Writers At Home 2: E.B. White’s quiet hideaway

Revised blog post*

home of the late E.B. White - Maritimes, Canada

E.B. White’s quiet main hideaway

Winding our way down into Maine from the Canadian Maritime provinces, we followed the twists and turns along the coast and its many inlets, sipping coffee and soaking up the mellow mood. We were looking for the home of the late E.B. White but, coffee being what it is, bathrooms became higher priority than roadsigns.

In small town Maine, with its pleasant absence of freeway fast food outlets and national chains, public washrooms are less than common. We found one eventually at a little cafe – the kind where everyone at the counter looks up when two “strangers” walk in – but in doing so must have missed our main target – the village of Brooklin, Maine.

With some backtracking and trial-and-error up and down sideroads we eventually figured out what was Brooklin (a small cluster of homes) and North Brooklin, then located the library and eventually the white farm house where E.B. White did most of his writing.

White’s place wasn’t any easier to find in his lifetime, which is just how as he wanted it. White retreated to his quiet “saltwater farm” in Maine from New York, where he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, in order to better focus on writing longer pieces – the deeper essays and his children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.

Although the Whites lived on the same modest farm for decades, E.B. noted that they were always be considered to be “from away” by the locals. Perhaps it was their penchant for urban habits like martinis at noon but more likely just rural reserve on the neighbours’ part. In any event, E.B. White settled into a quiet, comfortable and productive writing life in the plain white farmhouse.

The house and its farmyard still speak of White’s style preferences – unadorned but trim, immaculate and neat. White believed that the roughness, the mess, the work of writing wasn’t the reader’s business or interest. His careful craftsmanship showed in everything he published – including, I found out as I read more and more of his work – his personal letters.

In today’s world of dashed off emails, informal blogs and spur-of-the-moment Twitter tweets, true editing is unusual. Not so with White. Even with personal correspondence he would compose a first draft in pencil, give it to his secretary for typing, editing it in pencil, then have it retyped. No wonder those letters to friends, colleagues and family members have such wonderful turns of phrase.

When we made our visit, a number of years ago, we didn’t feel we should intrude (much) on the property or the privacy of the current owners. As I recall, we drove a ways down the lane towards the farmyard, in order to get a good view of the house, then retreated to the library and cemetery. In the Friend Memorial Library, we found first editions of White’s book that had, until recently, still been in regular circulation. There was no fanfare about the famous writer who had lived nearby, except a small memorial garden which is, I think, as much a memorial to Katharine White’s years as a library director as it is to E.B. the writer.

However unassuming, the White home is now on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Sites. A tourist destination it is not. (Writer Nancy Woods more recently visited the White home – see her account here.)

As they no doubt intended, the Whites’ graves at the small community graveyard are out of the way, at the back. They were quiet, literary people from the big city who chose to cocoon themselves in rural Maine. They took care – took care of their small farm, their community, their written works, their legacy.

* This blog post has been revised – apologies to blog subscribers who received an unfinished post with the same title

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well done on this White home piece. I plan to visit the area this summer and was curious whether it was a “destination”. Sounds like not, so I won’t seek it out, but enjoyed your account of the finding and impressions. /DG Caskey, Lula, GA

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