Text taken from here.
As for The Morning of the Day They Did It, I see online one comment by Bill Christensen: “Absolutely first-rate story by White makes me think I completely misunderstood Stuart Little. A man who works on a Stratovideo plane in the nascent television industry writes the story of the end of the world. This story is so up-to-date you’ll whimper with fear by the end. Highly recommended.’ Unfortunately I can’t find the text accessible online and it’s too long to type out, but I see that it is in at least one sci-fi anthology, it is absolutely deservedly mentioned in many contexts, as you’ll see if you google it. To quote White himself, who was beset by requests to reprint it and declined them all ‘Got my reasons. One reason is that I’m not sure it’s a public service to describe the end of the world, even in a spirit of satire. People are jumpy, right now, and I see no reason to explode paper bags.’
The man’s so damn quotable. These, from a Paris Review interview of the late sixties:
Feuds did not threaten The New Yorker. The only feud I recall was the running battle between the editorial department and the advertising department. This was largely a one-sided affair, with the editorial department lobbing an occasional grenade into the enemy’s lines just on general principles, to help them remember to stay out of sight. Ross was determined not to allow his magazine to be swayed, in the slightest degree, by the boys in advertising. As far as I know, he succeeded.
Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.
I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.
A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.
If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.
and, asked about permissiveness (as it used to be called) in writing:
Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.
and, of his future:
I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.