Strong winds knocked the power out, as they often do, and my wife has taken the baby shopping with her sisters. So, I’ve given up on trying to do any work today and settled down in my armchair with a copy of Chicken, Gin, and Maine Friendship: The Correspondence of E.B. White and Edmund Ware Smith.
Some friends and I have been meaning to read it together since the book came out last year. We’ve even decided to start a literary society for the purpose: The Chicken Shit and Gin Book Club. Among our founding members, there happens to be a chicken farmer who moonlights as a gin fiend. We’re going to kill one of his roosters on Easter Monday. I’ll keep you posted.
Anyway, I can’t remember reading Charlotte’s Web as a kid, but I’ve admired White’s essays since finding them on the bookshelf of some friends who live in his adopted hometown of Brookline, Maine. I’ve never heard of Edmund Ware Smith before and, until the power comes on, I have no way of looking him up.
It’s a bit weird, really. I don’t know Mr. Smith; I’ve never so much as come across his name. And yet here I am, reading his mail. I can’t even say why I want to read it, except for the vague promise of chickens and gin and Maine friendship.
But surely it’s no weirder than reading the mail of someone you don’t know, but whose name you happen to recognize? I’ve read some of the articles White published in The New Yorker, and so I feel entitled to a peek at his private letters. Oh, and while you’re at it, throw in a few by his friend Smitty.
Strictly speaking, I’m not sure anyone should read Chicken, Gin, and Maine Friendship except the late Messrs. White and Smith. But I try not to think about it.
I usually find collections of letters boring, because—well, other peoples’ conversations are almost always boring. I don’t know what to call letter-collections except highbrow gossip. Even a really brilliant, interesting character like J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis can’t be brilliant and interesting all the time.
That’s not a judgment on those men. Just the opposite. The only folks who are “switched on” 24/7 are either shallow or tedious. Or both. They eat, sleep, and bathe in some sort of costume. They don’t dare let their masks slip off, not even for a second. To be a little dull in one’s private life is a testament to one’s basic soundness.
Anyway, I like writing letters. I really enjoy reading them, too—especially when they’re addressed to me. But I like writing them partly because they remind me to be a little dull.
For instance, I just finished writing a book. As you can imagine, it occupied quite a lot of my time and thoughts. Yet it translates into a letter as, “I wrote a book.” That’s the total activity of the past three months of my life. You can picture me sitting at my desk with a yellow legal pad, the radio fainting beneath my electric pencil sharpener, a can of Coors by my right hand, the pipe between my teeth puffing smoke like a freight train. And that’s it. Ten hours a day, six days a week, for three months.
Hey, it seemed pretty exciting at the time. I guess you had to be there.
The real attraction for me now in letter-collections is seeing what people talked about back when folks had lives. It’s got nothing to do with who’s writing them. An illiterate farmer from the backwoods of Maine who died in 1900 would be far more interesting than any actor, musician, politician, or writer in 2020. Because that farmer didn’t fill the space between his ears with Twitter, CNN, Call of Duty, and Netflix.
So, Chicken, Gin, and Maine Friendship is a gem. They write more like farmers from the backwoods of Maine than members of the literati—which, I gather, is how they preferred to think of themselves. Actually, I like this Edmund Ware Smith guy a lot. When the internet’s back up and I’ve finished reading his mail, I’ll have to find out who he is.
Let me give you a little sample. I’ll limit myself to quoting the first couple of pages because I don’t want to spoil the ending.
Here, White has accused Smith of keeping regular work-hours. Smith fires back by sending White a photo of himself in his study, which he describes thusly:
“The cat on my lap is named Sweet Life. Underneath the cat is a copy of By Love Possessed, which I was reading while supposedly working. The glass contains gin and Coke. Under it is The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which I had been checking through for information on the lengthening of daylight following the winter solstice. The cigarette lighter doesn’t work and seldom has. I try to fix it while working, and fail. It is a splendid aid to procrastination, far superior to a nail file or pencil sharpener. Finally, take a look at those sheets of paper on my desk. Not a word on any of them, not even a trans-astral thumbprint. However, the chair I am sitting in was bought at Sloane’s New York, and it cost so much that I feel obliged to sit in it a certain number of hours every day. This may have started the rumors about my work schedule.”
Here, Whitey has traveled to New York City, fallen ill, and been laid up in a hotel:
“I was pretty sure that if I made the ridiculous mistake of leaving home in Maine in March, one of my white-faced heifers would choose that time to drop her calf, and that is exactly what happened. She went down into the woods quite before daylight last Sunday morning, with the snow quite deep (I am told), and had a snowdrop. The fellow who works for me found the group at 6 a.m., went back to the barn for a sled, and dragged the calf up for its first drink of colestrum and bourbon. (I have no dictionary in this hotel and think that word for first milk looks all wrong.)”
Here, Whitey invites Smitty to visit his home in Brookline, giving a beautiful display of Yankee hospitality:
“The only day I don’t relish visitors is Sunday, when I devote myself exclusively to needy animals, dirty garbage pails, and empty wood boxes. We would like you to come over in time for lunch, or better yet, come in the afternoon and stay the night, and we will kick you out next morning after breakfast…. Some of the ice has melted along the terrace, and we can probably sit out there if we bundle up good and take plenty of drink.”
A few missives later, Smitty replies in kind: “We confess looking forward to Labor Day, when the Jaguars, Cadillacs, and various station wagons go south with their loads of vacationers and antiques and leave us the hell alone.”
This bit, from Smitty, speaks to me: “If you want to know, I was in Dahlonega writing a piece for the Ford Times. I have been a lot of places writing pieces for the Ford Times. I went to all of the places after I learned to hate traveling, too. Think of the younger men who would have loved it. On the other hand, to hell with them.
And I’ll end with some wise words by Edmund Ware: “When doom threatens, buy a new suit of clothes and some gin, a twenty years’ supply.”
Here’s another reason we should mourn the decline of letter-writing. You can’t publish the Collected Emails of some great novelist. You can’t put together the Selected Text Messages of our generation’s most celebrated poet. The letter-collection as a genre will soon die out. Who knows? It might be dead already. Except for old-timers and young fogeys, nobody today is still using those envelope-and-stamp numbers.
What a shame. If this country ever produces another decent writer, I’d like to get a peek at his mail.