E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat is a collection of short essays written between 1939 and 1942.
Usually, words like that wouldn’t make me want to read a book. But this is E. B. White we’re talking about, a man who got us to fall in love with a children’s book in which its title character dies.
And this is the same E. B. White who, with The Elements of Style, gave us one of the best English language writing guides ever created.
In other words, E. B. White knew how to write. And One Man’s Meat is exemplary of its creator’s talent.
The book contains 45 essays. Most are about the length of a newspaper column, or, in more modern terms, they’re blog-post length.
The Maine farm where White lived with his wife, Katherine, and their son, Joel is the setting for many of the essays. (That farm, by the way, inspired White to write that children’s book I referred to earlier: Charlotte’s Web.)
White wrote One Man’s Meat between July 1938 and December 1941. His final essay was written three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that flung the U.S. into World War II.
Indeed, the growth of fascism in Europe and the lead-up to the War trickles into many of White’s essays.
And those writings that discuss world events are one of the reasons I recommend One Man’s Meat for today’s reader. There are surprising parallels between what happened in White’s time and in our present days.
Another reason I’m telling others to read the book is that it’s relaxing entertainment. White was a talented writer who threaded much of his writing with humor.
The Politics of One Man’s Meat
Today in America it seems we’re divided into disputing factions on the verge of outright confrontation.
Entertainment TV shows masquerading as news fuel the anger and angst. And many of us think that not since our Civil War have we so passionately disagreed with each other.
But history has a pesky way of keeping us grounded. And the truth is that leading up to World War II, much of America was divided.
Some people wanted to confront Hitler. Others viewed Nazi Germany’s aggression as a European issue to be settled by countries on that continent.
And some Americans even supported fascists such as Hitler and Mussolini.
It’s this dispute that White sprinkles traces of throughout One Man’s Meat. These moments are particularly present in the latter half of the book, as the threat of war grows for the United States.
In one passionate essay, “The Wave of the Future,” White attacks a book recently published by Anne Lindbergh.
Lindbergh, like her husband the famed pilot Charles Lindbergh, believed the U.S. should avoid war with Germany. And in the book she produced that White criticized, she argued that fascism was the “wave of the future.”
To that, White wrote, “There is nothing new in it and nothing good in it, and to-day 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.”
A Debate Swap
In truth, you could swap the references to fascism from One Man’s Meat for some of the issues debated among Americans today and you would hardly recognize the change.
Where today we debate denying Central American immigrants entry into our country, in White’s time it was whether to give European Jews refuge in the U.S.
In America today we’re arguing over whether or not Russia is a threat to our nation, and when White wrote One Man’s Meat, people disagreed about the danger of the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
We’re now debating the utility of international alliances, which is a rebrand of the same discussion taking place in the U.S. in the early 1940s.
On this topic, White devoted an essay, “The Trailer Park.” In it, he asks residents of a Florida trailer park whether or not they would support an alliance between the U.S. and other democratic nations.
“It’s all very well to believe in internationalism,” White wrote, “but it’s even better to find out whether somebody else at a distance believes in it.”
And we Americans today can’t seem to agree on what level of humanity we’re willing to show others. This isn’t dissimilar to White’s day.
For example, in the essay “Coon Hunt,” White recounts incidents of antisemitism against a Jewish merchant near his Maine farm.
To this, he wrote, “There would never be a moment, in war or in peace, when I wouldn’t trade all the patriots in the country for one tolerant man.”
A Caveat with a Purpose
It’s worth noting that much of One Man’s Meat has little to do with politics and war.
The topics White writes about include technology, farming, parenting, allergies, Hollywood, writing, transportation, and hunting.
In the essay, “Clear Day,” White writes about a soon-to-be animated film: “I see by the papers that our Eastern forests this season are full of artists engaged in making pencil sketches of suitable backgrounds for Walt Disney’s proposed picture ‘Bambi’ — which is about a deer.”
For the piece, “My Day,” White covers hen’s laying eggs: “Hens need excitement to keep them at peak production. Any little trinket that you bring a hen stimulates her.”
One of the most entertaining aspects of this book is White’s humor. He delivers quips and self-deprecating jokes throughout the book.
While much of One Man’s Meat is good reading for us still today, there is one thing to note: Some of White’s references to people of color do not withstand the test of time.
The terms White uses are typical of people in that period of American history. Though at the time these identifiers weren’t considered by white Americans to be offensive, they are today.
Still, even these racist references are part of the reason we should today read One Man’s Meat.
After all, questions and debates around race and identity are as prevalent in America now as ever. And if we’re going to understand our present in order to better shape our future, we need to know the truth of our past.
E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat can help with that.