The Ever-Present Past: E.B. White and Terrence des Pres

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Today my creative nonfiction students at the University of Pennsylvania shifted my mood, as they do. Their tough-tender souls, their velocity of ideas, their endearing capacity for listening, their well-wrought, thoroughly considered words. Their nouns and verbs outpacing their adjectives and adverbs. Their piano melodies. These young people respect the work and one another; that's transparent. They put their souls into their words; I cheer them on. They do unexpected things elaborately well without ever getting precious in the process. 

We're talking about time in memoir this semester. Our conversation today turned to the ways that E.B. White, in his classic "Once More to the Lake," taps eternal weather and landscape to freeze and elongate the past, to windmill the present, to take us (tragically, beautifully) to a time that isn't but (in memory) is.

I promised the students that I would share this essay, which I created for my memoir video series, when I got home. So here I am, home, and here this is, for any of you who are reminiscing today, for any of you in a mood for words.

On Valentine's Day, the gift of memoir
EPISODE 6: The Ever-Present Past
(excerpted from my memoir video series)

E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake,” Essays of E.B. White
Terrence des Pres, “Memory of Boyhood,” Writing into the World

In his beloved essay “Once More to the Lake,” first published in Harper’s magazine in 1941, E.B. White recreates summers once spent as a boy near a lake by returning to the same terrain with his son.

At first the trip is speculation, a question White has about “how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind, the camps and the paths behind the camps.”

But once arrived, White settles in and discovers that the past is sensationally near. The past can be seen, smelled, touched. It is the first morning. White is lying in bed, “smelling the bedroom and hearing the boy sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat.” He begins “to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father.”

It’s a tantalizing thought. A pleasant confusion. And now a vague, lovely timelessness sets in, only sometimes disturbed, say, by a noticeable change in the tracks of a road and the “unfamiliar, nervous sound of the outboard motor.” And yet, White allows the clocks to stand still, the illusion to hold, the dizziness to set in when, as he fishes with his son, he doesn’t “know which rod I was at the end of.”

“Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end….,” White writes. Persuasively.

But how long can we stop the clocks when we are living? How long can we pretend now is then? How long can we carry the comforting illusions in our head, the gentle perturbations? What brings us back to our own selves, our aging skins? For White it is a thunderstorm—a revival of familiar weather, everything the same about it, at that same lake, boyhood/manhood indivisible—White’s son takes his wet trunks from the line and pulls “around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment” and it is then, only then, that the years pass quickly in White’s fugue state, when he is reminded that he is a father now, that he is mortal, that time has passed, that time is always passing. As his son buckles the belt, White writes, “suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

The illusion has been pleasing. White’s illusion has, over the course of those brief pages, been our own. He has made time stand still by professing persuasive confusion about what time is, about who we are, about age itself, about the tremors of youth. He has made us young again by returning us to a younger version of himself. We have been grateful. And we have been shocked, with him, by a reminder of this: Time does not stop.

In the very final pages of Terrence des Pres’s collection of essays Writing into the World, time is held in the balance once more, but by a very different strategy on the page. Here, in “Memory of Boyhood,” a reflection on des Pres’s fishing days as a child in Missouri first published in Sports Illustrated in 1973, des Pres begins by acknowledging that he is not the boy he once was. “I no longer fish,” he writes, “and the boy who did is twenty years into the past.”

And yet, des Pres says, “memories of that time come constantly to mind. They return to me, or I to them, as if they were my source, a keel of sanity in a world more gnarled and rotted than—at a right-angle bend in the river—the gigantic pile of driftwood and tree trunks we used to call Snake City.”

Boyhood. Summertime. Water. Fish. Des Pres, like White in “Once More,” is recreated, renewed by the primeval. He is washed back into time. He sees, as he travels on, “a boy heading down to the river,” where, “with cane pole and worms” he would catch his fish.

That boy heading down to the river is now a third-person character. He is becoming nearly fictive. He is a dream sustained by memory. He is not des Pres, but he could not exist without des Pres. He is true, because he was. He is false, because he is no more.

We walk with him. Through the haze, toward the banks and fish, to the hours most loved: “He loved best to take his fly rod—a ferruled cane pole to which he’d wired eyes and a reel—and start for the river at dawn. To enter the wet gray stillness of day before sunrise.”

We remain within this ineluctable fiction, this timeless glory, until des Pres snaps his authorial fingers and brings us back to now. “The boy, of course, is myself,” he writes, “a self more vital, compact, pure, like wood within the inmost ring of a tree whose life has reached to many rings.”

The story continues, but now the third person is left behind in favor of first person. We learn more and more about the fishing of des Pres’s youth; the fishing becomes more treacherous, more gory, even brutal. Des Pres remarks on the savagery. He shows it to us. He suggests that “Joy was what counted, the rush of deep delight that came, I think, from rites that for a million years kept men living and in touch with awe.” He ends with this:

“That was the blessing of boyhood. It depended on a way of life now largely vanished and to which in any case I cannot return. Perhaps that is why I no longer fish. Except in memory, a grace that is lost stays lost.”

Des Pres, unlike White, will not return to those Missouri banks. He will see himself through the veil of a third-person telling. He will yearn for the self “more vital, compact, pure, like wood within the inmost ring of a tree.”

White and des Pres, in very different ways, have returned us to childhood. White by physically returning to the site of his boyhood and by creating an elastic envelope of time in which a father is a son, or a son is a father. Des Pres by concentrating his boyhood, by wringing it free of all but the sweet myth, by making himself a known fiction, by preserving the memory by submitting to the possibility that a grace that is lost stays lost. Neither writer pokes holes through the piece with dialogue. Both stay rooted in the primeval—the haze and the sun, the water and the fish.

All of which returns me to you: What are the components of your elemental past? What is your sun and your haze? Do you believe in the elasticity of time? If you were to write of your most primeval self, who would that self be? The third person girl you can just barely see through the neural fog? Or the little boy who sits beside you while you’re listening to me?

Find a quiet place. Grab a keyboard or a pen. Take yourself back to another time and write the elemental you.

Write it in past tense. Write it in present. Write it in first person. Write it in second or third.

Somewhere in there is the story you must tell.


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