The Comedian Carrying an Umbrella: Teaching E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”
February 15, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Geoff Watkinson
First published in 1941, E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” traces White’s middle-aged pilgrimage back to the lake in Maine where he spent the Augusts of his childhood. It was the first essay I ever taught, at 23-years-old, as a teaching fellow during grad school.
White’s language is conversational and grounded; the plot of returning to a significant childhood location is universal; and the theme of accepting mortality is The Big One, worthy of a lot of discussion. I felt comfortable teaching it.
The opening paragraph expresses the nostalgia for such a significant childhood place:
“I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”
The lyricism builds a bridge for me to connect with my students. I tell them about the cabin at Fairview Lake in northern New Jersey that my grandparents owned when I was small and my memories of bear tracks in the snow and snakes in the trees and the dozens of sunfish my brother and I caught.
I ask my students to write about their magical place before continuing our discussion—their “holy spot” or “cathedral,” as White calls it. We consider sensory details, using White’s essay as the foundation—“how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”
White’s approachability makes it easy for a first-semester college student to get through the essay. The difficulty comes from the larger symbolism and metaphors: the essay is a definitive example of peeling back the onion to reveal more and more meaning. It becomes challenging, for example, to try to make sense of White’s dizzying sense of “living a dual existence,” as he writes “I began to sustain the illusion that he [his son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there.” When the dragonfly first appears, White becomes convinced “…beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” The passage of time feels like an illusion.
The lake was a “constant and trustworthy body of water.” As the essay progresses, White is both haunted and comforted by this notion, struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. The baton has been passed from one generation to the next as White recognizes that he has taken over his own father’s role while his son has taken his childhood position. Through metaphor, White acknowledges his relative insignificance in this circle of life, as depicted by the school of minnows, “each minnow with its small, individual shadow…”
There is the metaphor, too, of the reducing number of paths from the lake. When White was a child, there were three paths; that number has been reduced to two, representative of the thinning possibilities of his own life: “For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative.” White places the changes in greater context, focusing out from his individual experience to a lyrical recognition of “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible…”
As the end of our first class, we are left trying to make sense of the thunderstorm that emerges over the lake: “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect.” The children scream with delight after bathing in the rain and there is “…the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.” The entire class has been building towards this moment.
Who is the comedian? Is it God?
White writes, “Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched [my son], his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he bulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”
Why does White feel “the chill of death” and how do we make sense of this?
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and he is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.