When politics or social media seem overwhelming, to where do you escape? With World War II looming, writer E.B. White wrote his classic essay, "Once More to the Lake." In that spirit, we'll go to the lake once more, as well, and find other lake-inspired literature.
Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with author and Colby College English professor Tilar Mazzeo (@tilarmaz).
Here are more lake-inspired reading recommendations from our listeners:
- "The Lake," by Ray Bradbury
- "Maine Lakes," photographs by Christopher Barnes, text by Sara Stiles Bright
And here's a lake-inspired poem sent to us by Lloyd Schwartz, who teaches poetry at the University of Massachusetts Boston (and who joined Here & Now in 2013 to talk poetry):
Nostalgia (The Lake At Night)
The black water.
Lights dotting the entire perimeter.
Their shaky reflections.
The dark tree line.
The plap-plapping of water around the pier.
The creaking pier.
Voices in conversation, in discussion—two men, adults—serious inflections (the words themselves just out of reach).
A rusty screen-door spring, then the door swinging shut.
Footsteps on a porch, the scrape of a wooden chair.
Footsteps shuffling through sand, animated youthful voices (how many?—-distinct, disappearing.
A sudden guffaw; some giggles; a woman's—no, a young girl's—sarcastic reply; someone's assertion; a high-pitched male cackle.
Somewhere else a child laughing.
Tires whirring along a pavement . . . not stopping . . . receding.
Shadows from passing headlights.
A cat's eyes caught in a headlight.
Connect-the-dot constellations filling the black sky—the ladle of the Big Dipper not quite directly overhead.
The radio tower across the lake, signalling.
Muffled quacking near the shore; a frog belching; crickets, cicadas, katydids, etc.—their relentless sexual messages.
A sudden gust of wind.
Branches brushing against each other--pine, beech.
A fiberglass hull tapping against the dock.
A sudden chill.
The smell of smoke, woodstove fires.
A light going out.
A dog barking; then more barking from another part of the lake.
A burst of quiet laughter.
Someone in the distance calling someone too loud.
Steps on a creaking porch.
A screen-door spring, the door banging shut.
Another light going out (you must have just undressed for bed).
My bare feet on the splintery pier turning away from the water.
On the popular E.B. White essay "Once More to the Lake"
"Well, I teach it every year when I teach freshman [composition]. It's one of my favorite essays, and part of it is that he's had a huge impact on what we consider American prose style, which is this very clear, kind of crystalline prose style.
"One of the reasons that it's so commonly taught is it's an incredibly beautiful piece of writing. For me, one of the things I also like about it is, as a personal essay, I always say to students that I think in some ways to understand that essay, you need to remember the moment at which it was published. It was published in the fall of 1941 right before Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the second world war, so it's really in some ways a rumination about trying to get outside of an oncoming political storm by thinking about what it means to retreat to a lake and be outside of that for a moment."
On the theme of continuity in White's writing about lakes
"There is a lot of productive confusion in that essay about looking at his son and feeling as though he's inhabiting his son's body, or that his son is inhabiting his body. The sense is a physical in way in which we pass history on to our children, and how going to a lake in the summer in Maine, doing the same thing that your father did, and having your children do the same thing is a kind of continuity of a certain kind of American experience for E.B. White."
On "the American family at play"
"In some ways I think it's what we're all trying to re-create on the Fourth of July. It's that vision of the lake that I think E.B. White had, you know, that you have the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and the roast chicken, and you go buy the blueberries at the farmstand, and you go for the swim in the lake and the kids lay on the dock for the afternoon. I think for him, even in that moment, he was looking back to this idea of a simpler history — because, of course, 1941 was not a simple moment in the world either.
"I actually grew up on a lake in Maine, and remember those old cottages, which I think have now tumbled down... There's the little cottages with the screened windows and outhouses. But I think even for White, that was already a nostalgic moment, an idea that there was a passing of a simpler moment, and that the 20th century was a complicated place to live."
On Britain's famous Lake Poets
"These were what were known as the British Romantics, poets that were living at the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century, which was also a complicated moment to be alive. That was the beginning, in some ways, in Britain of the Industrial Revolution, and they were watching the end of certain kinds of pastoral, agricultural landscapes. These are a bunch of poets who retreated to the lake district, which was still a very remote landscape at that moment. Dorothy Wordsworth, who was the sister of William Wordsworth, she kept a very detailed naturalist journal, commonly available to everybody in the households, and it was used as an inspiration for a lot of the poetry that was written about the lakes and the mountains as well in that area."
On British writers using lakes to talk about a changing culture
"It was really a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and against this heightened urbanism that was beginning to take over in England and beginning to change that culture. It was a moment of huge economic transformation in Britain. On the one hand, they wanted to be part of the political transformation that came with that, they were ardent supporters of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and really wanted a different vision of England... The Industrial Revolution was consolidating class differences and not opening that space up. So, they wanted to be a part of this political, idealistic vision, but at the same time, they wanted to step outside of the economic pressures of industrialization that were bringing it to a point of crisis."
From his prison cell, the unnamed narrator is writing the story of how everything in his life fell apart. Since he will die the next day, he wants to set the record straight, and tells us the story of his life…
From the day he is born, he is mild and kind. He loves animals and has lots of them. As he gets older up these qualities grow stronger. Taking care of his pets and hanging out with them is his favorite thing to do. His favorite animal companion is his dog.
Before long, he gets married. His wife loves animals too, and fills the house with a variety of them. One of these is a humongous, all black, super-smart cat named Pluto. When the man starts drinking, his personality takes a turn for the worse. He starts physically and verbally abusing his wife and pets. One night, the narrator comes home from partying completely drunk. Thinking Pluto didn't want to hang out with him, he grabs the cat and cuts his eye out with a pen-knife.
One morning, not long after the eye-gouging, the narrator is overcome with a perverse impulse. He hangs Pluto from a tree in his garden, murdering him. Writing from his jail cell, the narrator claims he did it precisely because he knew it was wrong. That night, the night of the murder, the man's house catches fire and burns down. Only the man, his wife, and one servant are left alive. But, they lose all their money in the flames, along with the house. When the narrator returns the next day, there is a crowd in his bedroom, looking at his bedroom wall. On the wall is the slightly raised image of a "gigantic cat" with a rope around its neck (11).
Since he left the cat hanging all day and all night, he figures one of the neighbors cut it down and then threw it through his window to wake him up. Somehow it stuck in the plaster of the wall. This bothers the man for a long time.
One night when he's out drinking, another black cat appears on the scene. This cat looks just like Pluto, except for the little white spot on his chest. The man takes the cat home, and his wife is quite pleased.
When it is discovered that this cat is also missing an eye, the man begins to despise it, while the woman loves it all the more. After some time passes, the woman shows the man that the white spot on the cat's fur has grown. Oddly, the white spot now forms an image of "the GALLOWS!" (21). (The gallows is a wooden device used to hang people.)
The man is too afraid of the cat to abuse it. The cat never leaves him alone for a moment, and even sits on his chest and breathes in his face when he is in bed. So, the man doesn't get any sleep. As his loathing of the cat increases, so does his physical and verbal abuse of his wife. One day he and his wife go down to the cellar of the crummy old house they live in now that they are poor. The cat follows them. In a fit of extreme irritation, the man tries to kill the cat with an axe. The woman stops him, and the man "burie[s] the axe in her brain," killing her (23).
The narrator wonders how best to conceal the body? After much deliberation, the man decides to hide the body in a space behind the cellar wall. That night, the man sleeps peacefully for the first time in ages. The cat is nowhere to be seen.
The cops come around, but the man has finesses them. No big deal. On the fourth day, still no cat. But, the police return and search the house again, especially the cellar. Right when they are about to leave, abandoning their search of the cellar, the narrator decides to start bragging about how well built the house is. He takes his cane and hits it against the spot in the wall where he's hidden his wife's body.
A noise answers his knock! It is a sad sound, like a kid crying. It sounds horrible and desperate, but also victorious. The police are on it. They take down the wall only to find the dead body, with the cat on top of its head. And that's why the narrator is in jail, sentenced to death by hanging. The narrator had accidentally shut the cat up in the wall with the body.