At the start of every fall term, countless students are asked to write an essay on what must be the most uninspired composition topic of all time: "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Still, it's remarkable what a good writer can do with such a seemingly dull subject--though it may take a bit longer than usual to complete the assignment.
In this case, the good writer was E.B. White, and the essay that took more than a quarter century to complete was "Once More to the Lake."
First Draft: Pamphlet on Belgrade Lake (1914)
Back in 1914, shortly before his 15th birthday, Elwyn White responded to this familiar topic with uncommon enthusiasm. It was a subject the boy knew well and an experience that he fiercely enjoyed. Every August for the past decade, White's father had taken the family to the same camp on Belgrade Lake in Maine. In a self-designed pamphlet, complete with sketches and photos, young Elwyn began his report clearly and conventionally
This wonderful lake is five miles wide, and about ten miles long, with many coves, points and islands. It is one of a series of lakes, which are connected with each other by little streams. One of these streams is several miles long and deep enough so that it affords an opportunity for a fine all-day canoe trip…
The lake is large enough to make the conditions ideal for all kinds of small boats. The bathing also is a feature, for the days grow very warm at noon time and make a good swim feel fine. (reprinted in Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography. Norton, 1984)
Second Draft: Letter to Stanley Hart White (1936)
In the summer of 1936, E. B. White, by then a popular writer for The New Yorker magazine, made a return visit to this childhood vacation spot. While there, he wrote a long letter to his brother Stanley, vividly describing the sights, sounds, and smells of the lake. Here are a few excerpts:
The lake hangs clear and still at dawn, and the sound of a cowbell comes softly from a faraway woodlot. In the shallows along shore the pebbles and driftwood show clear and smooth on bottom, and black water bugs dart, spreading a wake and a shadow. A fish rises quickly in the lily pads with a little plop, and a broad ring widens to eternity. The water in the basin is icy before breakfast, and cuts sharply into your nose and ears and makes your face blue as you wash. But the boards of the dock are already hot in the sun, and there are doughnuts for breakfast and the smell is there, the faintly rancid smell that hangs around Maine kitchens. Sometimes there is little wind all day, and on still hot afternoons the sound of a motorboat comes drifting five miles from the other shore, and the droning lake becomes articulate, like a hot field. A crow calls, fearfully and far. If a night breeze springs up, you are aware of a restless noise along the shore, and for a few minutes before you fall asleep you hear the intimate talk between fresh-water waves and rocks that lie below bending birches. The insides of your camp are hung with pictures cut from magazines, and the camp smells of lumber and damp. Things don't change much…
(Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. Harper & Row, 1976)
Final Revision: "Once More to the Lake" (1941)
White made the return journey in 1936 on his own, in part to commemorate his parents, both of whom had recently died. When he next made the trip to Belgrade Lake, in 1941, he took along his son Joel. White recorded that experience in what has become one of the best-known and most frequently anthologized essays of the past century, "Once More to the Lake":
We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches from the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the same color green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floor-boards the same fresh-water leavings and debris--the dead hellgrammite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday's catch. We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one--the one that was part of memory… (Harper's, 1941; reprinted in One Man's Meat. Tilbury House Publishers, 1997)
Certain details from White's 1936 letter reappear in his 1941 essay: damp moss, birch beer, the smell of lumber, the sound of outboard motors. In his letter, White insisted that "things don't change much," and in his essay, we hear the refrain, "There had been no years." But in both texts, we sense that the author was working hard to sustain an illusion. A joke may be "deathless," the lake may be "fade-proof," and summer may seem to be "without end." Yet as White makes clear in the concluding image of "Once More to the Lake," only the pattern of life is "indelible":
When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower, and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.
To spend almost 30 years composing an essay is exceptional. But then, you have to admit, so is "Once More to the Lake."
According to Scott Elledge in E.B. White: A Biography, on July 11, 1981, to celebrate his eighty-first birthday, White lashed a canoe to the top of his car and drove to "the same Belgrade lake where, seventy years before, he had received a green old town canoe from his father, a gift for his eleventh birthday."