Early on in the semester, as part of a discussion on descriptive writing, I often assign E.B. White’s classic “Once More to the Lake” to my first-year college students. The essay moves back and forth between the narrator’s memory of visiting the lake as a child and the present moment when he vacations at the same lake with his son by his side. It is largely through description that White manages to present the lake as it exists in memory, how it appears to him in the present as an adult, and how the lake looks through the eyes of his boy. White paints a picture in the mind of his reader which the students recognize as important to the topic at hand. But the description, despite what my syllabus claims, is really beside the point. What I come to this essay for, what I come to any writing for really, is to sustain the illusion that “the years were a mirage and that there had been no years” (116). Like White, I too imagine myself as somehow both the child and the parent, existing inside the then and the now.
Something bothers the students about the narrative. What does White mean, they ask, in the scene where he describes fishing with his son:
There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of (116).
They understand intellectually that the narrator is just remembering his time as a boy in that same place. They comprehend grammatically the reason White largely avoids the past tense in the essay. But still a confusion persists. For a while I couldn’t understand the nature of that confusion, or why they overwhelmingly loathed the ending in which White watches his son put on wet swimming trunks and feels his own groin confront “the chill of death” (121).
This essay, so beautifully constructed, so rich in detail (“we would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside and the smell of the swamp drift in through the rusty screens” (119)) celebrates “the American family at play” (118). My students understand the cultural ache for the collective good times—the “peace and goodness and jollity” (118). They intuit the disillusion felt by the speaker as the timelessness of the lake begins to unravel: the lake is unchanged, and yet “the sound of the place” (118) altered by the cars that have now replaced the wagons. They know about technology interfering with experience more than any other generation. They understand the desire for tradition and the need for a writer to create a mood or atmosphere through language.
And yet. “Once More to the Lake” is frustrating, disappointing, weird, they tell me. They don’t like it.
“What is the dominant feeling produced by White’s use of description?” I ask. The students want to talk about the joy of nostalgia, how returning again and again to the same vacation spot is a kind of ritual, a “holy spot” (115). How it feels good to go back. I envy my students this feeling. They exist still on the side of the story where there is “jollity and peace and goodness” in all things, a peace that comes from belief in truth and a “father’s enormous authority in such matters” (118). We joke about the bad burgers our families get on vacation every year or the fact that no one really likes cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, but it makes us feel good to return again and again to something, even something we don’t like. Comfort, the students conclude. That’s what it’s about.
In the middle of the essay, in a rather unremarkable passage, White writes the line “summer without end” (117). A summer without end for the students means no homework, no assigned reading, no responsibility. It’s just fun, endlessly. At the same time, it is chilling to think of a summer without end. To think of being trapped forever in the loop of childhood. Never ending summer means that autumn never arrives. The leaves never fall from the trees. A perpetual state of what is and not what will be. The cycles do not turn.
As the years go on, this essay, these rituals, it all gets rimmed in darkness, the creeping sensation that this could be the last bad burger, the last Thanksgiving tableau. And it becomes much harder to trust in a father’s authority when it’s your own voice makings the proclamations. Was the world always so vulnerable?
When I hold my daughter’s hand it’s hard to discern if I am me or my mother, “the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants” (120). This is too much knowledge to shoulder alone. White needed his son to finally learn he will die, I will die, you. This is too much knowledge most days. So, we focus on the description. We turn our attention once more to craft.
Kay Cosgrove‘s poetry and non-fiction has appeared in the Southern Review, Quartz, the Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals. She teaches at St. Joseph’s University as a Visiting Professor of English. For more information, visit kaycosgrove.com.