Response #4 -E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

E.B. White. You might know him best from his children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.

Part of the beauty of this remarkable essay is  how seamlessly White is able to move us in time without it ever feeling disjointed. In the first paragraph, for example, we get the introduction to his boyhood trips to the lake in Maine, his since  becoming a “sea-water man”, and then, “a few weeks ago,” his return to the lake with his son. How does he do this?

We often talk about transitions between paragraphs, but what about within a paragraph? Notice how White uses phrases to keep us oriented, even as he transitions us in time. Specifically, he begins with “One summer.” Then, he uses the phrasing “I have since become…” to move us to understand him now as a man. Toward the end of the paragraph, “A few weeks ago…” again transitions us.

An essay should not be a house of mirrors, or a corn maze. An essay works best when the turns and moves it makes flow logically from one sentence to the next, like a drive through a landscape, or a float on a river.

Also, note how he begins in the very specific “One summer,” and then widens to the more general “We returned summer after summer.”

Time is also a thematic element in the essay: the conflation of father and son, the constant (and sometimes ironic) notion that things don’t change, and ultimately, the final line about “the chill of death.” Along the way, of course, the essay is filled with rich, specific details, keeping us engaged in landscape and story of the essay.

For this response, choose one paragraph. (There are 13 paragraphs; you can identify which paragraph you chose by giving us the number).   Pay close attention to the transition from sentence to sentence, phrase to phrase. To the precision of the language, the rhythm and music of the words, the clarity of the story and meaning. What do you take from this to apply to your own work?

Please feel free to also respond to any other aspect of the essay.

 

16 Comments for “Response #4 -E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake””

Lucie Anderson

says:

I chose paragraph three. This paragraph, though short, manages to completely contradict itself. It begins by claiming the lake is not wild at all and ends by saying it is, “infinitely remote and primeval.” White starts this transition by explaining why it is not wild. There are cottages and farms all around, breaking up the immersion of nature. He explains that his family was one of the cottage owners. However, his final sentence flips everything on its head. Because of his childhood wonder and imagination, it was still wild. A child alone could find the undisturbed areas and expand them in their mind in order to make them “infinitely remote and primeval.” What I love about White’s transitions is that the story flows beautifully like a conversation and it allows for more depth. This short paragraph towards the beginning not inly describes the place, but how he experienced it as a child. It gives insight into his perspective then and now. I would love to think more about how I use transitions instead of begrudging them as “boring but necessary” in the future.

Katherine Keith

says:

“I seemed to be living a dual existence.” This line refers to how the author is understanding the juxtaposition that is life. In simple and less poetic terms, our lives closely overlap with those we love most and the places we hold most dear. In this peaceful setting, carrying out activities in the present with his own son, he is reminiscing about the past; the line is blurring between the two. The illusion of himself, his father, and his son being one and the same at different times is sustained in this camp in Maine where he had such fond memories. This illusion of grandfather, father, and son is a theme that plays out again throughout and at the end of the essay. The shifting of time and captured memories happens seamlessly between the transitions of when E.B. White feels is the connection between either his father or his son. That provides us with a general marker for what period the memories occur in.
The man and his father.
“I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation.”
The man and the boy.
“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.”
“Everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants.”
The man alone.
“As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
In this final line, the author is now firmly back into his own figure as an adult and father questioning or at least realizing his own mortality.

Diana Ramstad

says:

In the last paragraph, the thirteenth paragraph gave me chills. From the moment I started reading this paragraph, I got the feeling of closure, and this was true. Through the whole story, the reader has the idea of the Journey that this man has felt. He feels like he is living part of the life of his father and his Son as him. This revelation is profound, and he weaves this in well through the story.
What I take from this is that when writing, I need to work on smoother transitions and rhythms instead of being abrupt. For example, this passage, “As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly, my groin felt the chill of death.” This passage is the last passage of the paragraph and the story. He gives way to a closure; it leaves me the reading wondering this is a metaphorical death. In that, he understands his Son is not himself, and he is not his father, or is he thinking of a real death?
The writer keeps me the reader interested in this Journey of change and growth. The interwoven story of his Journey along with his Son’s at the same place he spent every summer is rhythmic and exciting. The one thing I got through this is to keep a similar thread through the story I write. This style keeps the reader interested and connected.

Isabelle Jacobson

says:

The paragraph I was most drawn to (although I could really pick several) and that sticks in my mind the most is the second paragraph beginning with “I took along my son…” and describing White’s returning to a place that held significant memories. The reason I was so drawn to it was because it is a common experience to realize memories are exaggerating certain things and that time might have changed them. It’s an upsetting realization that marks the transition from childhood thinking into adulthood thinking. I really liked the beginning of the paragraph that positions his own child as a younger version of himself who hadn’t yet seen the wonders of the world, and he was in the position his father was likely in when he introduced his child (E.B. White) to the lake. It makes it feel like a tradition, like family outings to the lake are a necessary turning point or event in the lives of each generation.
I like the way White’s sentences float into one another. He positions the reader, then he explains his worries and assumptions about the state of the lake, then reflects on what memories are, then becomes lost in very detailed scenes from his childhood that are extremely immersive due to the sensory details. His transitioning from present action to remembering past action feels so natural and not forced at all. I think the most important take-away I got from this piece as a whole and primarily this paragraph is to break up present and past with reflection or wondering or some way to break up the two timespans with something related and important to the piece. I could define the importance of a term to me, or speak to the reader, or just have some kind of reflection so that when I add in new scenes or discuss a new but related topic, it doesn’t change the pace of the piece too quickly or give the reader whiplash with how quickly I’m flying through topics.

Jennifer Karulski

says:

White is a real master at seamless transitions, as you pointed out. I love how his vivid sensory details pull the reader into the scene. When he compares himself to his son and also his father, you start to think of every generation, and men taking their sons fishing since the beginning of time. This is a really powerful essay.

Jennifer Karulski

says:

Paragraph #6 starts “We went fishing the first morning.” White immediately launches into sensory details, memories of the same sights and smells of his boyhood experience. The arrival of a dragonfly convinces him that “everything is at it always has been,” and the years were an illusion. The next sentence expresses his feeling that it was the same experience from his childhood, that the waves, even the debris at the bottom of the boat is exactly the same. The return of the dragonfly enforces the feeling and he sees no difference between this dragonfly and the ones from years past, which causes him to look at his son and get dizzy with their connection and him not being able to distinguish the two of them.

These sentences link these ideas together seamlessly, taking the reader along with the writer’s train of thought. I like the image of the dragonfly and how it is a tangible item that is constant from the past and into the present. It is a symbol of how things don’t change and echoes the author’s thought that he is at the same time his younger self, himself now, his son and also his father. All this is set against the background of the never changing lake, the grounding element in the piece.

For my own writing, I see the value in how inanimate objects or image, like the dragonfly, can correlate to an emotion that is the heart of the story. One of the themes of the story is how things change, while at the same time, not changing at all. A dragonfly, an insect that has been around since prehistoric times, is a perfect symbol for this feeling.

Ana Hinkle

says:

I chose paragraph seven. White’s first sentence is a statement in the present describing the road (two-track road) he is walking on to the farmhouse for dinner. The second sentence mentions the middle track was missing, as were the hoof tracks and manure piles. White is remembering what the road was like when he would walk it as a boy. He then states there had always been tracks to chose from but now the choice has been narrowed. White is showing the reader how the road has changed over time, from his visits to the lake as a boy to his present visit with his own son. White then reflects on the tennis court he passes and shares how it reassured him. He is coming to terms with the change and finds comfort in the sameness. White then explains the pie that was served for dessert and reflects on the waitresses still being fifteen, as if no time has passed, yet the only difference was they had washed hair, indicating changing with the times as they knew that clean hair was “in”.
What I liked about this paragraph is how easily White transitions between past and present and the compare and contrast he does while doing so. He does it so eloquently. This is something I would like to do in my essay. We know how much a place can change over time, and being able to compare the two, creates a visual picture for the reader, in turn building trust in the author. The reader understands these are genuine, lived experiences.

Erika Goddard

says:

I decided to go with the second paragraph for my response. In just one paragraph, we go from White taking his son along to the lake to his mind wondering of the coves, streams, and hills to the possibility of being desolated to discussing how one remembers things and so forth. With so many topics in just one paragraph, you would think that it would be a clunky mess, but that is not the case. The sentences flow seamlessly together that you don’t even notice that White goes a little off the original topic for a moment. In a way, it is pretty relatable as one can easily as White puts it, remember one thing that reminds you of another. Through my first reading I didn’t even notice and it took a second reading for me to pause for a moment to realize what was going on. It’s clear and simple to understand and easy for the reader to follow without losing them while going in a rather unusual path while going over several different points. It’s really brilliant and well done if you think about it.

Isabelle Jacobson

says:

I also really liked how I had to read it a couple times to get it, but I wasn’t frustrated with that, I just appreciated it differently with each passing. Super lovely writing style.

Liz

says:

Paragraph eight, beginning with “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible,” is a tour de force piece of writing. What I find most inspiring is that it lands in the middle of an essay (eight of thirteen paragraphs) and yet feels like a poem dropped down in the middle of a piece of prose. That is not to say that the rest of the piece is prosaic by any means–much of the writing is incredibly poetic and profound. But 8 could very easily, especially given a few line breaks, be a poem all on its own. Another astounding thing is the length of the first sentence: 8 1/2 lines long. There is a semicolon in there but otherwise it is filed with commas and doesn’t feel like a run-on sentence in the least. This feels freeing to me, because I love to write long winding sentences and I sometimes worry that it can look like I’m “trying” too hard–like I’m trying to turn my otherwise pedestrian essay into a piece of art. Which, I suppose, I am. But White makes it look both easy and purposeful; he doesn’t seem to worry about trying or not, he just writes. White also does an interesting thing with lyricism. He writes such a marvelous paragraph, lilting and gorgeous, and then ends with, “…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.” It’s not only a quotidian idea but the word “chicken” is so harsh and Germanic and it ends the sentence, and the paragraph, so abruptly as to be comical. He shows himself to be a master of language, both at its most lovely and at its funniest. This is the sort of writing that I aspire to, and other than Charlotte’s Web and Strunk and White, I haven’t read EB White to speak of. I’m fascinated with his writing and would love to read more! It’s timeless, too, which I hope to use as a model for my own writing.

Aubri Stogsdill

says:

I chose paragraph 8. The author is expressing what his childhood summer looked and felt like. The first sentence starts off with “Summertime, oh summertime..” and then the same sentence goes on for 10 lines! While there are commas and semicolons, there is very little rest and these romanticized descriptions of the lake, cottages, and the rest of the area just keep going on. This super long paragraph feels like a long winded memory. It reminds me of how I feel while trying to describe something that was deeply impactful. The writing mimics a stream of memories hitting someone all at the same time.

The theme of this first long sentence, is how the appearance and feeling of the lake last forever. The author uses words like, forever and ever, fade proof, and without end. As the paragraph goes, he summarizes the experience of being a family in this area over the summer and he concludes with wondering about other families that also came to the camp.

E. B. White did an incredible job of pulling the reader into his experiences and memories as well as giving us a good idea of what he was experiencing in the moment. Each paragraph was interesting and engaging. I think this essay has certainly encouraged me to be far more intentional with the language I use in my writing. The seamlessness of his storytelling, jumping from one time to another, was so satisfying to read.

Logan McGinnis

says:

Reading what everyone else has commented, I couldn’t agree more. White does a fantastic job of beautifully painting this picture and does so, in just thirteen paragraphs. I’ve chose to focus on the fifth paragraph. He transitions into the fifth from the fourth saying they went fishing on that first morning. “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.” I think this was my favorite line out of the whole piece. He goes back and forth telling us about his adventures as a boy but now that he’s brought his own son, things seem to stay the say. He then proceeds to relive his memories through the present, giving details that remain the same just as when he was a boy. He mentions the discarded fishhooks, blood from the previous days catch, and the dragonflies. I love this way of transitioning from past to present all while linking them together.

Jacob Parker

says:

I would say I was most captivated with paragraph eight. It starts off very far away and zooms in on an American family at play. The first sentence is quite a long one and begins by using abstract descriptions like “woods unshatterable” and “summer without end” to distance the reader in a timeless manner, but then it starts to zoom in and we see the cottages with a blue sky overhead panning down to an American flag waving in the wind; now in view we see the dirt paths, trees, campground. That first sentence starts in the abstract and brings the reader into reality by the end. Afterwards the reader is with the American family escaping the city heat, and it seems as if we are in a particular moment in time; however it transitions into the next paragraph making it all seem like some sort of memory. This all creates for a very euphoric reading experience. I will keep this reading in mind and look for ways to incorporate the techniques that captivated me in this paragraph.

Stef

says:

Paragraph 10 stood out to me because one of the first things I noticed here in Alaska, besides the vastness of the land, was the stark contrast between the overwhelming silence and natural sounds and the sounds of motorized means of transportation. I spent three summers in Denali National Park and learnt about the influence of human-generated soundscapes on wildlife like owls and their hunting routines, and noticed that no matter how far into the wilderness I’d gone, there was never a day without the sound of an airplane in the background. White starts his paragraph off with just three nouns: ‘Peace and goodness and jollity.’ And he immediately follows with a description of the very contrasting reality of unsettling sounds of outboard motors. He then further elaborates on why these sounds are so unnerving and foreign. He identifies these sounds as markers of time, evidence of change. He then compares the new sound of outboard motors to that of the inboard motors he grew up with, and then elaborates on various ‘tricks’ one could master to properly land a boat. White is using his transitions so remarkably well that upon first reading, I didn’t even notice how we moved from ‘peace’ to ‘charging bull fashion at the dock’ when turning off the boat motor too late – the exact opposite experience! He connects each idea so well to the next that the transitions appear seamless. I believe that this is the result of very conscious word choices with each sentence he writes, which is something I’d like to get better at by spending more time revising pieces I have already written, and by being more focused on each single sentence. Each word has significance and contains the potential to evoke a meaningful response in the reader.

Stef

says:

Also, I noticed that I’m using filler words and expression to ‘fill the silence’ or cover up insecurities, but mostly they distract from the message (or they cover up that I don’t have a clear message!). White doesn’t use filler words. Everything he writes has significance and is related to something else he has written.

Hunter Young

says:

After reading this essay many times, I think the first paragraph still grabs me the most. I would say my weakest skill while writing is knowing where and how to start. In this paragraph, White is able to bring the reader from the past to the present without it feeling too overwhelming. He picks just the right details to ground the scene so that while in the last few sentences, the jump in time feels just right. White uses sparse language to show the passage of time. I think many writers, myself included, might try to avoid simply saying, “We returned summer after summer–always on August 1st for one month.” The language is straight to the point and is really effective. He doesn’t linger too much. It is the perfect setup for the story to start and end anywhere White wants it to. He then says, “A few weeks ago,” to place us in time, and when the second paragraph starts with, “I took along my son,” White has shown us decades and a whole lifetime in such a small space. I’m really interested in figuring out how to use this in my own writing. White has a good way of cutting out the fat, defining space in time, and using the details that will not only ground the reader, but make them care.

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