An Analysis of E.B. White’s Internal Struggle of War in once More to the Lake

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“A mind at peace does not endanger wars” (Sophocles). What do we ask is a mind at peace? We often engage our minds every day, and ask ourselves, “Are we at peace?”, “Are we happy?” One can ponder this question all day and never come up with an answer. In E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” White fights the “restlessness of the tides” in his mind; constantly fighting with the thought of the onset of the war and with his inner peace of mind (1). He is constantly replaying the “old melodrama [he] had seen long ago” in fear that the “second act” is about to revive (5). 

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Before we engage the tides of our minds, let us take a moment to understand what is going on. E. B. White wrote this paper during WWII, before the involvement of the United States. We also know that White was born in 1898 during WWI. Subconsciously, White feels as if he knows what is happening to the world as he has already experienced the triumphs and the bloodshed. He fears for his son and himself that the tide is coming too fast, that the undertow is going to sweep them up into the mess of the world. The only thing separating White and his son from the outside world is the lake, but White can’t see past the changes. He only sees the revival of an old memory soon coming true again.

White is not at peace and is therefore constantly fighting the thought of war. If White was at peace, he would bathe in the “holy spot [of ] the coves and streams” that he calls a vacation. A mind at peace does not engage the thought of war, rather arouse the thought of love and tranquility. White sees the thunderstorm of war coming and is subconsciously living a dual life within his younger self. While on vacation with his son, he couldn’t help but “begun to sustain the illusion that [his son was him], and therefore, by simple transposition, that [he was his] father” (2). He feels as if he has traveled back in time when he used to visit the lake with his dad when WWI was going on and the world seemed to be going up in flames. Time has blurred for him, he knows the reality of what the world is coming to because he has seen it before as he states, “There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other on—the one that was part of memory” (2). This quote sticks out as he admits to there being no change in time; White knows what is going to happen with the outbreak of the war. He fears what is going to happen.

 Although time seems to jump back in a sense and blend the two realities, White also notices a lot of change at the lake. The “unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors,” of the boats on the lake, jars the time and breaks the false impression that time has not changed at all (4). This is when White notices the change in technology, the world inevitably evolving around him, and not necessarily for the better. This change would mean new weapons of war. The introduction of new machine guns can be attributed to WWII. WWI was known for bolt action guns, relatable to one-cylinder boats, very simple to use. Now that time has changed and technology has advanced, the outboards were more complex, as were the new machine guns. Machine guns would fire rampantly, bullets “[whinnying] about one’s ears like mosquitos” (4). If handled with improper care and instruction, the misuse of a machine gun would prompt uncontrollable rapid fire, just as the improper care and instruction of a boat would lead the “boat [to] leap ahead, charging bull fashion…” (4). While reading the surface of this personal essay it’s easy for one to skim over everything and think this essay is just about a man and his son on vacation at a lake in Maine. If one were to take their time and read in-between the lines, they could see the connection White is making about the world he is living in and the past experiences of his childhood to presage the future. The changing of the world right in front of his eyes has him worried about the war and what the future will look like; a future of red tides, and a cool deathly chill from the sea that sends lightning up his spine. 

Having control over your emotions and mind is essential to fight the insurgency of the enemy. If one does not have control, much like the rapid-fire of the machine guns and the bullish charging of the boat, one's mind will spiral out of control. White's constant reminder of past memories is leading his mind to leap ahead in a bullish fashion. These memories will lead him down a path musing war and death; the only way to stop it is to take a hold of his mind and to not engender war, which is proving to be hard for him. 

In between the time of WWI and WWII, the United States had a neutral stance in the world. The U.S was trying to better the country and avoid conflict as best they could. With the war overseas a lot of people thought they would be safe. In reality, the only thing separating them form the war was the ocean. Little did they know there was no escaping the “chill of death” blown from the unyielding winds across the sea (5). As mentioned before, White noticed many differences at the lake, notably the missing of the middle track that used to be marked with horse manure and hooves. This track was no longer there, and “for a moment [he] misse[s] the middle alternative” (3). We can note the middle alternative as a neutral stance, in this case a neutral stance in the involvement of the war. White misses the peace in the world and wishes the United States didn’t have to choose sides, rather compromise. The changing of the tide of the war and the world took away the option of the middle path, just like the middle path was no longer an option at the lake. 

No longer a middle option, there was no choice for the United States but to join the world stage and keep the enemy at bay. “This was the big scene,” or the final act one could say; the thunderstorm (5). It was too late, there was no stopping the approaching storm and the approaching war. White realizes there was no way around it, the war was slowly approaching, just as you can see the dark clouds of a storm slowly stroll your way, awaking the souls of the dead with each strike of lightning. It was the “second-act climax” otherwise known as WWII. WWII was fought overseas, only separated by sea, the war seemed unimaginable, but for White, he knew exactly what to expect as the thunderstorm approached. Everything “was so familiar, the first feeling of oppression…[and the feeling] of not wanting to go very far” was very real for White (5). No one wanted to join the war and have to leave their families. Families were about to be changed forever, the course of history was about to change. Knowing all of this and having already lived it, White subconsciously tries to avoid the thought of war to try and enjoy his time with his son while he can. 

One of the major concerns of the war is the idea of his son joining. No parent would ever want to see their children join the war. Every parent wants their children to have a better life than they did, and that is at the heart of White's struggle. “When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too” (5). This immediately stands out to White and sweeps his mind up into the thought of his son volunteering for the war. It’s a very dangerous feeling seeing all of your friends or a group of people doing something, in turn, you immediately want to be like your friends and do whatever they are doing. One could say there is no better feeling than serving your country, but right now all White wants is a peaceful mind and a peaceful world. The “chill of death” crawls up White's spine as he sees his son jump right in “languidly, with no thought” (5). No one can blame White for feeling the way he does. Anyone in their right mind would probably have the same feeling of fear about their children joining the war and just the thought of the direction the country is going in. 

Through reading White's personal essay it is hard to pick up on what the underlying message is; although in almost every piece of work, especially in a personal essay such as this, there will be a deeper meaning and understanding of what the author is trying to portray. Reading between the lines of this work, there is a dark message that is depicted. White is subconsciously worried about the war and the impact it is having with the world he lives in now. One can’t forget that whether they may be sitting on a log fishing with their son, the world is changing with every second that passes. White is realizing this and is worried about what the world will come to once his journey to the lake is over. White’s mind is not at peace, swept up by the undertow of the chilling ocean of death and war. Recalling his childhood memories, he is trapped in a rabbit hole of memory after memory. Memories of death and war, White can’t escape; trying to avoid it as best he can. While it may be hard to contextualize, White is constantly replaying the “old melodrama [he has] seen long ago” in fear that the “second act” is about to revive (5). 

Works cited

  1. Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1982.
  2. White, E.B. "Once More to the Lake." Essays of E.B. White, Harper & Row, 1977.
  3. Barash, David P. "War and Peace: A Social Psychological Perspective." Handbook of Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies, ed. Oliver P. Richmond, Routledge, 2011, pp. 145-153.
  4. Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books, 1995.
  5. Luthans, Fred, and Brett C. Luthans. "Positive Psychological Capital: Beyond Human and Social Capital." Business Horizons, vol. 47, no. 1, 2004, pp. 45-50.
  6. Grossman, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Back Bay Books, 1995.
  7. Wessely, Simon. "Psychiatry in the British Army: Lessons for Civilian Psychiatry and Medicine." British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 198, no. 3, 2011, pp. 157-159.
  8. Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International, 1991.
  9. Maslow, Abraham H. "A Theory of Human Motivation." Psychological Review, vol. 50, no. 4, 1943, pp. 370-396.
  10. Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1997.

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