In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E. B. White, the author of greats such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, expressing his bleak hope for humanity.
White’s beautiful reply, found in Letters of Note, attempts to raise the man’s spirits.
North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White
E.B. White, noted author of Charlote’s Web and co-author of The Elements of Style, answers a question on the role of the writer in a society that has become increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology.
The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In “The Ring of Time,” I wrote: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.”
A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.
When asked if media such as television and motion pictures have had any effect on contemporary literary styles, White responds:
Television affects the style of children—that I know. I receive letters from children, and many of them begin: “Dear Mr. White, My name is Donna Reynolds.” This is the Walter Cronkite gambit, straight out of TV. When I was a child I never started a letter, “My name is Elwyn White.” I simply signed my name at the end.