E. B. White lived in North Brooklin, Maine, and in New York City and worked for The New Yorker magazine most of his professional life, first as a contributor, then as a staff member starting in 1927. A prolific essayist, White is probably best remembered for his children’s books, “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” Writers, Mainers and almost anyone who has ever taken a writing course also know him as a co-author of “The Elements of Style.”

Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Now readers have the chance to refamiliarize themselves with the political essays, letters and poems he wrote from the late 1920s through the mid-1970s (He died in 1985), which have been collected by his granddaughter Martha White, who lives in Rockport, and published in the volume “On Democracy.”

Many of these short essays come from the “Notes and Comment” section of The New Yorker. Each bears a new and provocative title — like “The Meaning of Democracy,” “Discredit of Others,”  “Treason, Defined (When Congress Delays an Issue),” and “Crackpots” — that seem designed to suggest their relevance to today’s politics. Other similarly titled pieces were originally published as letters in the Bangor Daily News and The Weekly Packet, or as part of a column, “One Man’s Meat,” which White wrote from his Maine farm for Harper’s Magazine in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Today’s divisive, clamorous politics and President Trump himself offer abundant reason to read these essays, some more than 75 years old, today. In his introduction to the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jon Meacham calls President Trump an “opportunistic real estate and reality TV showman.”

“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 forty-fifth president’s,” Meacham continues.

It’s easy to see correlations between White’s writing and today’s politics. White saw an America that survived the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the resignation of the disgraced President Nixon. White faced and wrote about many of the same sort of questions we grapple with today. He was patriotic, but not certainly not nationalistic, and in this anthology we find him contemplating the meaning of democracy and freedom, the importance of a free press, freedom of (and from) religion, and the paradoxical idea of going to war for the sake of peace — all subjects that remain highly relevant today.


During World War II, the Writer’s War Board, a domestic propaganda group of writers, asked The New Yorker for its definition of democracy. White’s short piece on the subject (President Franklin Roosevelt was a big fan of the essay) appears in this volume.

“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time,” White wrote, drawing upon his wry wit and his good sense. “It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.”

Trump’s penchant for attacking the press is nothing new. In the mid-1950s most newspapers, according to White, were controlled by Republicans, who regularly attacked the Democrats. In 1970, in a letter to the Bangor Daily News, White wrote, “There’s only one kind of press that’s any good — a press free from any taint of government control.”

Lately, folks have been arguing over whether America is a nation based on Christianity. E.B. White considered that question, too. When, during the 1950s, Eisenhower suggested that prayer was a part of Democracy, White disagreed and he did not equivocate.

“The implication in such a pronouncement, emanating from the seat of government, is that religious faith is a condition, or even a precondition, of the democratic life,” he wrote in an essay that’s included in “On Democracy.” “This is just wrong.”

Presidents should pray whenever and wherever they like, White believed, but shouldn’t advertise prayer. “Democracy, if I understand it at all,” he continued, “is a society in which the unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. If there were only half a dozen unbelievers in America, their wellbeing would be a test of our democracy, their tranquility would be its proof.”

What, I wonder, might White have made of a Secretary of State who says, “God may have sent President Donald Trump to Earth to save Israel”?

In essay after essay in “On Democracy,” the parallels between his time and ours are uncanny and unmistakable. Would that we had White’s elegant, reasoned eye evaluating our current state of disunion.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/

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