Applying Huxley’s three pole analysis to E. B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake,” shows that this essay rises to the level of the “most richly satisfying” because White does “make the best . . . of all three worlds.”
“Once More to the Lake” is autobiographical and intensely personal. It arises from a firsthand experience common among Americans for generations: the summertime escape from the city to a mountain lake. The lake that White writes about is Great Pond and is one of several in the vicinity of Belgrade, Maine referred to collectively as the Belgrade Lakes (Elledge 27).
The personal and autobiographical source of the essay is authenticated by its concrete and specific language. This language establishes ”the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular” pole of Huxley’s criteria for excellence. In the end, White’s contemplation of the particulars, both remembered and freshly observed, leads him to the realization of the last pole of Huxley’s trinity — an insight that reaches beyond the particular to affirm an universal truth.
The theme of White’s essay is the passage of time and the changes that it brings. Returning to the lake after many years with his son, Joe, White confronts multiple changes as he struggles with the illusion that the idyllic world of his childhood, and his present existence within it, remain the same. But while the lake in its essence remains unchanged, White himself is different, and so he finally accepts a fundamental irony of life: Because the natural cycle of birth, childhood, maturity, and death are enduring, he too is subject to the natural course that leads to death.
This idea emerges as White compares his memories of the lake with his experience upon revisiting it with his son. The points of comparison are multiple and the language he uses to describe them is concrete and specific.
White’s description of the cabins at the lake provides the first example of his focus on details, and this initiates his confusion of the present experience with the past. He writes that he remembered most clearly “the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless, remembered how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen” (198). His boyhood habit of rising early and taking to the lake ties the present to the past as he hears his son do the same. In the mornings long ago, he would be the first one up and “would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines . . . being very careful never to rub [the] paddle against the gunwale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral” (198). And on this return, he knew that it was “going to be pretty much the same as it had been before . . . lying in bed the first morning smelling the bedroom and hearing the boy sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat” (198). White’s description emphasizes the sensuous qualities of this natural world and the common response of children to it.
But taking his son fishing is the event that convinces him “beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and that there had been no years” (199). This notion is triggered by a dragonfly that alights on the tip of his fishing rod. When he lowered the tip of his rod “into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod,” he asserts that “there had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one – the one that was part of memory” (199). Here White’s observations are as particular as those of a scientist taking field notes, and his language is just as precise. The identification of the present with his past experience is further confirmed by the details of the lake and the boat:
|The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the same color green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floorboards, the same fresh water leavings and debris – the dead hell-grammite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday’s catch. (198-199)|
White gives this Whtiman-like catalog as evidence that everything remains the same in spite of the passage of time. Indeed, it is the sameness of the lake itself that gives him the greatest evidence that things have not changed. Again, with the eye of a trained naturalist, he looks into the placid water:
|In the shallows, the dark, water-soaked sticks and twigs, smooth and old, were undulating in clusters on the bottom against the clean ribbed sand, and the track of the mussel was plain. A school of minnows swam by, each minnow with its small individual shadow, doubling the attendance, so clear and sharp in the sunlight. (199)|
But White views the lake not only as a naturalist but as a sociologist too. Taking this perspective, his observations are equally detailed and precise.
He recognizes the continuity of the “lake culture.” On the first day of fishing, he observes the campers swimming along the shore, and “one of them with a cake of soap” (199). He remembers that “over the years there had been this person with the cake of soap, this cultist, and here he was” (199). He sees this recurrent figure as proof that everything is as it had always been and “there had been no years” (199). And on the afternoon following the thunderstorm, as “light and hope and spirits return” to the lake, White watches “the campers running out in joy and relief to go swimming in the rain, their bright cries perpetuating the deathless joke about how they were getting simply drenched, and the children screaming with delight at the new sensation of bathing in the rain, and the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella” (202). A mature White witnesses the recurring rituals of play that constitute one thread of the cultural bond uniting the generations. He is comforted by these as well as the permanence of nature.
But in contrast to the things that seem stable and enduring, both technology and urban life are bringing changes. Foremost is the matter of transportation. When White was a child, his family arrived at the town of Belgrade by railway; they loaded trunks onto a farm wagon with much to-do and supervision by his father and were driven to the lake by the host-farmer. Now the road to the lake has been tarred and “you sneaked up in your car and parked it under a tree near the camp and took out the bags and in five minutes it was all over, no fuss, no loud wonderful fuss about trunks” (200). The road from the cabin to the farmhouse where the family took their meals has also changed. The road still ran through “the teeming dusty field” but it was only “a two track road. The middle track was missing, the one with the marks of the hooves and the splotches of dried flaky manure” (199)
The girls who served dinner “were the same farm girls” but “their hair had been washed . . . they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair” (200). Thus, the coming of the automobile and paved road to the outside world were having an impact on the lake community.
But White gives special attention to one technological change that annoys him. This is the outboard motor. In the old days the boats were powered by inboards “and when they were at a little distance, the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep. . . But now the campers all had outboards . . . “ and these “made a petulant, irritable sound; at night in the still evening when the afterglow lit the water, they whined about one’s ears like mosquitoes” (201).
While the local store is essentially unchanged, here too the outside world is intruding. Within, “the things were in the same place – the minnows in a bottle, the plugs and spinners disarranged and pawed over by the youngsters from the boys’ camp, the Fig Newtons and the Beeman’s gum” (201). But “there was more Coca-Cola and not so much Moxie and root beer and birch beer and sarsaparilla” (201-202). His catalog suggests the replacement of the rural and local with the homogenized and the commonplace. In the midst of observing the changes imposed on his rural retreat by an intrusive technology and commercialization, White sings a paean to the enduring simplicity and wholesomeness of Middle America:
|Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible with fade-proof lake, the wood unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design, their tiny docks with the flagpole and the American flag floating against the white clouds in the blue sky, and little paths over the roots of the trees leading from camp to camp and the paths leading back to the outhouses and the can of lime for sprinkling, and at the souvenir counters at the store the minature birch-bark canoes and the postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked. This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the new comers in the camp at the head of the cove were “common” or “nice,” wondering whether it was true that the people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken. (200)|
In this catalog, White abandons himself to a nostalgic reverie for Norman Rockwell’s America. The inventory is both representative and concise, and the paragraph concludes by expressing his wish to have things remain as they were in his childhood when “world” issues concerned only the desirability of the new neighbors or the rumors of minor incidents. Thus, White’s essay exemplifies the first two of Huxley’s poles for evaluating the essay: it is both personal and autobiographical, and at the same time it renders its subject in language that is concrete and particular as well as verifiably objective and factual.
The third pole that Huxley proposes for considering the essay is the abstract-universal. In the conclusion of “Once More to the Lake, White uses a stark metaphor to express a universal truth that he induces from his close observation of the lake, his son, and his own reactions to them. It is the simple but profoundly affecting realization that the enduring cycle of life that made him a father will also lead to his death.
The personal acceptance of this truth comes gradually, but its final realization shocks him. On his return to the lake, White suffers an emotional dissonance as he relives the experiences and sensations of his childhood while observing his son experience them for the first time. This creates the strange feeling that he is sometimes his son who is fishing and boating, and that he is sometimes his father. White’s struggle to reconcile these changes in perspective is both conscience and subliminal. The conflict emerges on the first morning when White compares his son’s actions with his own habitual behavior years before.
When Joe steals out of the cabin early in the morning, White says that he “began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father” (198). Commenting in an almost clinical way, he continues: “This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence” (198). This illusion might be evoked by “some simple act” such as picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or simply saying something and “suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture” (198).
In the boat as they watched the dragonfly, White says that “I looked at the boy who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of” (199).
The same sensation emerged when they explored streams, watched the turtles slide off of logs, or lay on the wharf and fed the tame bass. He declares that “everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants” (202).
At first, he has the sense that time has not passed because the natural features of the lake and the woods appear the same. But the confusion of identity that he experiences is testimony to the fact that things have changed and that he is a separate individual, neither his son, at the onset of life, nor his father who has passed on, but someone at the midpoint on his own path to mortality.
He describes how after the thunderstorm he “languidly” watched his son pull on his swim suit with no thought of going into the lake himself: “I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death” (202). The metaphor “chill of death” is not new, but its association with the idea of procreation gives it force since procreation is the precursor of death for all species.
At this point, White knows that because the cycle that leads from birth to death is universal, he is subject to it, and as he watches his son ascend the path to maturity and independence, he is approaching the horizon of his own demise. It is White’s induction of this universal truth from the concrete and particular of his personal experience that realizes Huxley’s third pole for assessing an essay and elevates “Once More to the Lake” to the highest level of the art.
A universal truth is susceptible to anyone who has the intellect and experience to recognize it. And it is the especial province of the writer to express these universals in unique and individual terms. This is the power of White’s essay. The quality of a literary work is further established when its insights are verified by others who write independently of similar experiences and who express the same universal truth in their own terms. So White’s understanding is echoed in a poem by Donald Hall titled “My Son My Executioner.”
|My son, my executioner,
I take you In my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir,
And whom my body warms.Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Your cries and hungers document
Our bodily decay.We twenty-five and twenty-two,
Who seemed to live forever,
Observe enduring life in you
And start to die together. (19)
Like White, Hall sees the birth of his son as a precursor of his own death. The poem pivots on the irony that while the newborn child is the executioner of his parents, he is at the same time the instrument of their immortality. This idea is also implicit in “Once More to the Lake.” Generation leads to generation, back to the beginnings of time and forward until the species stumbles into annihilation. Although White will die, his son will have a son who will be similarly nurtured and taken to the lake because he has “never had any fresh water up his nose and . . . [has] seen lily pads only from train windows” (197). This child will also see the cultist with the bar of soap and share the timeless joke about getting soaked while swimming in the rain, and in his maturity will obey the parental instinct to guide and teach. The individual life is thus woven into the fabric of the cultural life, giving it continuity and renewed meaning through the generations.
As Russell Baker says, because “We all come from the past,” parents feel “children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud” (8).
The universal truth that White expresses is thus connected to other truths that are induced from the common experiences of humankind and that together form a network of interrelated truths that define the human condition.
As Huxley suggests, a great essay combines a unique personal perspective on the concrete, the objective, the factual aspects of life, and induces from these a realization of a universal truth. But he might have also added that this universal truth suggests an expanding complex of associations that define what we know intellectually and comprehend emotionally about life.
Elledge, Scott. E. B. White: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.
Hall, Donald. “My Son My Executioner.” Old Poems and New. New York: Tricknor and Fields, 1990.
White, E. B. “Once More to the Lake.” Essays of E.B White. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. 197-202.