The book Randy chose to take along with him on our recent three-week trip to Spain was a paperback copy of one of E.B. White’s book of essays, One Man’s Meat (1942).
Several evenings during our trip, I borrowed the book and dipped into it at random. What I found there was a series of flawlessly written essays on all manner of subjects, each of them in the wry, understated voice White was so famous (and beloved) for, both before and after his stints as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and before and after he published the immensely popular children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and before and after his and his co-author’s guide for writers, the perennial bestseller Elements of Style.
When Randy finished his copy of One Man’s Meat, he gave it to me so I could begin reading it cover to cover, which I promptly resolved to do after discovering that some of the essays it contains were not included in the volume of White’s collected essays that (along with a copy of his collected letters) I’ve owned and chereished since the late 1970s.
In addition to re-living White’s humbly-told (and often hilarious) tales of White’s adventures as an amateur farmer who, with his wife and son, had de-camped from Manhattan to Maine, I came upon (in the form of a discursive book review) some unexpected and amazingly prescient comments of White’s about fascism.
Here’s what, seventy-eight years ago – and seventy-six years before Mr. Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency – White had to say:
“…I think I shall go on resisting any change I disapprove of, for I do not think that change, per se, is anything much, nor that change is necessarily good….Fascism sins against Nature more grievously than anything I ever saw, because it proposes to remove (and does remove) so much of what is natural in people’s lives….[We should] resist the forces which are pledged to destroy parliaments and senates and congresses and newspapers and courts and universities.
The future…seems to be no unified dream but a mince pie, long in the baking, never quite done. The push of eager, dispossessed, frustrated people, united zealously under a bad leader, is one ingredient; the resistance of those whom this push hurts or offends or threatens is another….
…[Fascism] is just the backwash of the past and has muddied the world for centuries.…
…[Name] one new social or economic force that has been discovered by dictators. I can’t think of any that aren’t as old as the hills. The force which Hitler [employed] is the force generated by people who have stood all the hardship they intend to, and are exploding through the nearest valve and it is an ancient force, and so is the use of it by opportunists in bullet-proof vests….[I]t is a common fallacy to say that because a movement springs from deep human distress it must hold thereby the seed of a better order. The fascist ideal, however great the misery which released it and however impressive the self-denial and the burning courage which promote it, does not hold the seed of a better order but a worse one, and it always has a foul smell and a bad effect on the soil. It stank at the time or Christ and it stinks today, wherever you find it and in whatever form, big or little – even here in American, the little fascists always at their tricks, stirring up a lynching mob or flagellating the devil…. The forces are always the same – on the people’s side frustration, disaffection, on the leader’s side control of hysteria, perversion of information, abandonment of principle. There is nothing new in it and nothing good in it, and today when it is developed to a political nicety and supported by a formidable military machine the best thing to do is to defeat it as promptly as possible and in all humility….
…It is of course anybody’s privilege to believe that a good conception of humanity may be coming to birth through the horrid forms of Nazism, but it seems to me far more likely that a good conception of humanity is being promoted by the stubborn resistance to Nazism on the part of millions of people whose belief in democratic notions has been strengthened. Is my own intellectual resistance, based on a passionate belief that the ‘new order’ is basically destructive of universal health and happiness, any less promising than the force of nazism itself, merely because mine does not spring from human misery but merely from human sympathy?I don’t see why. And I do not regard it as a sin to hang fast to principles of a past which I approve of and believe are still applicable and sensible merely because they are, so to speak, ‘past’ and not ‘future.’ I think they are future too, and I think democracy…is the most futuristic thing I ever heard of, and that it holds everything hopeful there is, because ‘demos’ means people and that’s what I am for, and whatever Nazi means it doesn’t mean people, it means ‘the pure-bred people,’ which is a contemptible idea to build a new order on. …I still think [‘democracy’] a good word and a beautiful word…and I find the wave which it sets up a more agreeable wave than any other, and more promising and more buoyant and prettier to look at….I know a lot of things can start with human misery and not bring anything except more human misery….”
– Excerpted from E.B. White’s December 1940 essay “The Wave of the Future,” reprinted in One Man’s Meat (1942).
I decided to re-read White’s essays to temper the often-horrifying news I glean daily (and numbly “Share”) from the politically-oriented posts on Facebook. I might’ve expected to find something prescient about fascism in a collection of, say, George Orwell’s essays. But E.B. White? Now I respect him – both as a writer and as a thinker – more than ever!