John Muir in Alaska – yes, we’ve all read about that. But E.B. White in Alaska? The author of Charlotte’s Web wrote a terrific essay called “The Years of Wonder,” collected in Essays of E.B. White (Harper & Row, 1977). I don’t know how Alaska anthologists – myself included – have overlooked this touching, funny, surprisingly self-deprecating gem. (I heard about it only recently from a local book club friend, Nora.)
In the essay, White is inspired just after Alaska statehood passes to remember the highlights and mishaps of a youthful trip he made north in 1923, when he attached himself to a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce group of “Boston capitalists” traveling 8,300 miles to Alaska and Siberia aboard a private steamer called the Buford.
“I was rather young to be so far north,” he wrote, “but there is a period near the beginning of every man’s life when he has little to cling to except his unmanageable dream, little to support him except good health, and nowhere to go but all over the place.”
White was an incompetent reporter who had lost his job (the author of The Elements of Style – incompetent?) – and he decided to risk the trip, hoping he could find work along the way. He ends up working on the ship first as a saloonsman, then as the ‘firemen’s messboy,’ at the beck and call of a rough group of men who pressure him to steal delicacies from the better-heeled passengers. He was a “lamb set down among wolves,” and his gleeful descriptions of the bad conditions and foul-mouthed company remind me of George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, also set in the 1920s.
There is historical trivia in the piece -- White and passengers are in Cordova when they hear about the death of President Warren G. Harding, who had recently visited Seward. (Didn't he get sick after eating some bad seafood? Not from our state, surely.) There is literary trivia in the piece -- White works alongside a saloonsman and competing diarist named Wilbur (inspiration for the fictional pig, perhaps?)
But what I loved best in this essay was tone, a tone that greatly benefited from the maturation and fermented good humor made possible by the passage of nearly four decades. The young White desperately wanted to be a wise poet on his trip, though he concedes he was a “mighty tired poet” most of the time. He includes his laugh-out-loud bad verse and overreaching prose to demonstrate. For example: “A man must have something to cling to. Without that he is as a pea vine sprawling in search of a trellis.” He concedes: “Obviously, I was all asprawl, clinging to Beauty, which is a very restless trellis.” The previous lost journalism job is recalled as “one more trellis (that) collapsed on me.”
Writing for posterity, rather than for an immediate cruiseship tourist market, White is able to admit that the sea passage was downright dull, most of the time, and shore stops weren’t much better. Just a few samples: “Ketchikan was our first Alaskan port of call and the scene of the passengers’ first disillusionment.”
Later, the group arrives at Taku Glacier, and the passengers dress up and prepare to be amazed by a thundering glacier, only to find out that “Taku, in the manner of glaciers, was sulking in its tent and taking its own sweet time about discharging into the sea; it needed prodding.” The passengers hang at the rail for an hour, while a crewmember fires a rifle at the ice, trying to force the glacier to calve. Much later, a piece of ice finally breaks away, but most of the passengers miss it, having wearily retreated to the dining saloon.
Even farther north, at Unalaska, some passengers – “ineffably sad and uprooted” -- give up on tourism altogether, choosing to stay on the boat rather than explore shore, where there are no guarantees of seeing anything special. White, on the other hand, heads ashore alone and experiences one of those truly wondrous moments that happen after false expectations have ebbed, to be replaced by spontaneous appreciation. “By some standards, the place could have been called dead, but, walking the length of Unalaska at the foot of the green, tumbled hills, alone and wonder-struck, I felt more alive than I had ever felt before in my life.”
But worry not, the epiphanies and clear, honest writing don’t last long. White returns to the perspective of his youthful, “dippy” (his word) self, ending the essay with more bad poetry. Just a taste from a romantic poem called “Chantecler”, which read aloud at the dinner table the other night, had my kids and me laughing out loud. It gets flatter and funnier with each successive reading:
“How many orders of beef have you passed over the counter,
Girl with white arms, since I’ve been gone?
How many times have you said,
Your arms are still white,
And you’re still the thing in all the room
That transcends foodstuffs.”