E.B. White, Prophetic Media Critic

My wife is a fan of E.B. White’s, and with good reason. Each time she has read me a passage of his prose, mostly from his essays, I have found his voice to be unfailingly wise and humane. Below is a passage my wife shared with me this morning, knowing that I would find it especially interesting. It is from a 1938 essay titled “Removals” included in the collection One Man’s Meat. It is an astute analysis of television when television was in its infancy.

The news of television, however, is what I particularly go for when I get a chance at the paper, for I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure [….]

Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, image—distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light—these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice [….]

When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.

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I suspect most people will respond to this sort of thing in one of two ways. Some will see it as evidence that what we worry about today people worried about in years past, and from this they will draw the conclusion that, the race having survived to worry again, it may be best not to worry about such things at all. Others will see evidence of a historical trajectory, an antecedent to our present condition, the first steps down an unfortunate path, or, at least, evidence of perennial struggles, which each generation must face on their own terms.

It will, in short, seem like either reactionary nostalgia for an age that never existed—when in want of an argument charge opponent with Nostalgia—or part of any viable explanation for how we end up with a reality TV host for a president and somehow itching for another celebrity television personality to take his place.

I would encourage us simply to ask, “What if he’s right?” Or, to approach our reflections from a slightly different angle, “If he was wrong, how would we know?”

Relatedly, there was one other line that caught my attention. This one, however, is taken from Roger Angell’s 1997 preface to the collection of essays. Angell was White’s stepson and a consummate prose stylist in his own right. In recalling his stepfather’s virtues, he noted that White somewhere wrote that “the hardest thing about the war was to maintain a decent sense of indignation about its deadly details.”

White was speaking about World War 2, and, of course, he was speaking as a civilian on the home front. We are not in the midst of anything like the Second World War, but, nonetheless, I found the idea of struggling “to maintain a decent sense of indignation” somehow resonant and timely.

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